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They fled, police chased, and lives are shattered

Two teens die, another is critically hurt and the wisdom of Tampa's chase policy is questioned anew.

By AMY HERDY

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


TAMPA -- Walter Robins awoke Wednesday to discover that his car and his headstrong 16-year-old daughter were both gone.

So Robins, a sheriff's detention deputy and former Air Force sergeant, decided to teach his youngest child a lesson and report the 1997 gold Nissan Altima stolen.

Less than 24 hours later, Emily Robins and her 17-year-old friend Alfred "Alfie" Kearns would be dead.

The two were killed at 3:15 a.m. Thursday after police pursued the stolen car through south Tampa. Kearns, who was driving, played cat-and-mouse with four patrol cars before plowing into the side of a 2000 Pontiac Trans Am driven by 18-year-old Ritshard Haddad of Tampa.

Haddad, an international student from Jordan studying at Hillsborough Community College, was in very critical condition Thursday night at Tampa General Hospital. He had been returning home to his S MacDill Avenue apartment after a night out with friends.

The impact at S Dale Mabry Highway and W Azeele Street, at an estimated 89 mph, killed Robins and Kearns instantly. It nearly cut the Trans Am in half and hurled Haddad through the rear window of his new car, a 2-week-old gift from his father.

The crash also reopened the debate over Tampa's chase policy, which allows officers to pursue stolen cars.

Robins' father, numb with grief Thursday at his south Tampa home, tried to make sense of the chain of events that took his daughter.

"When I filed that police report yesterday, I thought she would have an ugly traffic stop," said Robins, 49. "And maybe learn a lesson from it all. I never could have predicted it would turn into what it did last night.

"I'm still not believing she's gone," he said. "It's so final."

Several blocks away, Haddad's brother, Robert, shared Robins' disbelief at the events as he waited in a hospital room for word of his brother's condition.

"We had words," he said of the last time the two had spoken. Robert Haddad, two years older, had advised his brother, a computer graphics major, to stay home Wednesday instead of going out for a late night with friends. But Ritshard didn't listen.

"We were angry with each other when he left," he said.

"Now this happens. I want him to wake up," Robert Haddad said, so he can talk with his brother again.

From the living room of his south Tampa home on W Santiago Street, Joseph Kearns fumed with anger over his son's death.

"A life is not worth a car," he said. "High-speed pursuits seem to kill more kids than capture crooks."

While his son was no angel, the teen was not a violent criminal, said Kearns, 54, a construction worker.

Alfie Kearns, a Plant High senior, had moved back in with his single father over the summer and was sleeping on the front porch while waiting for his bedroom to be fixed up.

His son did not yet have any definite plans for his future, Kearns said, and added that the two were more like roommates than father and son.

"He was a man already, and all we could do was accommodate each other and love each other."

As for the way his son died, Kearns had a message for Mayor Dick Greco, who reinstated the police chase policy shortly after taking office in May 1995, two years after Tampa had one of the highest auto-theft rates in the nation.

"Does he really think my son is an example that other children will follow," Kearns said, "or will more children die so that the law is upheld?"

Greco was out of the country Thursday and unavailable for comment. Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder said he had a "knot in his stomach" for the families but defended his department's chase policy.

While the policy for the Florida Highway Patrol and St. Petersburg police allows officers to pursue only if they know the driver has been involved in a violent offense, Tampa police may give chase for non-violent property crimes that include burglary and auto theft.

The policy, Holder said, deters crime since stolen cars are often used to commit other offenses.

"We're entrusted by the public to keep this community safe," Holder said. "The down part is that someone might get hurt or killed. . . . What happened is a tragedy, but the driver of that vehicle had a choice: When the officer put on the light, he could have stopped."

The policy suggests that police pull back if a chase enters a densly populated area, or if the vehicle begins to travel the wrong way down a two-lane road.

In Thursday's chase, records show an officer noticed two young people in a car at Dale Mabry Highway and Gandy Boulevard. After the officer ran the tag and confirmed the car was stolen, he began a pursuit at 3:07 a.m. at Dale Mabry and Oklahoma, said Sgt. M.D. Smith of the auto theft squad. Smith said officers did not know the owner's daughter was in the car.

At different times, the four units involved lost sight of the stolen car, Smith said, until Kearns began heading north on Dale Mabry and the Tampa police helicopter shone a spotlight on the Altima at Dale Mabry and Henderson Boulevard.

