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Car chase injures innocent driver

He suffers fractures after unwittingly crossing the path of a police chase involving two stolen cars.

By MICHAEL SANDLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000


TAMPA -- Needing to fill his gas tank, Adalaberto Irizarry hopped in his 1978 Toyota Corolla for a short drive to the gas station Saturday afternoon.

Irizarry did not know that a few blocks away, Tampa police were pursuing two teenagers in two stolen cars, and the three vehicles were racing toward him. As he turned from N Packwood Street onto W Henry Avenue, Irizarry entered their path.

A white Honda Accord smashed his back bumper and lifted his car in the air. Seconds later, a blue Dodge Neon crashed into his driver-side door. That sent Irizarry's car spinning out of control and nearly into the path of the police car.

"The police came close to my car," said Irizarry, 38, from his hospital bed at St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was in stable condition Sunday with two broken vertibrae and a broken rib. "He (the police officer) was going very fast."

Tampa Police arrested the boys, both 14, after a short foot chase. Neither suffered any significant injuries. Jose E. Ramos of 3318 W Aileen St. and Michael Gonzalez of 8305 N 40th St. were both charged with grand theft, felony fleeing and eluding and misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest without violence before being taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center.

The accident comes at an important time for the Tampa Police Department, which has been under fire for a chase policy that has resulted in at least 13 deaths since 1995. Five of the victims were innocent bystanders.

On Sept. 21, a police chase that lasted seven minutes in south Tampa ended with a two-car crash that resulted in the death of three teenagers. Two of the teenagers were in a stolen vehicle. The third, 18-year-old Richard Haddad, accidentally drove into the path of the pursuit.

"I understand the police need to do their job and stop someone who is in the process of a crime," said Margarita Irizarry, Adalaberto Irizarry's wife. "But they have to look out for innocent people. Unfortunately, this was a time when the innocent person was hurt and the boys involved were not."

Tampa Police spokesman Joe Durkin said the chase was necessary and the officer was following department policy. All chases -- regardless of whether there is a crash -- are investigated, he said.

"Clearly the officer sees the two racing each other, and that is a potential threat for the community at large," said Durkin. "They (the teenagers) had no regard for the law."

The details of the initial chase remained sketchy on Sunday. Police said officers saw the Honda and Neon racing in west Tampa, but the exact location was not released.

After police caught up at Armenia and Henry, one car stopped, police said. But the other fled, and soon after, the second followed down Henry. At that point, police suspected the cars were stolen and began a half-mile chase that ended in the crash.

Only after the crash, which caused a estimated $8,000 combined damaged to the three vehicles, did police confirm the Honda and Neon had been stolen.

Jayne Dick, who lives near the intersection, was on the telephone when she heard the crash. She immediately looked out her window and saw the Neon on her lawn and a police officer leaping out of his vehicle.

"He hadn't any more than gotten that car stopped, and he was out of the car," said Dick, 76, who watched the officer run 30 yards to catch a suspect at her fence. "He grabbed that kid by the back of his shirt and pulled him over that fence."

Dick said Irizarry's injury is unfortunate, but she supports the chase policy.

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