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Family of pedestrian killed during police chase in downtown Savannah question trooper’s actions

Published: Aug. 2, 2021 at 4:14 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - New details about a pedestrian killed last month during a police chase in Savannah. The family is speaking for the first time since his horrific death.

Stephen Milton, 56, was killed on the evening of June 16 as he crossed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at 38th Street in the downtown area. His death happened as Georgia State Patrol chased a driver who was suspected to be high on marijuana. The driver is still wanted on murder charges.

“Nobody could make me believe that I would be here and my baby brother would be gone,” said Debra Barard, the oldest sister of Stephen Milton. “I just didn’t think that would happen.”

Barard and the entire family are still trying to understand what happened on the night Milton was hit and killed during a police chase. Friends who last saw him alive told her he was headed home at about 11 p.m. that Wednesday because he had to work the next morning.

”He got his bike because he always rode his bike and he’s crossing the street and here comes this car barreling down on him,” she said. “He lost his life going home so he could go to work.”

A driver suspected to be high on marijuana hit Stephen while driving at a high rate of speed and being pursued by a state trooper, according to Georgia State Patrol. The driver, 37-year-old Kenneth Wright, is wanted on 18 different charges, including homicide by vehicle. But descriptions from bystanders and the little information the family says they’ve received from Georgia State Patrol have led to rumors, which is what they want to put to rest.

”I don’t want anybody putting narratives together so we can all walk in step and say the same thing,” Barard said. “We want dash cams, we want body mics that are on GSP. We want to know what happened.”

WTOC Investigates received copies of multiple reports from GSP and one from Savannah Police, which is the agency that responded after Stephen was hit. But WTOC has not seen the dash camera video because GSP says it’s part of an active criminal investigation, a reason law enforcement is allowed to withhold the public information under the state’s open records law.

Here’s what we know so far: A copy of the GSP’s internal review of the police chase shows the state trooper did follow state pursuit policy when he decided to pursue Wright that evening. It also shows how fast and how far the chase went: Six miles in six minutes. And the route of the pursuit, which at 10 p.m. at night included residential neighborhoods and areas known for heavy pedestrian traffic.

It began with a traffic stop near West Savannah on Bay Street and East Lathrop Avenue. The trooper pulled over a driver for traveling 60 miles per hour in a 40 mile per hour zone. He noticed the smell of marijuana, identified Wright who told the trooper he had just smoked marijuana and then the trooper conducted field sobriety. He determined Wright was under the influence of drugs, according to the incident report.

That’s where things became physical. The trooper told Wright he was under arrest and attempted to handcuff him on Bay Street. Wright took off toward Lehwald Street. That’s when the trooper said he tased him, according to the incident report. Then there was a struggle.

Wright grabbed the trooper’s taser with both hands. The trooper drew his gun. As the trooper aimed and got ready to fire, Wright dropped the taser and ran back toward his car and took off, the incident report said. The sequence of events are what prompted the trooper to give chase. It’s something Stephen’s family questions whether it was worth the risk to the public.

“Well, you’ve got his insurance card. You’ve got his address, you’ve got his tag number. What are you chasing him for? Why are you chasing him? It just made no sense that a person should lose their life when the powers that be had what they needed to pick him up,” Barard said.

The topic was covered during GSP’s internal review.

The question reads: “Was there a good probability of the suspect’s arrest at a later time because of positive identification?”

The answer: Yes, with an explanation that says: “(the trooper) made the decision to pursue the driver based on the danger to the public from him operating a vehicle while impaired and unknown factors possibly present due to the driver’s willingness to flee and attempt to disarm him,” according to the department’s internal review.

The chase did not end after Stephen was killed. The trooper drove through the area where Stephen was struck and an internal review noted that a “pedestrian was not visible,” according to the internal review.

From there, the trooper chased the driver for another mile and a half through the Baldwin Park neighborhood. It ended on 40th Street at Paulson Street because the trooper’s car overheated and caught on fire.

Radio traffic is what alerted GSP that a pedestrian had been hit as Savannah Police worked to close Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at 37th Street.

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