Recently Lt. Chuck Smith and I were sitting on my front deck watching Oregon’s Umpqua River flow by, shooting suppressed weapons, killing some brain cells and generally swapping lies when one of us said, in best ‘Harry Callahan’ fashion: “So…tell us about your best felony arrest.”
Since neither of us could remember ever having made a felony arrest (I said we were lying!), the subject changed to “Tell us about the most interesting thing you ever did in law enforcement.”
On this subject we both had a lot to say…some publishable, some not. What I came up with was a multi-agency vehicular pursuit that I was involved in in the late seventies which was dramatically terminated when the subject of the pursuit was taken out in a rather spectacular fashion.
I wrote a fairly detailed report of the incident at the time, but didn’t include some of the minutiae that made it so interesting. Now, some forty years later, it is time to tell “the rest of the story.”
Sonoma County Sheriff’s Dept.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 1979
Final day of long holiday (Washington’s Birthday) weekend
1600 hrs., Swing Shift Early Briefing
Swing Shift actually consisted of two shifts and two briefings. A handful of deputies reported at 1600; their purpose was to take late arrests and reports from the outgoing day shift in order to cut down on overtime. The remainder of the group reported at 1700 hrs. As swing shift sergeant, I gave both briefings.
I was at the podium giving out information on recent crimes, wants and warrants, stop-and-shoots and other profundities when Dispatcher Mike Duvall (RIP) quickly entered the room and advised that Santa Rosa PD (SRPD) was in pursuit of an ADW suspect driving a silver Camaro S/B on US101, just passing Bicentennial Way. Everyone grabbed their gear and made a beeline to their patrol car heading for 101. I was the last to leave, having to clear some paperwork first, and finally ran out to one of the sergeants’ assigned vehicles, unit A119.
A119 was typical of all our current patrol cars at the time. They were Dodge Coronet four-door sedans that were purchased under CHP contract. They were essentially identical to the cars driven by CHP that year, except for being all-white with side graphics. To paraphrase Jake and Elwood Blues, they had “a cop motor, cop tires and cop suspension.” In fact, they were equipped with the big-block 440 cubic inch engine that would, in not many years, completely disappear from police vehicles.
A bit hampered by EPA and other requirements, their horsepower was lower than their famous Dodge counterparts of the late sixties, but they were still great cars. Lighter and smaller than their predecessors, they had very good suspension, premium radial tires and disc brakes. They could do 140 mph—to which I could attest. Frankly, they were the best patrol cars I ever drove.
After locking my scanner onto SRPD and CHP frequencies, I finally got underway. Heading for 101 I learned a bit of information about the origins of the pursuit—and later learned a bunch more. It all started at the K-Mart on Cleveland Ave. when the Camaro’s owner, trying to get at his estranged wife (a store employee) threatened to drive his car through the store’s plate glass windows.
When three SRPD officers (Jim Carlson, Jack Kilbride and Marv Carroll) arrived and tried to block him in, he took off and lead them west bound (W/B) on Piner Road, north bound (N/B) on Fulton Road, then east bound (E/B) on River Road, finally entering 101 south bound (S/B). The pursuit, to that point, had reached speeds of 90+ mph and had resulted in damage to both Kilbride and Carlson’s units (as in “undrivable”) and a half-dozen or more civilian cars. The suspect had also heaved a gallon wine bottle out of his moving vehicle, which smashed into the windshield of a pursuing unit.
As I headed south on 101, I was amazed at the number of damaged or disabled vehicles stopped along both lanes of the freeway. Two decades later I saw images of the Republican Guard futilely attempting to flee Kuwait, which reminded me (at a much lesser scale) of the carnage along 101. The freeway between Santa Rosa and Cotati looked like a war zone.
Deputy DJ Legro, far ahead of me, advised dispatch that the suspect had taken the Cotati offramp to Hwy. 116 and had turned left, heading into downtown Cotati. I followed the same route and went S/B on Hwy. 116, having yet to catch a glimpse of the suspect vehicle or its pursuers. But, oh look, another couple of battered and disabled vehicles parked alongside the road.
Dispatch came on the air and identified the registered owner of the Camaro as a James Zelaznowski, age 22, of Santa Rosa. Information was also provided that he had recently purchased a handgun. Zelaznowski was later determined to be the vehicle’s driver.
