High-Speed Pursuit

Cayce officials still mulling deadly December chase

jmonk@thestate.comFebruary 16, 2013 

  • Listen as Cayce police give chase


Audio files released by the S.C. Highway Patrol concerning the December high speed police chase from Cayce into Columbia tell a harrowing tale of an innocent bystander’s sudden death and how police were helpless to get him out of a burning van.

The Highway Patrol last week completed its investigation and found the driver of the fleeing vehicle at fault in the crash that killed him and the driver of another vehicle. But the city of Cayce is still reviewing Cpl. John Reese’s actions and whether its chase policy should be altered, city officials said.

The patrol’s review didn’t examine whether Reese followed the city’s chase policy, which sets out under what conditions officers should launch, continue and end high-speed chases.

“I hope to have this by next week,” said Cayce Department of Public Safety Chief Charles McNair. “It’s one of these things where we want to look at every angle.”

Meanwhile, Reese is back on the job and has had the usual counseling officers undergo after traumatic events, officials said.

The Dec. 14 chase, which lasted about two minutes, started when a Cayce police officer attempted to stop a driver who fled across the Blossom Street Bridge into Columbia at an estimated 90 mph and continued several hundred yards to the Huger Street intersection, where it ended in a fiery crash when the fleeing car struck the van.

One of the victims was Chamberlain Branch, 48, the beloved governor’s mansion supervisor and father of three school-age children. He was trapped inside his 2003 Ford van, which was struck broadside by a 2011 stolen Hyundai driven by Shyborn Belton, 23, of Columbia, who also was killed. At the time of the chase, officers didn’t know the car had been stolen.

Branch had massive chest injuries and died quickly, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said.

Belton’s blood alcohol was about three times the legal standard for evidence of impairment, Watts said.

Belton and his three passengers “were all out smoking crack and marijuana all night long,” according to one of the surviving passengers interviewed by the Highway Patrol. Photos taken by the patrol at the scene show two plastic baggies of what officials said was crack cocaine.

The chase began about 12:30 a.m. when Reese and a trainee officer with him, Luis Feliciano, tried to make a routine traffic stop in Cayce.

They had spotted a blue, four-door Hyundai at 12th Street travelling down Knox Abbott Drive toward Columbia with only its parking lights on, according to a Highway Patrol investigation of the incident that included accident reconstruction, witness interviews and a review of audio records of the chase. There was no video: The patrol car’s camera wasn’t working that night.

Starting up his police car, Reese flipped on his blue lights and followed the Hyundai for about a half-mile on Knox Abbott, trying to stop it for not having its headlights on.

“The vehicle didn’t slow down or speed up. We got about halfway down Knox Abbott, by Parkland (Plaza) and I turned on my siren a couple of times and I finally turned it on for good. That’s when they started speeding up,” Reese told an investigating Highway Patrol officer shortly after the crash, according to an audio file of the interview.

After crossing the Blossom Street bridge into Columbia, Reese could see the traffic light up ahead at Huger Street, where it intersects with Blossom. “I started slowing down because I know this is a dangerous intersection. The vehicle we were pursuing never slowed down.”

At Blossom and Huger, the Hyundai “T-boned him in the side,” Reese said, speaking of Branch’s van. “There was a big poof of sparks,” and a fire started almost immediately, he said.

“I got out and tried to get the guy (Branch) out of the van because it was on fire. The driver’s side door was ajar at the top. I grabbed it and did everything I could to get it open. I couldn’t get it open. “

Moving to the van’s other side, Reese tried to break the glass and enter but failed in that, too. “At that point, the vehicle started getting more in flames.”

Reese, who finally backed away from the van because the fire was growing, said Branch was unconscious when he was trying to pull him out.

The audio recorder in Reese’s car caught the action live: “We’re in Columbia. I got a vehicle entrapment. Entrapment. Vehicle on fire,” Reese radioed to his dispatcher.

Then, as sirens of emergency vehicles wail in the background, Reese – now out of the car and wearing a radio – begins yelling, “I got an entrapment!” To Branch, he pleads, “Sir! Sir! Can you hear me? ... Somebody come over here please! ... This guy’s going to burn up! ... You got an extinguisher? Son of a (expletive)!!”

Only two minutes earlier, Reese told the patrol, he “stayed even” with the Hyundai as they crossed the bridge at an estimated 60-70 mph, but “I didn’t look down (at my speedometer) because I was concentrating on the vehicle.” The patrol investigation put the Hyundai’s speed at 90 mph.

Cayce’s 10-page chase policy, written in 2006, provides a number of checks for public safety but also gives an officer latitude in initiating a chase. Every chase is reviewed and critiqued.

“It is important that officers recognize that their focus during a pursuit should remain on the safe conclusion of the pursuit,” the policy says. In beginning a chase, officers should, among other things, weigh “the seriousness of the original offense and its relationship to community safety; time, day and location of the pursuit; weather and roadway conditions.”

The policy says officers should be ready to answer this question: “Did the dangers created by the pursuit incident exceed the danger posed by allowing the perpetrator to escape?” and, if a death happened, “Would a reasonable person understand why the pursuit occurred or was necessary?”

Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor who studies law enforcement pursuits and has helped departments write their policies, said Cayce needs to look closely at this chase to see if it was really necessary.

On one hand, Alpert said, a vehicle traveling without its headlights at night poses a hazard to others.

But once the vehicle speeded up and fled toward Columbia, police needed to assess whether the hazard they were creating by a high speed chase was really warranted by a relatively minor traffic infraction – as opposed to an obvious crime like a fleeing armed robber or killer.

If Cayce determines its current chase policy allows officers to launch high speed chases for minor traffic offenses, Alpert said, “they need to determine whether they want this kind of chase to exist again. To me, if it’s not a violent crime (that causes a chase), it’s not worth creating that risk to the public.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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