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Family of St. Petersburg crash victim outraged by Manatee deputies' pursuit of stolen car

ST. PETERSBURG — The family of a St. Petersburg man killed after Manatee County sheriff's deputies chased the driver of a stolen vehicle expressed outrage Saturday over a high-speed pursuit they said was unnecessary.

Gary Lane Smith, 56, was killed about 10 p.m. Friday when the 16-year-old driver of a stolen Lexus sport utility vehicle ran the red light at Fifth Avenue S and 31st Street S and slammed into Smith's 1997 Infiniti, police said.

Ramesse N. Harris, 16, of Bradenton, tried to run away after the crash even though he was injured, police said. He was caught by St. Petersburg police.

Manatee County sheriff's deputies chased the Lexus from Bradenton because they believed it was connected to a robbery, according to St. Petersburg police.

"Why? Why? All the way cross the (Sunshine) Skyway?" Minnie Morand, 54, Smith's former partner, said, crying. "It was wrong. They should have backed off. Look at what they did."

"Yeah they got their man, but at what cost did they get their man?" asks Smith's son, Gary Morand, 28. "We lost a father. We lost a family member."

According to preliminary reports and police accounts, the chase began at 9:40 p.m. in the 2700 block of First Street in Bradenton when a deputy saw the stolen SUV and gave chase. The pursuit went through Palmetto, onto northbound U.S. 41, U.S. 19 and, finally, Interstate 275, through the toll booth onto the Skyway. It would end just 15 minutes later and about 24 miles away on a St. Petersburg street.

According to a report, Manatee deputies alerted St. Petersburg police when the chase got on the bridge. A city police officer put tire-puncturing "stop sticks" on northbound Interstate 275 near 54th Avenue S. The device appeared to clip the SUV's left tires, but it kept going with Manatee deputies in pursuit. The driver exited I-275 at 31st Street S at a high rate of speed, at which point Manatee deputies ended the pursuit.

No one was chasing the Lexus as it sped down 31st Street and slammed into Smith's car.

Smith's son said both police departments bear responsibility.

"The St. Petersburg Police Department should not have allowed Manatee to come over in their jurisdiction and chase," Morand said. "You have an inexperienced driver driving at a high rate of speed. What do you think is going to happen?"

Manatee officials, however, say the chase did not violate any policies or state law, which allows pursuits to cross jurisdictions. The agency allows deputies to pursue suspects they believe have committed a felony. "Everything was followed to our general orders and our policy on pursuit," said Dave Bristow, of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

Local law enforcement agencies said it is standard practice to alert each other if a pursuit crosses jurisdictions. But the notification is more of a courtesy, and agencies aren't required to ask permission to continue.

"It's not in our area of authority to tell them to break off, to tell them, 'you cannot come here,' " said Mike Puetz, a spokesman for St. Petersburg police.

Harris was taken to Bayfront Medical Center then booked into the Pinellas County Juvenile Assessment Center. St. Petersburg police have charged Harris with vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of a crash involving death and aggravated fleeing and eluding involving a death. The Manatee County Sheriff's Office charged him with grand theft auto, aggravated fleeing and eluding and no valid driver's license.

No information was released about a robbery.

State records show Harris has had more than a dozen arrests on charges including grand theft auto, drug possession, burglary, probation violation and driving without a license.

A woman who answered the phone at Harris' address would not comment or identify herself before hanging up.

Smith was a handyman who worked on and off during the past few years, but recently landed a job as a painter. He could fix anything from cars to clogged pipes to TVs. He often visited his 85-year-old mother, Doretha Smith, at her apartment. He was one of her primary caretakers. "Such a senseless death," she said.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Family of St. Petersburg crash victim outraged by Manatee deputies' pursuit of stolen car 09/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 4, 2010 10:57pm]
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