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Archive for Thursday, August 28, 2003

Police: Pursuit warranted

Suspect to blame for fatality, chief says

August 28, 2003

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A 19-year-old Missouri man -- not police chasing him at high speeds through Lawrence -- was responsible for the death of a Lawrence woman, Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin said Wednesday.

Olin said the actions of Nam Ouk Cho of Lee's Summit, Mo., posed a threat to public safety and warranted pursuit.

"We are very sorry that Mr. Cho chose Lawrence to drive in the manner in which he drove last evening," Olin said at a news conference Wednesday morning.

"It was imperative that we attempt to stop this vehicle," said Sgt. Mike Pattrick, a spokesman for the department.

The chase ended at 6:19 p.m. Tuesday, when Judith Vellucci, 56, pulled in front of Cho's speeding car at 31st Street and Nieder Road, near the entrance to a Steak n Shake restaurant.

Vellucci was killed in the crash.

Lawrence Police Department policy requires officers to stop giving chase "if the safety conditions clearly override the necessity of the pursuit," but it does not provide any specific examples or scenarios.

Police pursued Cho from near downtown to the city's southwest side -- along some of the city's busiest thoroughfares -- in Tuesday evening's rush hour traffic. Olin said officers clocked Cho's vehicle traveling about 50 mph just west of downtown and estimated speeds of 80 mph later during the 9-minute chase.

A Lawrence firefighter works behind the cars involved in the fatal
crash near 31st and Iowa streets. Wednesday, Lawrence Police Chief
Ron Olin said police adhered to the department's pursuit policy in
the chase Tuesday that ended with the death of bystander Judith
Vellucci, 56, Lawrence.

A Lawrence firefighter works behind the cars involved in the fatal crash near 31st and Iowa streets. Wednesday, Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin said police adhered to the department's pursuit policy in the chase Tuesday that ended with the death of bystander Judith Vellucci, 56, Lawrence.

Despite that, Olin said a review of procedures followed during the chase found officers involved were not at fault. Police declined to identify any of the officers.

"We have reviewed the (audio) tapes, we have interviewed the officers and we have interviewed the people involved," he said, "and the policy, as it is written, was strictly adhered to."

The chase

At 6:10 p.m., Olin said, police began receiving reports that a white, souped-up car was weaving in and out of traffic downtown, in the 1400 block of Massachusetts Street.

Minutes later, an officer spotted the car speeding west on Ninth Street near Maine Street.

"He was clocked doing 50 in a 30, and the officer turned on him and began to follow him," Olin said.








Olin said Cho drove through several intersections, stop signs and stop lights "without slowing down" before turning south on Kasold Drive, speeding through the Clinton Parkway intersection and toward 31st Street.

"By the time the officers and the suspect's vehicle turned (east) on 31st Street, our officers were slowing down and had backed off to the point that they had lost sight of the vehicle," Olin said.

Seconds later, Cho's vehicle slammed into Vellucci's car.

Olin said officers called off the pursuit as Cho approached the Kasold-Clinton Parkway intersection. "At that point it was no longer a pursuit," he said. "They were following him."

An eyewitness Wednesday told the Journal-World, "It was obvious that (Cho) acted with criminal intent" and should have been stopped.

But the witness, who declined to be identified, disputed Olin's account that officers had "backed off" the chase.

"If he's implying the chase was off, that's not true," the witness said. "(Cho) knew he was being chased. They may have backed off, but they were after him and he knew it."

The suspect Court records in Jackson County, Mo., show Nam Ouk Cho,
19, of Lee's Summit, Mo., was arrested twice in 2001 while still a
juvenile. Cho, pictured above Tuesday, and a friend are accused of
breaking into several cars outside a Lee's Summit apartment complex
in May 2001.

The suspect Court records in Jackson County, Mo., show Nam Ouk Cho, 19, of Lee's Summit, Mo., was arrested twice in 2001 while still a juvenile. Cho, pictured above Tuesday, and a friend are accused of breaking into several cars outside a Lee's Summit apartment complex in May 2001.

