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Family intends to sue police over chase in fatal crash

By Juliette Laaka | Mar 25, 2016
Photo by: Beth A. Birmingham A makeshift memorial created in December at the scene of a fatal crash in Union that killed two teenagers.

Rockport — The attorney for the family of Kara Brewer, a Rockand teenager killed in a car crash in December, said he intends to file suit naming the driver of the car and the Rockport Police Department as defendants, saying the decision of an officer to pursue the car in a high-speed chase was negligent.

Benjamin R. Gideon of Berman and Simmons in Lewiston said March 23 if Rockport Police Officer Craig Cooley had not pursued a station wagon driven by 17-year-old Caleb Byras of Litchfield, the daughter of his client might still be alive, although he acknowledged the lion's share of responsibility for the crash is on Byras.

Byras and Brewer, 16, were killed when the Subaru station wagon driven by Byras went off the road and struck a tree on Wotton's Mill Road in Union at about 11:45 p.m. Dec. 5 following Byras' evasion of an officer and a subsequent chase through Rockport, Hope and Union. A third passenger, a teenage female, survived. According to a report, she told police that the car's speed reached 110 mph before impact.

The investigative report compiled by Knox County Sheriff's Office Deputy Paul Spear said speed was the major factor in the crash, and it is his opinion that if Byras had not been operating at a high and reckless rate of speed, the crash would not have happened. There was no alcohol in Byras' system and medications found in his system were prescribed to him, according to a medical examiner's report.

Drug involvement is not believed to be a factor in the crash, Spear's report said.

A notice of an intent to sue Byras, the town of Rockport, Police Chief Mark Kelley and Cooley will be issued shortly, Gideon said.

Gideon said a number of policy provisions adopted by the Rockport Police Department were violated, which indicates negligence. Gideon also said it does not appear to him the chase was discontinued, despite what police have said. Gideon said a one- to two-second delay in Cooley's coming upon the crash scene cannot be reasonably characterized as discontinuing a chase. It may not have been as vigorous a pursuit on Wotton's Mill Road as it was on Route 17, but it is still part of the same chase, he said.

Gideon said both sides can say what they want about what happened, but the dash camera footage is what it is. "It doesn't lie, a jury will draw their own conclusions from it," he said.

Gideon said policies that were not followed include that officers do not initiate a chase unless a felony crime has been committed, or there is a threatened use of violence.

According to the Maine Chiefs of Police Association model policy approved and signed by Rockport Police Chief Mark Kelley in September 2011, officers should not pursue vehicles for misdemeanor crimes or traffic violations "unless the conditions surrounding the pursuit are conducive to safe operation, management and due regard for the safety of the officer, the public and the person or persons in the vehicle being pursued."

The model policy is intended to assist local departments in developing their own policies, and all policies mandated by statute in the policy model meet standards prescribed by the Board of Trustees of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

The Maine Chiefs of Police Policy Association recommends in its best practice standards that only officers who have completed the basic training requirements for full-time officers at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro, which includes an emergency vehicle operations course, should become actively involved in a high-speed pursuit.

Cooley is certified as a part-time police officer with the academy, Maine Criminal Justice Academy Director John Rogers said.

A message left for the chairman of the association's policy and procedure committee, Auburn Police Department Deputy Chief Jason Moen, was not immediately returned March 25, as he was out of the office.

Other policies that officers should consider before engaging in a pursuit include not to chase a vehicle if the driver is known to the officer unless there is an indication of further violent actions if not immediately apprehended, the policy states.

"The infraction was speeding, no major felony was committed," Gideon said, adding that pursuit should not have occurred because Cooley knew who was driving the vehicle, as he had stopped him earlier the same night for speeding.

Cooley stopped Byras about an hour before the pursuit, and cited him for driving 74 mph in a 55 mph zone. At that time, Byras was alone in the station wagon, according to previous police reports.

The second time Cooley noticed Byras, at about 11:39 p.m., he was speeding again, traveling west on Route 17. Kelley said Feb. 25 that Byras was stopped in the breakdown lane when Cooley pulled behind him and activated his blue lights. Once the lights were activated, Byras pulled back onto the road and did not stop as signaled.

Kelley previously said Cooley followed all procedures and policies correctly when pursuing Byras. When called March 22 to discuss Rockport's policy, Kelley said all questions would have to be answered by Rockport Town Manager Richard Bates. A message seeking comment from Bates March 23 was not returned.

In the four-mile stretch between when contact was first made with Byras on Route 17 in Rockport and the beginning of Wotton's Mill Road, Cooley activated his lights and then his siren and called for assistance. Knox County Sheriff's Office deputies were at the scene of an accident in Warren and unavailable to assist.

"He did what any officer would do in those circumstances," Kelley said of Cooley in February. The chief said Cooley did have jurisdiction to stop, or attempt to stop, Byras in another town, because he saw him speeding in Rockport. Kelley said no permission is needed from the chief for an officer to follow a driver into another town. The chief said in a previous interview there is a fine line between attempting to stop a vehicle and chasing, but that Cooley went through all the appropriate procedures and discontinued his pursuit at the start of Wotton's Mill Road.

Kelley said previously Cooley was driving at a speed of 75 to 80 mph on Route 17 in pursuit of Byras, and that a five-second buffer was between the vehicles at all times. When Cooley turned onto Wotton's Mill Road, he lost sight of the station wagon, and ended the pursuit, Kelley said. According to Knox County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Tim Carroll in a previous press release, Cooley said he had a bad feeling, and continued down the road. After about two miles, Cooley came upon the crash scene. The car had split in two when it hit the tree.

transcript of the communication between Cooley and Knox Regional Communications Center during the pursuit was provided by the county.

Reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext 118 or via email at jlaaka@villagesoup.com.

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