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Deaths power a pursuit of answers

A man and woman rush by on a motorcycle, their speed scoffing at safety and the law. Then law enforcement vehicles fall in behind them, with one reaching 100 mph. The bike crashes, killing both and leaving only questions.

LEANORA MINAI
Published October 8, 2003

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - It was 1 a.m., almost closing time for the beachside taverns, when Indian Shores police Officer John Wiseman heard the high-pitched whine of a motorcycle.

The Yamaha whizzed by seconds later. Wiseman pulled his police car onto Gulf Boulevard and floored it. Two Pinellas sheriff's cars followed.

The motorcycle and Wiseman's car reached speeds of 100 mph as they tore through a 5-mile stretch of small beach towns: North Redington Beach, Redington Shores, Indian Shores.

When the boulevard narrowed to two lanes, the vehicles raced dangerously close to cottages, bars and motels, the noise from their engines turning heads as they passed.

"I heard the bike coming. It was screaming," said Eddie Quebe, 48, who lives on Gulf Boulevard in Indian Shores. "The first police car couldn't have been any more than two or three seconds behind it."

The high-speed caravan entered Indian Rocks Beach, where the motorcycle hit a curb and soared 260 feet. The driver, Ralph Boccio, 40, and his passenger, Alissa Hill, 20, were killed.

The Sept. 22 accident has brought questions from the victims' families and beach residents about the safety of high-speed police chases, among the most controversial of police practices.

"This time it happened at 1 o'clock at night," said J.J. Beyrouti, Redington Shores mayor. "Next time we don't want it to happen in the middle of the day or at high season when Gulf Boulevard is packed."

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office is examining whether the pursuit contributed to the motorcycle crash. Indian Shores police say there is nothing to investigate. But police statements differ from some witness accounts.

"We weren't chasing this motorcycle," said Indian Shores police Chief Earl Williams, who acknowledged his officer reached speeds of 100 mph. "The question should be, "Why was this motorcycle going 120 mph?"'

Not everyone agrees with the chief's assessment.

"My God," said Quebe, the Indian Shores resident, "they chased those kids until they wrecked."

Troubled backgrounds

Alissa Hill and Ralph Boccio met in July, a week after his release from prison for cocaine possession.

Hill was in her second year at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, studying forensic science. At night, she was Angel, a dancer at Fantasy Nude in Clearwater.

She had grown up in Zephyrhills, where she played the flute and handbells in church. Friends say Hill put her dance earnings toward rent and college.

"Many of the nights at the club, she'd sit at the back and do her homework," said John Erickson, 34, a friend.

But Hill found trouble last winter. She was charged in Hillsborough County with marijuana possession and in St. Petersburg with shoplifting a Fossil wallet and Ralph Lauren jeans from Dillard's.

Boccio also had scrapes with the law. A father of two, he was arrested about a dozen times in Florida. He quit transmission repair and opened the Evil Needle, a Brandon tattoo and body piercing salon.

Boccio's friends say he'd go days without sleep after smoking crystal meth. He loved to drive fast, collecting nine speeding tickets since 1993.

"Some people might tell you he was wild and crazy, but I tell you, the guy had a heart as big as Texas," said Camille Martinez, 42, Boccio's sister.

Two days before the motorcycle crash, a sheriff's deputy in Largo clocked Boccio driving a Camaro 70 mph in a 50 mph zone. The deputy found crystal meth in the car. Boccio was jailed but got out in time to meet Hill in Clearwater the next evening.

He had borrowed a friend's motorcycle. They were going for a ride.

Contradicting stories

The Pinellas deputies were in Redington Beach early on the morning of Sept. 22, investigating the theft of a 10-speed bicycle, stolen at gunpoint. Nine blocks north, Indian Shores police Officer John Wiseman was helping deputies search for the men who took it.

Wiseman, 24, was four days from completing his field training as a rookie with Indian Shores police.

When the officer saw the motorcycle buzz by, he turned on his lights and pulled onto Gulf Boulevard.

Within the next 21/2 miles, Wiseman accelerated to catch up, said Williams, the Indian Shores chief. "At one point our maximum speed was 100."

The chief said he doesn't know how long Wiseman drove that fast.

Boccio slowed once, to 50 mph, for a red light at a ramp to the Park Boulevard bridge. When the light flashed green, he hit the throttle. "It was up to the original speed and even greater," Williams said.

Pinellas deputies Jason Bahret and Christopher Lostraglio shut off their lights and slowed down, the Sheriff's Office said. The Indian Shores officer slowed to 35 mph to 40 mph a short time later, the chief said.

But Boccio, who didn't have a motorcycle license, kept speeding, passing 35 mph signs. The motorcycle struck a curb at a fork in the road at Villa Gallace restaurant in Indian Rocks Beach, launching Boccio and Hill more than 100 feet into a parking lot.

Boccio died at Bayfront Medical Center. Hill was pronounced dead at the scene.

"The bike was a ball," said Tim Goodman, Pinellas sheriff's spokesman. "A ball of metal."

Williams said his officer never got close enough to Boccio to see the motorcycle license tag.

"There was no police car within a mile of the motorcycle when it wrecked," Williams said.

But two witness statements conflict with the police account.

Tim Wisman, 33, lives and works at The Pub restaurant in Indian Shores. He said a police car was 90 to 150 feet from the motorcycle on the two-lane boulevard. The officer was going 75 mph to 90 mph, he said. Two or three vehicles were close behind.

"They were taking up both lanes on Gulf Boulevard," Wisman said.

The Sheriff's Office and Indian Shores police would not release offense reports or recordings of conversations between officers and dispatchers, citing the ongoing investigation.

Toxicology test results on Boccio and Hill are pending.

Rules on chases vary

To chase, or not to chase?

Agency rules vary, but officers often are told they must have reason to believe the fleeing suspect was involved in a felony.

Pinellas sheriff's deputies are allowed to chase aggressive drivers. They can chase motorcycles, but only if it's urgent, and only with a supervisor's approval.

Indian Shores officers have a lot of discretion.

"There may be situations not specifically addressed in this policy that, because of gravity, would cause an officer to initiate a pursuit," the policy says.

Williams, the Indian Shores chief, refused to call it a chase. He described his officer's 100 mph speed as "clocking" and "pacing."

"Otherwise, what's he going to put on the ticket?" Williams asked. "If we were pursuing this guy, we would have ran this person all the way to Citrus County."

Ten years ago, Indian Rocks Beach officers chased a motorist to Clearwater. The motorist struck a car, killing its driver. An investigation revealed officers lied about speeds and positions. The incident helped lead to the disbanding of the Police Department. The sheriff now patrols Indian Rocks Beach.

Alissa Hill's family declined to comment on the motorcycle crash. Boccio's sister said he may have slowed down if police backed off.

"What we're going to do is wait until we get some facts," said Debbie Watson, Hill's mother.

Sheriff Everett Rice does not believe his deputies did anything wrong. He passed no judgment on the Indian Shores officer's speed.

"The question is, was it a questionable and unlawful high-speed pursuit?" Rice said. "That's not for me to decide. That's for the chief to decide."

- Times researchers Cathy Wos and John Martin contributed to this report.

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