Matt Kolster, who near at 27th Street and Kasold Drive, said the motorcycle-like sound of Cho's car speeding by attracted his attention. He looked up to see the car pass, then there was a five- or 10-second gap before two police cars sped by.

Dangerous enough?

Asked what conditions would be required for officers or their supervisors to call off a pursuit, Olin declined to be specific.

"I'd be pleased to discuss that in an imaginary circumstance, but I decline to discuss this particular incident," he said.

The fact Cho's car had been spotted driving in an oncoming lane of traffic in the 1400 block of Massachusetts Street, Pattrick said, was dangerous enough behavior to justify the risk of a chase.

"Anybody driving into oncoming traffic is a potential fatality, and we have to get that stopped," he said.

A day earlier, Lawrence Police called off a chase of a suspected shoplifter headed toward Topeka.

When an officer tried to stop the 44-year-old Topeka woman shortly after 5 p.m. Monday in the 6000 block of West Sixth Street, she accelerated and began passing in no-passing zones as she sped westbound.

Within a minute, police gave up the chase because of safety concerns and notified Shawnee County authorities, Pattrick said. Police in Topeka later arrested her after she struck a pole, he said.

Map of suspect's pursuit.

Map of suspect's pursuit.

In Tuesday's case, Pattrick said only two police cars were in "direct pursuit" of Cho and other police cars were supporting the chase. Another officer had tried to stop Cho at 22nd Street and Kasold Drive, for example, by placing spikes in the road, but Cho was able to maneuver around them.

"Typically, in any type of pursuit, if you don't know exactly where the suspect is, you are going to slow down until you know exactly where they're at," Pattrick said.

Erratic driving

After the accident, police said they learned that a vehicle matching Cho's had been spotted driving erratically earlier in the evening on Interstates 35 and 70 and Kansas Highways 7 and 10 -- a route from Lee's Summit to Lawrence.

Lt. David Cobb said that after Cho's arrest, he told police he thought someone had been chasing him long before he reached Lawrence.

"He basically gave statements to the police that he felt he was being chased, and we're pursuing those leads," Cobb said. "Whether that was real or imagined or drug-induced -- we're waiting for tests."

Lt. John Eichkorn, a spokesman for the Kansas Highway Patrol, could confirm only one instance of erratic driving reported to his agency Tuesday afternoon that potentially matches Cho's car. Eichkorn said someone told police that at 5:52 p.m., a driver reported a white Acura cutting in and out of traffic and passing cars dangerously on Kansas Highway 7 near 67th Street east of De Soto.

Cho's car was stripped of all make and model information. Its windows were tinted black and its engine, exhaust and tires had been customized.

Past record

Cho has been in trouble in the past. Court records in Jackson County, Mo., show he was arrested twice in 2001, while a juvenile. In both cases, the files are sealed and not open to the public.

Cho and a friend, Charles Lorenz, are accused of breaking in several cars outside a Lee's Summit apartment complex in May 2001.

One of the cars belonged to Ryan Studer, whose insurance company is suing Cho for $1,045, the cost of replacing the stereo and speakers taken from Studer's 1993 Jeep Wrangler.

Cho is scheduled to appear Sept. 2 in Jackson County District Court.

"The police caught him red-handed," said Studer's father, David Studer.

"I am so sorry to hear what happened in Lawrence," David Studer said. "I wish to God that something could have been done sooner to get people like him off the street.

"This incident with my son's Jeep happened -- what? more than two years ago now -- and here we are, still waiting to go to court," he said. "How tragic."

Cho was expected to make a first appearance today in Douglas County District Court, where he could be formally charged. He was booked into Douglas County Jail on Tuesday evening on suspicion of reckless second-degree murder, police said. He remained in the jail Wednesday night.




Staff writer Mike Belt contributed to this report.

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