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My First High Speed Pursuit

When I started on the Sheriff's Department you rode with another Officer for the first several months so that you could learn the county and learn how to be a Deputy. I was driving one evening, I had been on the department for about 3 months and was still riding with a training officer. We stopped along with another patrol unit of two officers at a local convenience store about 2 AM one night. It was a hot and humid fall night and we got our coffee and stood around outside by our patrol cars.

As we were standing there we heard what sounded like a motorcycle coming down highway 21 southbound towards the city. We could tell it was going at a high rate of speed. The store we were at was just south of the Marine Corps Air Station and at the bottom of a small hill, so we could not see the bike coming. Moments later we observed two motorcycles go by the parking lot at well over 100 miles an hour.

We all dropped our coffee and jumped into our patrol cars. The other car got out and onto the road before I did. We headed south as fast as we could in hopes of catching up to the two bikes. There was no hope that we could catch up to them unless they slowed down for some reason. They did slow down and the reason was the traffic light at highway 21 and a road to the right which went towards highway 170. The light was red and there were two cars stopped at it in front of the bikes. One bike slowed down and then went between the two cars and sped away towards Beaufort, staying on highway 21. The other bike was not able to get between the cars before the light changed, so we were able to catch up to him just as he turned onto the road to the right. This road started out on a slight upgrade and the motorcycle was able to gain again on our patrol cars.

We all rapidly gained speed and I looked down and saw that I was going about 90 miles an hour. I remembered a gentle curve in the road to the left. The curve would hardly slow a car down which was going 35 or 40 miles. The curve was crowned, meaning that the middle of the road was higher then the sides. We were coming up on this curve at an incredible speed. I started to back off my gas pedal just a little as the motorcycle went into the curve. I saw sparks as the other patrol car started into the curve, then I was into the curve too.

I saw a boot in the middle of the road as I passed over it and I saw the other patrol car sliding sideways. My first thought was that somehow the lead patrol car had hit the motorcycle, but I did not have much time to think about it, I needed to get my car stopped fast. I slammed on the brakes and slid to a stop a few feet from the other patrol car. As I jumped out of my patrol car, I heard the other officer call the dispatcher and tell her that we would need an ambulance at our location.

I was an EMT (an emergency medical technician) as well as a Deputy Sheriff. I had taken the EMT training just before going on the Sheriff's Department. The training officer in the lead car told me to go check the rider of the bike and he pointed off into the field beside the road. I looked and saw the motorcycle and a person beside it. I ran over and checked the rider and found that he was dead. He had hit a telephone pole which was along side of the road. Part of the kick stand on his Harley 1000 had broken off and penetrated his forehead.

I went to my patrol car to call the coroner. This was my first high speed chase since starting with the Sheriff's Department and I found my adrenalin level so high that I could not slow down my breathing. I sounded out of breath as I tried to explain to the dispatcher that I needed the coroner on the scene.

After calling for the coroner I went back to where the bike was at and we started to piece together exactly what had happened. The driver of the lead patrol car said that the bike never really started to turn in the curve. Just as the bike started into the curve it hit a small bump and that was what made the sparks I had seen. The bike went straight and because the curve was crowned never had a chance of getting traction on the highway again. The officers in the lead car had seen him go off the road but not hit the telephone pole.

While we were there looking for evidence and piecing together what had happened, we started to hear someone crying out in pain. Everyone looked at me and I told them I was sure it wasn't the rider of the bike, I knew he was dead. We spread out and tried to find where the sound was coming from. The field we were in had very high grass about waist height. We all had flashlights and we called out to see if anyone would answer us. Every so often we would hear more groaning. I found a female laying in the grass about 30 feet from where the bike was. She had her eyes closed but was groaning. I looked her over and called to the other officers to make sure we still has an ambulance coming. I could not see any outward injuries, but I figured if she had been on the bike she must be severely hurt.

The ambulance arrived and transported the girl to the hospital. The Highway Patrol and Coroner arrived and finished up their work at the scene. We then all went to the hospital to talk to the girl and take a closer look at the dead man, who had been transported to the morgue.

When we got to the hospital we found that the girl was fine except for one broken wrist. We spoke to her, but at first she refused to say anything. We convinced her that since this was a death investigation and if she did not talk to us she would spend at least one night in jail until she went before a judge. At this point she decided to talk to us.

We found that she was a 16 year old runaway and the man who was riding the motorcycle had picked her up a couple of days earlier and was aware she was a runaway. That was the reason he had run from us.

The girl ended up being sent back to her parents. The Sheriff's Department did an internal investigation of the incident and found that none of the Deputies was responsible for the man's death.

As I said earlier this was my first high speed pursuit and the first death that I had personally been involved in. I had investigated a couple of deaths before this one, but never one which happened in front of me. I was learning the hard way to deal with this kind of incident. It is not something you put behind you in just a couple of days.

A week or two later, I went to magistrates court in Beaufort. I had written a couple of traffic tickets and such tickets were tried before the local magistrate. The magistrate in this area was a woman. I walked into her court a few minutes early. Magistrate's court was pretty relaxed compared to General Sessions Court which was much more formal. In magistrate's court the judge would usually just have one office clerk and would only have a few cases each day.

I walked in and there were no cases being heard. There were several other Officers standing around waiting for their cases or waiting for paperwork. There were a couple of civilians and a couple of lawyers also in the court room. The magistrate saw me and came over to me.

She asked, "Are you proud that you killed that man?"

I was not sure what to say, but I mumbled something like I didn't cause his death.

She got kind of red in the face and said, "If you hadn't chased him, he would be alive today!"

I was pretty shook up at this point and said, "If he had stopped he wouldn't be dead either. We weren't sure why he was running, we weren't just going to let him go. What if he had killed someone?"

She said something like, "So you killed him!"

I felt all alone, none of the other three Deputies who had been involved were there. I know she did not understand what had happened, or for that matter what it took to be a Police Officer. I managed to get through my court cases and got out of there. It really upset me that she thought I had killed this man.

She did not know how many hours I had struggled with this incident. She did not know what it was like to walk up and check him for life and find that he was dead. She had no idea, yet she took it on herself to accuse me. I realized right then that people would always judge what I did without any real information or knowledge. It was the first step down the road of realizing that only people who had walked in my shoes would really understand the stress I was under and the difficulty in making instantaneous decisions.

Ralph L. Dettwiler
(Former) Sergeant
Beaufort County Sheriff's Department
Beaufort, South Carolina

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