Saturday, April 21, 2018
Public safety

Several injured after police pursuit ends in car-bus-building crash in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — A quiet afternoon in Jordan Park turned into a demolition derby Monday as a stolen car being chased by Gulfport police hit a bus, which then plowed into an apartment building.

The crash seriously injured two people in the car. Several bus passengers were treated for minor injuries.

The driver of the stolen car had his 2-year-old son in the back seat, who apparently was not injured, said Gulfport police Chief Robert Vincent, who defended his department's decision to chase the stolen car into St. Petersburg.

But St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who arrived at the chaotic scene after the crash at 11th Avenue S and 25th Street, had harsh words for the Gulfport police. "They got to own this one," Foster said. "That pursuit wouldn't have been authorized by the St. Petersburg Police Department."

Vincent, however, contended Gulfport's pursuit policy is identical to St. Petersburg's.

It all started at 5:50 p.m., Vincent said.

Gulfport police Officer Jesse Kellington, an eight-year veteran, was on routine patrol when he saw the 2012 silver Toyota Venza, Vincent said. Kellington checked the license plate and saw that car was stolen. St. Petersburg police said the car, an Avis rental, had been taken Sunday after a woman left her keys in the ignition.

Kellington began pursuing the car at Newton Avenue S and 51st Street, Vincent said. The chase headed into St. Petersburg and onto Interstate 275. Vincent could not provide details of the route but at some point, he said, the stolen car exited the interstate at the 28th Street S and continued into the Jordan Park neighborhood.

There it ran a stop sign at 25th Street and T-boned a PSTA bus in the intersection, Vincent said. The impact sent the bus careening into a two-story apartment building at 2454 11th Ave S, with the car's front fender hooked into the bus' wheel well.

Lt. Joel Granata of St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue said that "there was major damage'' to the apartment building. "It took off the porch overhang."

Neighbors said the porch is normally a quiet place for residents to sit but was vacant at the time of the crash.

Two woman walking along the street thought they were about to be flattened.

"I just heard a 'Boom!' sound," said Shauntia Elias, 27, who said she saw the bus about to hit the building as she began running.

"It sounded like we were watching an action movie," said Neicy Harris, 27, comparing the scene to the Keanu Reeves-Sandra Bullock thriller Speed.

Both the car's driver, identified as Derrick Mims, 21, and a passenger, Chad Springer, 20, were taken to a local hospital. Springer was listed in critical condition late Monday. The child, Derrick Mims Jr., was taken to All Children's Hospital as a precautionary measure. St. Petersburg police said he was riding unrestrained in the back seat.

Firefighters treated several people on the bus, and sent them to various hospitals, but none was thought to have serious injuries.

A third man in the car fled the scene and was still being sought Monday night.

About 9 p.m. Mims was released from the hospital and was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on charges of grand theft auto, fleeing and eluding and child endangerment, police said. Mims has a lengthy record of arrests dating to 2006. Charges include aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, and false imprisonment. In April, his driver's license was revoked after he pleaded guilty to fleeing or eluding law enforcement, according to court records. He served about a month and a half in the Pinellas County Jail before he was released June 15.

Cynthia Jenkins said she heard cars race past her 11th Avenue home and then a crash. Jenkins, 54, a nurse for the Pinellas County school system, said she ran outside and "just went into nursing mode."

Jenkins saw two men sitting unconscious in the front seat of the car, both bleeding from the head. The driver awoke as she reached up to check his pulse.

"Keep still," she told him, placing her hands on his neck to keep his head straight. "Help is on the way."

Minutes later, emergency personnel arrived.

Vincent said his agency will review the pursuit, but said Kellington stayed in contact with his supervisor throughout the chase: "In their judgment, it was safe to continue."

When asked about Foster's comments, Vincent contended his agency follows the same policy as St. Petersburg. "My policy says pursuit is authorized if the officer has a reason to believe the driver committed a forcible felony." Burglary of a vehicle is included on that felony list, he said.

St. Petersburg policy does call for pursuit after a "forcible felony," but police have said in the past that they do not pursue a vehicle based solely on the fact that it is stolen.

The fault for the crash, Vincent contended, lies with the driver of the Toyota: "What happened here is a result of a criminal choosing to run from the police."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story.

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