‘Going, easily, 100 miles an hour, 90 miles an hour’: Neighbor calls 911, outraged over police chase

Published: Aug. 26, 2021 at 5:30 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Outrage is what Brendan Pappas felt after a high-speed police chase roared through his neighborhood, he said, almost killing him and a friend.

“A suspect car and two Georgia State Patrol cars tearing down this street going, easily, 100 miles an hour, 90 miles an hour,” he said.

He called 911 in anger to tell dispatchers the chase had almost killed him and a friend.

But it wasn’t until weeks later, after a WTOC Investigates report, that Pappas realized what he experienced on the night of June 16 was the same chase that killed an innocent pedestrian just minutes earlier - more than a mile away.

“I was absolutely horrified,” he said. “It’s a shame that it happened. It certainly solidifies my fears, but unfortunately someone had to lose their life for that to happen.”

The death of 56-year-old Stephen Milton, who family and friends affectionately called “Mellow” because of his unwaveringly calm demeanor, has prompted neighbors along the chase route to call for an end to police chases through Savannah neighborhoods. It’s also led to questions about what happened that night and questions about the pursuit policy for Georgia State Patrol which is much different than the one for Savannah Police. It allows for complete discretion by the state trooper who is in the field. The policy does not require a supervisor or command staff to be consulted.

“It’s not fair to put the officer in that position to make that many decisions during the heat of the chase, so to speak. So, to have those decisions being made by command is a much better way to go,” said Criminologist Geoff Alpert, University of South Carolina.

Alpert has studied police pursuit policies across the nation and is considered a leading expert.

He also pointed out that on the night of the June 16 chase, Georgia State Patrol already had identified the suspect as Kenneth Wright.

“Public safety is really why we have the police. And if this chase at whatever speeds, at whatever condition is going to risk the public, then it’s not worth it.

The chase began at West Bay Street and Lathrop and continued for six miles through the city with speeds reaching as high as 100 miles per hour, at times. It was over in six minutes, ending on 40th and Paulsen streets.

It ended because the breaks caught fire on the trooper’s patrol car, according to the incident report. It had to be towed and the driver got away. Kenneth Wright, 36, of Statesboro, is wanted on 18 charges, including homicide by vehicle in the death of Stephen Milton.

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows, on average, at least one person dies every day from a police pursuit.

“It’s of my opinion that the best thing to do is to take a lot of those decisions away from the cop on the street during the heat of the chase and have that covered in policies in training with good supervision and good accountability systems and we’re going to see a lot fewer deaths.”

In a sit down interview with Georgia State Patrol, Lt. Mark Riley explained why leaving the decision to pursue up to the trooper on the scene is important.

“They’re the one that is in the moment and involved in that specific pursuit,” Lt. Riley said, who is public information director for the patrol. “It’s hard to make a decision for someone when you are not even there. So that’s one of the reasons why they have that discretion because they are the one who are involved in the chase in the moment.”

He agreed to an interview about the department’s pursuit policy but said he could not talk about the chase on June 16th because there is an open investigation.

In general, he explained how troopers weigh the dangers involved.

“The trooper involved has a lot of discretion and while they are in that pursuit, they are constantly thinking about the different variables involved, the dangers, the environment changes. You know, you can go from a rural area to a more populated area rather quickly and that can dictate whether there is school traffic, school buses, time of day, pedestrian traffic.”

He said the troopers who work in Chatham County are familiar with the areas they work, including Savannah.

“You want to measure the need for apprehension compared to the safety of the motoring public and the innocent people out on the roads.”

Back in Baldwin Park, Pappas is trying to make sense of why police had to chase that night.

“And here we are: Frustrated and still living in a neighborhood that we feel unsafe in - not because of a criminal - but because of the people that think they are helping us.”

Stephen Milton’s death is a painful reminder for many, especially those in Baldwin Park, who remember when 69-year-old Bernitha Vaughn was killed during a police pursuit in March of 2016.

A driver fleeing police crashed into her car on Maupas Avenue, killing her instantly.

One month later, Savannah-Chatham Metro Police added an internal review process to its pursuit policy.

As for the June 16 suspect, Kenneth Wright is still a fugitive, according to Georgia State Patrol. He is wanted on 18 different charges, including homicide by vehicle in the death of Stephen Milton.

“And that’s not going to go away,” said Lt. Riley. “The best thing to do would be to just turn himself in.”

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