Finally, as I approached the Green Mill Inn, I could see flashing red and blue lights from the pursuing vehicles. I caught up with this pack just before the Denman Flats/101 overpass in time to see the Camaro turn back onto the freeway N/B. Behind him were two or three CHP units, another S.O. unit and me at the end, all running Code 3. The Camaro continued north at 90-100 mph, serpentining between both lanes in a successful attempt to keep the cops from getting around him. The driver’s left arm protruded from the door window, the bird he was flipping obvious to everyone behind him. Approaching the Railroad Ave. exit he politely signaled for a right turn, then took that offramp, heading east on Railroad Ave.
About halfway between 101 and 116, Deputy Legro positioned his vehicle across Railroad Ave. in an attempt to setup a one-car roadblock. The Camaro approached Legro’s car at a high rate of speed and collided with it, fender to fender, managing to get past the roadblock. Deputy Legro fired several rounds at the vehicle from his S&W Model 66 .357 revolver, striking, we later determined, the car’s gas tank.
The Camaro again gathered speed and, when it reached Hwy.116, turned right and was again heading S/B on that road, with several cars still in pursuit At least one had dropped off to render aid to Deputy Legro.
As we again approached the overpass at Denman Flats and 101, I picked up CHP radio traffic on the scanner. CHP officers (I assumed the two in front of me) were requesting permission from their sergeant to take aggressive action against the Camaro, i.e. permission to ram. (The PIT maneuver hadn’t been invented yet).
Their sergeant advised that he was out of position and was not exactly forthcoming in granting that request. I had already checked with my sergeant, who was already right on top of the action, and had been granted permission to take whatever action I felt necessary to bring this thing to a conclusion.
Instead of turning back on 101 again, the Camaro continued across the overpass and headed south on Petaluma Blvd. North (still Hwy. 116). There were now four vehicles in the procession: the Camaro, two CHP units and me, still in the back. We were running between. 80 and 90 mph, with the Camaro again serpentining between the two lanes.
One of the black and whites attempted to get past him, but the Camaro blocked him and caused him to hit the brakes hard. I passed him to the left. The second CHP unit tried a similar move, but was also blocked by the swerving Camaro, with that unit also having to decelerate, allowing me to pass him and get directly behind the suspect vehicle.
The road there is fairly straight, but in a short distance it begins to gradually curve to the right. I looked ahead into the N/B lanes of 116 and saw that it was devoid of oncoming traffic. Just as we passed Andersen’s Gunsmithing shop, I decided to make my move while we were still in a straight stretch.
I was no more than a car-length behind the Camaro when I stomped on the accelerator and muttered a loud “Goodbye, Asshole” (I’ve always wished I’d keyed my mic right then and dealt with the FCC later on).
There is a phenomena known as tachypsychia. Many people have experienced this (particularly cops) at one time or another, but most have no idea of its name or cause. It happens in times of great stress and immediate duress “the “height of battle.” Following is a definition from a medical journal:
Tachypsychia is our perception of the altering of time. Specifically, the feeling that the unfolding events are occurring in slow motion, sometimes feeling as though it is a sort of surreal dream state. The mind can race wildly, and a ridiculous volume of thoughts can be compressed into a tiny span of time. This effect is sometimes achieved by the taking of drugs as well. Adrenaline is simply a drug produced by the body. As such, our thinking and perceptions are altered when we’re under the influence of adrenaline.
From the moment of initial contact until my car finally slid to a stop, everything appeared to be in slow motion. What seemed like two minutes was actually a scant few seconds. The word “surreal” is the first one that comes to mind. Everything in my view was crystal clear, in vivid color—and very slow.
I hit the ass-end of the Camaro dead center at 86 mph. At the moment of impact the driver’s hands flew off the steering wheel, his body was pushed back in his seat and both hands and forearms appeared above his shoulders in an involuntary gesture of surrender.
I kept my foot buried in the throttle, the big four-barrel howling, and saw the needle push past 90 mph just as we hit the start of the gentle curve to the right. The Camaro’s left wheels jumped the inside curb and it started to go airborne, nose first.
