The suspect’s lead widens to about a quarter mile and the only thing keeping him that close is the heavy traffic. I can see some of the motorists panicking at the sight of the pursuit. Others are simply not paying attention, talking on cell phones and listening to the radio as potential disaster rushes up behind them at triple-digit speeds. These are the drivers who concern me the most.
I am able to push three lanes across to the far left lane through the smallest of openings, following a path the suspect had swathed seconds ago. Up ahead the two lead cars are struggling to keep pace as well. In my rearview mirror I can see the top lights of more patrol cars entering the freeway.
The suspect continues to jump lanes, nearly crashing a half dozen times. In an attempt to keep up, I jump onto the left shoulder, praying nobody abruptly pulls to their left and wrecks me. My patrol car shudders and coughs. I think briefly of a horse, which is about to lie down and die after being ridden too long in the desert. I coax my car aloud, trying to get it to perform just a little bit better, just a little bit longer: “C’mon, baby, you can do it. Keep up.” The absurdity of my words brings a slight grin to my lips even as the pursuit pushes on.
The lead cars continue to shadow the suspect, weaving in and out of traffic in jerky, quickly conceived movements. The lane changes are so tight the scene reminds me of a real-life game of “Frogger.” Tossing up a wake of trash and debris as I ride the left shoulder, I am still falling farther behind. I glance quickly at the speedometer. It reads slightly over 100 mph. There is little radio traffic as nobody wants to risk the distraction at these speeds. The only sounds I can hear are the faint sound of my siren in my subconscious and the pounding of my own heart, which apparently has found a new home next to my ears.
And then it happens.
The one thing that escapes the suspect – patience – prevents his escape this day. He holds the better hand. He has the better car. He was getting the best of us. But we held the bluff long enough and put on enough pressure that the suspect finally makes a mistake – a near fatal one at that.
Up ahead, I see the suspect panic and pull hard left in an attempt to find the clear path of the shoulder lane I now occupy less than a half mile behind him. But in his rush to escape, he overcompensates and slams into the cement barrier which separates northbound from southbound traffic. The impact causes a second overcompensation, this time to the right. The suspect’s car shoots across three lanes of traffic and somehow misses the flow of swerving vehicles trying desperately to get out of the way.
No other cars are struck, but the suspect is not so lucky. After his out-of-control vehicle leaves the freeway, it travels down an embankment, hits a cement drainage tube, goes airborne and rolls four or five times, plowing through a fence and reaching the height of a treetop before crashing down right-side-up next to the same tree. The vehicle’s windows and tires blow out and the engine is smoking when I screech to a halt at the side of the freeway and run toward the car.
The two lead officers are slightly ahead of me running toward the wreckage and, as I jump a large ditch which borders the freeway, I hear a distinct call for help.
“Hey, I’m stuck. Get me out of here!” When I look quizzically to the officer at my left, he is looking back and laughing slightly. Even in the midst of this chaotic car chase, I turn and look and I have to laugh as well. The officer who had piloted the second car in the chase, upon reaching the four-foot ditch next to the freeway, had opted to run through it rather than jump across. She stands there now, stuck knee-deep in mud, her Glock handgun pointed straight up in the air as she struggles to free herself.
The other officer and I stare for the briefest of seconds, share a chuckle, shrug our shoulders and leave her behind. She’s not sinking any deeper, so she’ll be okay there. There are more pressing issues up ahead where I am sure the suspect is dead.
We approach the suspect’s wrecked car as tactically as possible and find him still alive, but trapped inside. It doesn’t take long for a throng of officers, fire rescue and ambulances crews to descend upon the scene. The suspect is extracted from the carnage. He is dazed, but in amazingly good condition. He now has much bigger problems to answer to.
My mind compensates for my body’s drop in adrenaline now as the chaos of my surroundings grinds into slow-motion mode for a moment. The sounds of the scene become muffled and I do a 360-degree turn and take it all in. As I look at the freeway traffic which is now at a standstill a hundred feet from the scene, all I can see are the stunned faces of motorists and passengers as they stare incredulously at the wreckage. My hearing returns to normal and in the distance I detect the buzz of grasshoppers in the air. I realize it has turned into quite a beautiful summer evening.
In the middle of the confusion, the previously trapped officer arrives at the suspect’s car. She is muddied, she has a moderately bruised ego and she is minus one boot. She is slightly embarrassed, but virtually unharmed. She did her job well today. She’s going home alive and with a good story to tell.
Isn’t that all she can really hope for? I think to myself.
Isn’t that all any of us can hope for?