At Swann Avenue, Smith said, Kearns switched into the southbound lanes, directly into the path of Haddad, who tried to swerve out of the way and was hit on the passenger side.

Calculations show the accident happened before the police could pull back, Smith said.

"From the time the car was lit up (by the helicopter) on Swann to the time of impact was nine seconds," he said.

An internal police investigation will be conducted into the chase.

Walter Robins, who is separated from his wife, said he had been having problems with his daughter. The teen, who brought home so many animals he used to joke about her "pet of the month club," had stopped attending classes in the 10th grade at Robinson High.

The last conversation they had, he said, was over how she wanted to be independent and to have the garage converted into an apartment she could rent.

Her use of the family car had become such an issue that Robins had begun locking a chain around the steering wheel and behind the seat to prevent her from taking it without his permission.

Wednesday, he discovered the car and some of his tools gone, and figured that his daughter and Kearns had taken it. He reported the car stolen.

The rest of the details have been filled in by his daughter's friends, Robins said: How she and Kearns were at someone's house when Kearns left in the car alone and became involved in a hit-and-run accident.

Police couldn't provide details of that accident Thursday.

When Kearns returned and told Emily, she panicked, Robins said. The two were driving around town, probably trying to figure out what to do, when police began to pursue them.

He thinks the pair had no idea the car was listed as stolen. Kearns probably fled because of the earlier accident, he said.

"I think this boy made the decision to run," Robins said. "My daughter was stuck in a situation that she didn't know how to get out of. My daughter wouldn't have run. I know that in my heart."

He doesn't blame the police. "I can't fault the police for their policy."

Thursday night, Robert Haddad waited for word from his parents as he kept a vigil at the hospital. His father, an import/export businessman, and his mother, a homemaker, had sent their two sons to the states to go to college, he said.

While Robert Haddad has been in the United States for several years, he said, Ritshard had arrived only a month ago and was excited about living in Tampa.

Just hours before the accident, he had been dancing for the first time with friends at "international night" at Club 1509 in Ybor City, said friend Abdo Masoud. "We were just really happy," he said.

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or herdy@sptimes.com

High-speed chase deaths

2000

AUG. 22 Elizabeth Diane Smith, 16, fleeing a Florida Highway Patrol cruiser, crashed a stolen Lexus into a St. Petersburg city dump truck loaded with dirt. Smith was killed in the crash, and two teenage passengers were injured.

APRIL 30 Tampa police pursued a 2000 Dodge Intrepid after learning it had been stolen. The brief pursuit ended when the Intrepid hit a tree and flipped, killing the occupants. Jackie Eugene Guyton, 18, and Mario Boyer, 16, died at the scene near Annie and 22nd streets.

1998

OCT. 17 A Pinellas sheriff's deputy noticed Terranton Hunt driving erratically and with a burned-out taillight. When the deputy attempted to stop Hunt, he sped away. Police broke off the chase because of safety concerns. About 20 seconds later at 38th Avenue N and 34th Street in St. Petersburg, Hunt ran a red light at up to 80 mph and struck Paul Anthony Pollak's car, killing Pollak instantly.

1996

APRIL 17 Michael Odell Barnum, 14, was killed when the stolen Buick Century carrying him and four other teenagers collided with a van after a chase by Tampa police.

FEB. 16 A Pinellas sheriff's deputy chased a stolen Lincoln Town Car, driven by Todd A. Cipcic, 19. The chase reached speeds of nearly 100 mph and ended when Cipcic lost control of the Lincoln and slammed into a tree off Walsingham Road in Largo. Cipcic was killed in the crash.

1995

DEC. 10 Two German tourists, Heinz Baer and Markus Rossknecht, were killed when their car was broadsided by a teenager in a stolen 1992 Honda. Tampa police had chased the car for 8 miles at speeds up to 55 mph. The city paid $142,000 to settle a lawsuit over the chase. Families of both victims got $50,000 each, and the city agreed to purchase an insurance policy worth $42,000 for Baer's two daughters when they are between 18 and 21.

NOV. 23 Derek Johnson and Glenda J. Brunson were killed when 14-year-old Angela Benson crashed into their car at an estimated 87 mph. Hillsborough sheriff's deputies had chased Benson 15 miles but had backed off after her car blew a tire. The accident occurred shortly afterward.

FEB. 2 Michael Lynn Kinard, 21, was chased by Tampa police as he drove a stolen Honda Accord. Kinard was killed and three motorists were injured when the high-speed chase ended with dual head-on collisions on Sligh Avenue.

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