I hit the brakes…hard…and both felt and heard the sounds of intermeshed Mopar and General Motors parts separating. When both cars were free of each other, the Camaro continued its rise into the air and my Dodge, assuming a mind of its own, went totally out of control. It did a very quick one-eighty and was still traveling S/B 116, only the front of the car was now pointing north.
I gripped the steering wheel with both hands and had both feet on the brake pedal pushing as hard as I could. In fact, my little bird-legs exerted so much pressure on that pedal that it bent at a very weird angle. The county garage later had to replace the entire brake pedal assembly. Adrenaline!
Having no control of the car, other than braking, I was just along for the ride and concentrated on the panoramic view unfolding in front of me through the windshield.
The Camaro continued rising into the air, pointing east across the two oncoming lanes of Hwy. 116. While doing so it executed a graceful half barrel-roll to its right, winding up with its top being its closest point to the ground. It was then that I saw another car.
It was a light yellow, late model four-door Ford station wagon heading N/B in the #1 lane of Hwy. 116. This car must have been around the road’s bend when I did my oncoming vehicle assessment, yet here it now was.
It was driven by a middle-aged white guy with dark hair, wearing black horn-rimmed glasses and a white shirt. Directly behind him in the rear seat was a pre-teenaged kid, his big round face seemingly glued to the side window, eyes wide and jaw agape, as he watched this upside down car sail over the top of his father’s wagon and disappear from his view. The top of the Chevy cleared the top of the Ford by about five feet. The station wagon continued its way north, never to be seen or heard of again.
Directly across the roadway (due East) was a series of wooden structures that housed several retail shops and offices. They were arranged roughly in the shape of a “U,” the open end of which paid out to a parking lot/driveway that was maybe a hundred feet wide and a hundred feet deep. Access is gained only from the N/B #2 lane of Hwy. 116 or, I guess, by flying car. The lot had no moving or parked vehicles on it, presumably because the shops were closed for the holiday.
The Camaro continued its journey across both lanes of 116, then began to lose momentum and return to earth. It landed on its roof in the parking lot with a sickening “CRUNCH,” skidded several feet, did a partial pirouette and finally come to a halt, both front wheels still spinning madly while one rear wheel was gone. It came off sometime during the crash…I’ve always assumed it was later located nearby. It takes a mighty force to completely rip a wheel off a car,
Timing, as they say, is everything, be it planned or inadvertent. A few seconds before or after the moment of contact; a bit faster or slower; a few feet more or less, and the Camaro could easily have plowed into those wooden buildings, That it landed in the middle of the only vacant lot in the area with no discernible damage to anything other than itself is what? Providence?
My Dodge continued its uncontrolled backwards journey, brakes still fully locked, as it crossed over both S/B lanes of 116 and slid to a stop alongside the outside curb. Had I been ordered to parallel park the car right there, I couldn’t have done a better job.
I shut down my still-yelping siren, put it in park, got out and made my way to the front of the car just as a CHP black and white slid to a stop, nose-to-nose with my car. The officer got out and said “Are you okay, Sarge?” ”Yeah, I think so. Let’s go see if I killed the son-of-a-bitch.”
The Chippie and I ran across the four traffic lanes (my vision had by now returned to normal speed) and arrived at the Camaro just as its front wheels stopped turning. The driver/suspect was hanging upside-down from his seatbelt, unmoving and silent. His hands were not visible and he failed to respond to my commands to show them to me.
As he was reported to possibly be armed, I kept him at gunpoint as the rest of the world began to arrive. CHP units, fire and EMT and a couple of my deputies (Rich Simoni and Griff McKay) soon converged on the scene. Deputies Simoni and McKay took over keeping the suspect covered as emergency personnel began extricating the driver from his vehicle, which took about an hour.
Also arriving about this time was Press Democrat photographer Jeff Kan Lee, who had been following the pursuit on his vehicle’s scanner. Jeff Lee and I have been very good friends for about fifty years now—he is the only reporter I ever allowed to ride with me on patrol. Jeff had the innate ability of always being in the right place at the right time, hiding behind cars, trees, twigs and blades of grass with his trusty Nikon always at the ready. He captured the shots that appeared in his paper the following day and which accompany this article.
