Sunday, June 17, 2018
Public safety

Clearwater police fired shots at fleeing hit-and-run driver

CLEARWATER — A Clearwater police officer was injured Friday during a chase in which police fired shots at a fleeing sport utility vehicle alongside a busy Clearwater street.

The incident began at 12:51 p.m. when a witness called 911 to report that a driver had hit a hydrant and a tensioning cable at Lakeview Road and Highland Avenue, then sped away and was driving erratically, police said.

Three officers stopped the SUV outside the Charles R. Fagan CPA firm at 1408 Court St., but the driver accelerated forward, striking Officer Darcy Hunt in the leg, police said.

Both Hunt and Cpl. Steve Squillante fired at the SUV, police said, but the driver steered over a low wall and behind a building to escape, blowing out the vehicle's tires and tearing off its oil pan and front bumper.

The driver continued to the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and Franklin Street, east of downtown Clearwater, before jumping out of the SUV to run. Officers caught her there.

Shortly after 1 p.m., crime scene tape surrounded the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and Franklin Street. A gray SUV with flattened tires, a detached bumper and lazily moving windshield wipers was in the intersection.

The suspect — Nicole Syphers, 24, of Clearwater — sat handcuffed on the curb. Her face appeared blackened and one eye seemed swollen.

Hunt was taken to Morton Plant Hospital and later released.

After giving police a statement, the 911 caller, 49-year-old Martin Planty, and his fiance, Lori Carpenter, returned to the scene and recounted how they were leaving a Walmart in Largo when they came upon two people rocking the SUV to free it from the tensioning cable.

As soon as the SUV's front tires were back on the ground, they said, the driver sped off, nearly hitting one of the good Samaritans.

The Clearwater couple said they stayed on the phone with police while following the vehicle as it blew through stop signs and red lights and nudged other drivers off the road.

At one point, they said, the woman pulled into a Chevron gas station, ducked down in her seat for several minutes, then accelerated forward into a red Dodge Charger. She sped off again as the driver got out to confront her, they said.

"We thought people were going to die," said Carpenter, 43.

Planty and Carpenter said their roughly 5-mile ordeal ended after they managed to flag down one of the officers involved in the traffic stop.

According to the couple, Syphers "willingly" got out of the disabled vehicle after an officer fired a round into her passenger side window. A police spokesman said he could not confirm that point, as authorities were still reconstructing the scene.

Syphers faces multiple charges, including aggravated battery on an officer, leaving the scene of a crash and fleeing police.

Pinellas County jail records show that Clearwater authorities arrested Syphers in March 2012 on charges of eluding an officer and violating her probation on two convictions for using fraud to obtain oxycodone or other controlled substances.

Times staff writer Piper Castillo contributed to this report.

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