While out on patrol the afternoon of June 13, a Davenport Police Officer spotted a red 1998 Lincoln Town Car that had no license plate, no tail light and no registration plates.
The driver, Angel Ochoa, 19, and his passenger weren't wearing seat belts.
The officer tried to pull the car over for the traffic violations, but it fled, according to police. After recognizing that Ochoa was on the department’s pursuit list -- suspects in recent shootings or crimes involving guns -- the officer gave chase.
Ochoa, who later admitted to smoking marijuana in the vehicle that day, was going 85-90 mph to try to elude the officer. Then he blew through a red light and broadsided a white 2010 Chevrolet Equinox driven by Lori Ann Letts at West Kimberly Road and North Fairmount Street.
Letts, 48, was killed.
'People will just flee to flee'
“We have seen a steady increase in the number of fleeing and eluding incidents over the last few years,” Rock Island Police Chief Jeff VenHuizen said. “At least one of the reasons we can attribute that increase to is tied into the increasing number of stolen vehicles throughout the Quad-Cities. Stolen vehicles we know are used to commit a number of other crimes and it’s not that uncommon that one of those vehicles to flee multiple times from the same police agency or even multiple police agencies.”
Moline Police Detective Michael Griffin said there is a “total disregard for law enforcement” and a disregard for the safety of others.
“This has been going on for years – a lot of people realize unless it’s a forcible felony, we’re not going to chase, so it’s not that uncommon over the last 10 or 15 yeas that I’ve been here that people will just flee to flee,” he said.
While these incidents are dangerous, the decision to pursue a fleeing vehicle is not taken lightly, officers said.
“It’s a balancing act,” Davenport Police Maj. Jeff Bladel said. “That is the biggest thing. We have to balance what we do as far as public safety and what is immediate, especially when it comes to pursuits."
By the numbers
Between Jan. 1 and June 27, there have been 148 fleeing incidents in Davenport. There were 433 incidents in 2018; 304 in 2017; 209 in 2016; 180 in 2015; and 158 in 2014, according to data provided by the police department through an open records request.
Of those, police pursued 16 vehicles in 2017, 36 in 2018, and 16 as of June 27.
Between Jan. 1 and June 18, there have been 21 fleeing incidents reported in Moline. There were 90 in 2018 and 57 in 2017. Of those, Griffin said police have engaged in pursuits five times or less in the last two or three years.
Rock Island had 195 incidents in 2017, 200 in 2018, and 89 as of June 25. They have pursued three vehicles in 2017, five in 2018, and three as of June 27.
As of June 27, Bettendorf has had 45 eluding incidents, up from 41 for all of 2018. In 2017, police responded to 68 fleeing incidents. The number of times police have pursued vehicles was not available.
Policies guide the decision to pursue
VenHuizen said Rock Island has had a restrictive pursuit policy since 1992. It allows officers to pursue those suspected of committing a forcible felony, such as murder and robbery.
The department reviews the policy annually, at a minimum, as part of its accreditation process, he said.
“It’s very strictly regulated and for the most part pursuits are discouraged because they pose a significant risk to the motoring public, the suspect and the officers,” he said.
Davenport has a similar policy, in place since the early 2000s. The pursuit must be authorized by a supervisor, and the officer has discretion to terminate it, Bladel said.
“We want to make sure that we are balancing the need for apprehension versus public safety, so those things were looked at very, very closely," he said. “So for us, we wanted to restrict pursuits to make sure that we are doing the best we can for that balance."
All pursuits are reviewed at the supervisor and command level, he said.
Officers can use discretion and stop the pursuit, based on the time of day and how busy the roadways are, Bettendorf Police Chief Keith Kimball said.
The Davenport Police Department holds training annually on topics such as high-speed pursuits, precision driving and pursuit intervention techniques such as spike strips.
“Training is a big thing for officers,” Bladel said. “But again, the ultimate goal is that we don’t have any pursuits. If we do initiate a pursuit, we want that pursuit to stop as quickly as we can stop it.”
Officers have the ability to do a PIT maneuver and deploy spike sticks to stop the vehicle, but Bladel said often the pursuits don’t last long enough to utilize those tools.
They may not chase, but they will investigate
Just because a fleeing motorist is not pursued by police doesn’t mean they are off the hook.
Kimball said police follow up if they have a good description of the vehicle and license plate information. If they find the car, they can impound it, he said.
Like VenHuizen, Kimball believes there is a correlation between some eluding incidents and stolen vehicles.
Moline hasn’t had too many incidents where people are fleeing in stolen vehicles, Griffin said. It is mostly adults fleeing in their own vehicle or a rental vehicle.
“Sometimes people flee and all we know is they don’t have a driver’s license,” he said. “If they flee, we don’t know if they have something else in the car or did something prior. But people flee for things such as they don’t want to receive a traffic citation, and last year we had a guy flee because he was a suspect in a homicide.”
Griffin was referring to Nathan C. Luten, 29, of East Moline, who was charged with first-degree murder in the Dec. 9 death of William T. Fowler, 31 of Moline. Two teens also have been charged in his death.
Luten got away during the initial pursuit, Griffin said, but officers took him into custody without further incident later in the day.
Sometimes tragedy happens
On March 27, the East Moline Police notified Moline police a Plymouth Voyager van reported stolen out of Cedar County was speeding and driving recklessly as it crossed into Moline at 53rd Street.
East Moline police attempted to pull over the vehicle, but it fled, according to court documents.
Moline patrol officers could not get into a position to stop the van and also lost sight of it. Then a Moline officer near 16th Street and John Deere Road saw the van as it was westbound on John Deere Road, and collided with a Ford Escape traveling northbound on 16th Street.
The passenger in the Escape, Tammy Loos, 51, of Milan, died from her injuries. Her fiancé, Matt Burroughs, was injured but survived.
Three people – Armand Cannon, Alex Garrels, and Amy Taylor – in the stolen van face charges in Rock Island County Circuit Court.
“With that case in particular, that’s probably one of the most bothersome things about it,” Griffin said. “It’s so senseless because no one was chasing them. There were no cops around them, there was no need for them to be driving around like that.”
In the case of Letts, Bladel said, “The police department recognizes the inherent dangers of vehicle pursuits and through our restricted policy takes steps to balance the risks to public safety.
“This is a tragedy, our hearts go out to the family and friends of the victim, Mrs. Lori Letts," Bladel said.
“These are tough decisions,” Kimball said. “But, with all these stolen cars and these chases, we have always been fearful of what happened that day in Davenport.”
“If we don’t stop somebody in one of these situations, who’s to say that they aren’t going to go down the road and something even worse to happen? Or you haven’t just prevented something worse from happening," he said.