Frankly, just about everything beyond this point is a blur to me. After extrication, the suspect was transported to Community Hospital and thereafter, under guard, to Sonoma County jail. The ultimate disposition of this case is still unknown to me. I was never subpoenaed to court and don’t know what, if any, kind of sentence the suspect received for his acts. I do know that, of all the vehicular carnage he left in his wake, his was the only physical injury reported. He broke one of his fingers. Go figger!
I ultimately made my way back to my car and limped the poor thing back to the main office, where it was taken out of service destined for a visit to the county garage. I completed my report on the incident, then drew a different car and drove to Community Hospital to have my neck checked out.
It was apparently wrenched and strained pretty badly in the crash. ER personnel took X-rays, slapped on a cervical collar and told me to take a few days off. I did take the following day off, but returned to duty on Wednesday night.
Several days after this incident an Accident Review Board was convened, per department policy, in the Main Office. The undersheriff was the Board Chair. He made it known, in no uncertain terms, that he felt I had acted in an extremely dangerous and wanton manner and had put myself, other law enforcement personnel and civilians in peril by my actions. He also wondered why, as a supervisor, I hadn’t better directed my personnel to deal with the situation rather than putting myself “out front.”
It was no secret that upper management didn’t like me very much, and the feelings were reciprocated in kind. One might think that, having achieved his lofty rank and status, the undersheriff would have learned how things work in rural law enforcement during his journey through deputy sheriff, sergeant, lieutenant and captain, but…oh, wait…he had never held a single one of those positions. He was just a divisive, politically-appointed sycophant.
No witnesses were called at the meeting. The Board reviewed various reports, held conversations amongst themselves and finally asked me if I had anything to say. I stood and, in essence, said the following:
:I agree that my actions that day were dangerous. It’s been my experience that police work is, by its very nature, a dangerous occupation. Neither I nor this Department initiated this multi-jurisdictional forty-seven mile pursuit…but I sure as hell ended it.
To have allowed this asshole to continue his flight, unabated, at near triple-digit speeds into downtown Petaluma on a busy holiday was totally unacceptable. Someone had to stop him, and I was in the right place to do so.
As for not properly supervising my crew, I am very fortunate to have an experienced and professional group of Deputies working for me. I have never been a micro-manager and saw no reason to become one in this situation. Deputy Legro, of his own volition, attempted a one-vehicle roadblock that almost worked. Deputies Simoni and McKay took command of holding the suspect at bay during his extrication not because I told them to do so, but because they’re both good cops and knew what to do.
At one point during the pursuit, as it sounded like they were about to “corral” the vehicle and force it to a stop, I did get on the radio and caution those involved to be aware of their positioning and to avoid crossfire. That’s as close as I came to giving orders in this very fluid situation.
I started at the rear of the pack and worked my way to the front by luck, some driving skill and tenacity. Giving the same chain of events, I would do the same thing again if necessary, I stand by my actions, and I thank this board for allowing me the opportunity to speak.”
And I left the room.
The Board’s decision was unanimous. No department rules were violated and no punitive actions were recommended. This did not sit well with the undersheriff, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. He did, however, exact his pounds of flesh from me in our ensuing years together, but those are stories better left untold.
On February 22, 1992, Petaluma PD attempted a traffic stop on a pickup truck traveling N/B on Petaluma Blvd No. (Hwy. 116) for a minor traffic infraction. The driver of the pickup refused to yield and accelerated to speeds in excess of 90 mph on 116. The pickup eventually lost control in the center divider near Corona Road and struck a line of parked cars, causing the truck to flip.
The driver was not wearing a seatbelt and was ejected from his vehicle and sustained serious head injuries. He was flown by helicopter to Community Hospital and was later identified as James Zelaznowski, age 35, of Grand Rapids, Colorado.
I was 32 years old when this event occurred. I had been a sergeant for five years. I am now 74 and am kind of circling the drain. I am thankful that even four strokes and several rounds of chemotherapy have not dimmed my memories of this and other events! This is why I wanted to get these words down on paper while still able.
Years ago I adopted as my motto the prophetic words of J.R. Ewing: “Time wounds all heels!” And it does.
10 Sam 9 out. KMA392