In pursuit

Several local high-speed chases shine light on potential—and real—consequences

At about 7:30 p.m. last Thursday (Nov. 24), when most people were at home with family gorging themselves on Thanksgiving turkey, a Butte County Sheriff’s deputy was chasing a vehicle through the streets of Chico at upward of 40 mph. At one point, the car drove the wrong way on one-way Pine Street. The driver, suspected to be 36-year-old Thomas Sanders, took off running into Bidwell Park after stopping the car nearby and has yet to be found. There was an infant in the backseat.

This is just the latest in a string of high-speed vehicle chases in Butte County over the past month. (While 40 mph may not sound very fast, the Thanksgiving pursuit reached 80 mph before California Highway Patrol officers laid a spike strip on the road, slowing the vehicle.) Three of the four chases went through residential areas of Chico or Oroville; all resulted in at least one person running from the scene and evading arrest.

The string of chases caught the attention of this newspaper as well as that of Mark Priano, a board member of PursuitSAFETY, a national nonprofit based in Chico that advocates for innocent victims of car chases.

“There appears to be a bit of an uptick in pursuits again—it goes in cycles,” Priano said. His organization works with law enforcement agencies to try to curb that, to influence policy to cut back on unnecessary chases that could put bystanders in danger.

Looking at the facts presented to the public regarding the Thanksgiving chase through Chico, Priano suggested that it presented a significant danger to innocent bystanders. “What a lot of our departments would have done would be to evaluate and do it a different way. Do you have the license plate? Because you’re going 80 mph for potentially a light out. After the spike strip, you’re still going over 40 mph. And now you have a driver going the wrong way on a one-way street at 7:30 at night.

“The point is, the whole pursuit is now a danger to everyone around,” he continued. “To everyday citizens minding their own business—they’re all in danger.”

“Deputies don’t just go out chasing people with reckless abandon,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea countered by phone earlier this week. “If a pursuit is initiated, it’s monitored by a supervisor on duty. There’s an analysis of the risk the pursuit poses to public safety. If the risk is too great, the pursuit is terminated.”

Priano knows the potential consequences of police pursuits all too well. In 2002, he was driving the family van with his wife, Candy, and their teenage kids, Kristie and Steve, when the vehicle was T-boned by a car driven by a 15-year-old girl. She’d taken her parents’ car without permission and, when a police officer attempted to pull her over, she sped off. They had her name and address, and until they turned on their sirens, she had apparently been obeying traffic laws. After about 10 minutes, her vehicle collided with the Priano van.

Candy and Steve walked away from the accident, but Mark and Kristie were sent to the ICU. Kristie didn’t survive her injuries.

“We still miss her every day,” Priano said. “We lost an innocent 15-year-old because of a chase that should have never happened. And we’re still impacted by it every day. It will never go away.”

Five years after Kristie’s death, Candy started PursuitSAFETY as a way to advocate for innocent victims of police chases. Just last week, she and others from the nonprofit spoke at a conference of Florida law enforcement agencies. They told their personal stories of tragedy and presented results of years of research on vehicle pursuits.

“The statistics are fairly consistent that there’s at least one person a day [in the United States] killed in a pursuit,” Priano said. “At least one-third are innocent bystanders. Also, one officer is killed every six to eight weeks.”

The other recent chases are as follows:

At about 11:20 p.m. on Oct. 22, deputies attempted to pull over a vehicle at 16th and Elm streets in Chico for an expired registration. The driver fled, reaching speeds of 55-60 mph through Chico streets, finally stopping on Dayton Road. The driver, suspected to be 20-year-old Brandon Mustagog, got away from police and was arrested the next day.

On Nov. 13, at about 11:30 p.m., deputies in Magalia noticed a green Honda Civic with no rear license plate. A 26-minute pursuit ensued, reaching speeds of 90 mph. The driver sped through several stop signs, according to a release, and swerved across double yellow lines multiple times before ultimately crashing on a rural road. The driver, named as Travis McDonald, evaded capture but was arrested Monday (Nov. 28), Honea said.

The following day, Nov. 14, at 7 p.m., Oroville Police Department officers attempted to pull over a stolen Chevy Tahoe on Oro Bangor Highway. That chase, ultimately turned over to CHP, reached 100 mph through Oroville, Palermo and Honcut, circling back to Oroville. The driver hit a stop sign and, along with other occupants, ran from the scene. There’s still no ID on anyone involved.

No one was hurt during these pursuits and they all followed protocol, according to Sheriff Honea and CHP Officer Chris Alves. Furthermore, Honea said he didn’t see these cases as indicating an increase in vehicle chases: “I wouldn’t characterize it as extremely out of the ordinary.”

Priano hopes shedding light on these types of incidents and their potential—and real—impacts will help change policy.

“A lot of it is a cultural shift in thinking,” he said. “How do we think about doing this differently?”