By ANNE BLYTHE and JESSICA ROCHA
The News & Observer
FRANKLINTON, N.C. — At least two cars and a truck were forced off the road during the police chase that led to three deaths Saturday afternoon, raising questions about whether the officer should have continued his pursuit of an erratic driver.
Police Chief Ray Gilliam and Town Attorney Mitch Styers spent much of Sunday reviewing 911 tapes and talking to witnesses who either saw the deadly pursuit or encountered an erratic driver before the chase began. The state Highway Patrol is continuing its investigation.
"It's a very tragic event," Gilliam said.
As Franklinton officials began their internal investigation, the family of the two sisters caught in the middle of the high-speed chase tended to making funeral arrangements for two lives cut short.
Linsay Erin Lunsford, 18, and her sister Maggie Rose, 9, were on their way home from a shopping trip at the local Wal-Mart when the 1988 Pontiac driven by Guy Christopher Ayscue, the man fleeing the Franklinton police officer, crossed the center line on U.S. 15 and slammed into their Kia.
The sisters, according to the state Highway Patrol, were killed instantly.
Members of the Lunsford family grappled with their grief Sunday.
"The man who hit our daughters, Linsay and Maggie, was being pursued because he was driving erratically, not because he had just committed a violent crime," the family said in a prepared statement. "What our family does not understand is why, after a couple of miles into the chase, the officer did not discontinue the pursuit when it was evident the driver would not stop."
The Franklinton police chase policy, which was described but not released by Gilliam and Styers, gives officers discretion in deciding when to pursue a person suspected of committing a felony.
Officer Mike Dunlap was outside an Exxon convenience store at the edge of downtown Franklinton when he encountered Ayscue, the 38-year-old Henderson man who died while fleeing police.
The Exxon clerk had summoned Dunlap to the parking lot for a different reason. A videotape from the store's security camera shows the clerk moving toward Dunlap's car and, in the background, a 1988 Pontiac moving quickly through the intersection on the wrong side of the road.
Dunlap pulled out of the parking lot, according to his chief, turned on his siren and tried to get the Pontiac to pull over on narrow, two-lane N.C. 56. The rural route goes through the small downtown of Franklinton, about 30 miles north of Raleigh.
Three minutes into the chase, according to Styers, 911 logs show that a black truck, a black Mustang or Mercedes and another car pulled off to the side of the road to get out of the way of the fleeing suspect and the officer pursuing him.
Chief Gilliam said he would not know until the internal investigation is complete whether the officer should have called off the chase at that point.
"Chases have always been challenged whether it's the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do," he said Sunday.
Dunlap has been placed on administrative duty, a routine action in such incidents. He has been with the Franklinton Police Department for nearly two years and has been a police officer for almost five years, the chief said.
The suspect's record
Ayscue, 38, had a criminal record that spans at least 20 years, with more than a half-dozen DWIs and other driving charges. Until a toxicology report is complete, investigators will not know whether alcohol or drugs were a factor in Saturday's wreck. In August, Ayscue was charged with speeding in Vance County and was scheduled to appear in court in January.
As he gave chase, Dunlap was not aware of the suspect's record or other reports earlier in the day of his erratic driving, the chief and town attorney said.
Styers said the internal reviewers will try to get at what was foremost in the officer's mind as he gave chase.
"What did the officer think?" Styers said. "We have hindsight, but what we'll have to look at is what he was thinking. Obviously, he thought there was enough danger to keep pursuing."
A day after the crash, the smell of burned debris hung in the air at the scene. Pieces of broken glass and a part of a fender lay on the burned patch of grass and dirt where the Lunsford sisters died.
Nine-year-old Taylor Bailey stopped by the wreck site with her mother to lay down a bouquet of pink roses. A note fastened on the plastic sleeve with a safety pin said, "Maggie was a great friend she was sweet and kind. I love you. I will miss you."
Taylor and Maggie had gone to school with each other since kindergarten. This year they were in fourth grade together at Mount Energy Elementary School. Maggie never left anybody out, Taylor said.
Taylor picked pink roses because Maggie's middle name was Rose, she said.
Maggie and her older sister had just done some shopping, said Liz Lunsford Lee, the girls' oldest sister. An hour before, the girls had shared lunch with their mom at Burger King, she said. They were on their way to see their father when they were killed less than three miles from his home.
Sisters had special bond
Linsay, a freshman at UNC-Greensboro and the fourth of six children, left the campus most weekends for home to do laundry and spend time with family.
This past weekend, she needed her computer fixed because the hard drive kept crashing, Lee said. Linsay's father was helping repair it.
On Sunday afternoon, Jean Ellis was helping decorate the Stem United Methodist Church for Christmas. She remembered the family coming into the sanctuary, always arriving a little late, in single file, mom last.
"They'd come like little soldiers," Ellis said.
The two Lunsford sisters got along particularly well. Maggie, the youngest, had even spent the night in Linsay's college dorm at UNC-G this year.
Linsay was studying to become a teacher and interested in teaching English as a Second Language classes.
Linsay also enjoyed shopping, her sister said.
"She had more pocketbooks than she could use," she laughed.
And Maggie was a natural athlete and student, teaching herself to read at 3 1/2 years old, Lee said.
"She read more books than a library could hold," Lee said.
The morning of the crash, Maggie had just competed in a karate tournament. Her trophies were in found in the wreckage.
Family of N.C. girls killed in pursuit call policy into question