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Police chase may prompt look at policy

The four-door Buick skidded down E Turner Camp Road, leaving a trail of smoke as it cut corners and spun out, almost colliding with a pickup truck.

The car turned around, slipped past an Inverness police car and skidded through residential neighborhoods at speeds topping 70 mph. Along the route, the driver ran several cars off the road, including one that came to rest near a parked Inverness Community Service car.

The chase _ which spanned only 10 minutes and 6 miles _ was punctuated with gunshots. They did not deter the driver, who snaked into the turn lane of State Road 44 and nearly hit a motorcycle. Bits of tire flew as the Buick hit a rare stretch of open road.

These images, captured on a video camera mounted inside an Inverness police patrol car involved in the chase, are vivid reminders that the June 23 pursuit could have ended in tragedy.

Typically, such videos help officers bolster a drunken-driving arrest. In this case, the camera allowed those investigating the officers' actions to see the dangerous episode for themselves.

"This was certainly what we would call miraculous," said Inverness police Chief William Vitt. "It really wasn't a 20-mile chase where roadblocks or spikes could've been put in the road. I don't know of anything else the officers could have done to get him."

Officer Chuck Van Etten, 28, cleared his first hurdle this week when the state attorney's office found he used "necessary" deadly force when he shot and injured the fleeing suspect, Michael Lee Nevels, 20.

Officer James McCall, 36, started the pursuit after Nevels ran him off the road.

Vitt said he will assemble a panel to study whether Van Etten and McCall violated any of the department's procedures. Meanwhile, Van Etten will be assigned to administrative duties for another week while a pinched nerve in his neck heals. Then he will return to patrol.

"These are two good officers," Vitt said. "I have a lot of confidence and faith in them. I'm glad it worked out the way it did."

Nevels was lucky that clear night, narrowly escaping fatal injury when Van Etten fired his 9mm gun 12 times. Nevels should not have been driving in the first place: He is under house arrest for a crime he committed in Putnam County and needs his probation officer's permission to go out.

"I was thinking of how much trouble I used to be in," Nevels recalled last week. "I wasn't looking for trouble. I was pretty wasted. I didn't even feel (it) when they shot me."

During a jail interview, Nevels nervously rubbed the scars from five bullet wounds, one that pierced a lizard tattoo on his upper left arm. Nevels, who has a record of fleeing police, said he had started drinking his second case of beer when he left the house where he was staying with his stepsister.

He said he thinks he was going to stop at a convenience store to get quarters to call his probation officer from a pay phone. Nevels does not know how he ended up far down on Turner Camp, because he lives on SR 44.

"I guess I got lost because I was drinking so much," he said, adding that he had been drinking all of June 22, a Saturday, and continued when he awoke the next morning about 7 a.m. "I'm not really familiar with town."

McCall told investigators that he began pursuing Nevels about 7:50 p.m. June 23 because Nevels nearly rammed his patrol car. Nevels said he remembered passing a parked police car, but does not remember dipping into the officer's lane.

McCall turned on his lights and sirens. "When I saw that cop car chasing me, I freaked out," Nevels said.

Vitt said McCall did a good job of keeping a safe distance from Nevels to avoid provoking him.

The chase wound through narrow neighborhood streets until Nevels cut across U.S. 41 N and spun in the grassy patch behind the drive-through station of Barnett Bank. There, Nevels said his brakes locked, and he did not mean to hit McCall's patrol car.

Van Etten told investigators that he slammed into Nevels' passenger door to keep McCall's car from being hit again.

Both officers ran out of their patrol vehicles _ Van Etten pulling out his revolver and yelling at Nevels to shut off the car, McCall diving into the passenger window to try to remove Nevels' keys from the ignition.

All the while, Van Etten yelled and threatened to shoot. He said he saw Nevels reach for the gear shift and heard the engine roar, making him fear that Nevels would lurch forward, pinning McCall between two cars.

That's when Van Etten fired four shots.

"I thought, to save my life, I should get away from them," Nevels said during the interview, looking at the deep, pink wounds that dot his tattooed arms. Nevels said he never heard the officer's commands.

Nevels punched his car in reverse, hitting a wooden fence that surrounded a large metal trash bin. Van Etten fired eight more rounds, and Nevels, bleeding from both arms, careened onto SR 44, where he almost hit a motorcycle.

"I really couldn't steer the car," Nevels said, describing the steering wheel growing sticky with blood. "I just knew I had to get away because I didn't want the cops to kill me."

The chase lasted another two miles on SR 44, until Nevels turned left onto a dirt road that runs behind several businesses on the south side of the busy road. There, Nevels again almost collided with a car before he abandoned his vehicle.

"I was running through the woods and I realized what I was doing and I felt like I was going to die," he said. "I wasn't trying to hurt no one. Flipping out the way I did, I can see why they were scared, but trying to kill me?"

Citrus sheriff's deputies captured Nevels. He is in the Citrus County jail awaiting trial on charges of aggravated battery on law enforcement officers and fleeing police.

Pictures of Nevels' car show the right front panel ripped off, blood caked on the shiny front seats. Bullet holes are scattered on the driver's door, the driver's seat, the passenger door and the front windshield, just below a hanging picture of the Tasmanian Devil. Three cases of Busch beer, two empty, are lined up in the trunk.

Last year, Vitt said, all of his officers completed courses in defensive driving and advanced defensive driving. Vitt will decide whether there are more lessons to learn from this experience but does not second-guess the officers' decisions.

"That's the thought that always goes through your mind with a chase _ someone innocent could get killed," Vitt said. "(Nevels) had made up his mind that he wasn't going to stop."

The Tampa Police Department has come under fire in recent months over a change in May that allowed officers to pursue car thieves, rather than just suspects in crimes of violence. Since then, more than 15 people have been injured or killed before those chases ended.

Citrus residents have fared better in the two recent chases. The other occurred in March, when Van Etten was among the officers involved in a rolling shootout that began after a man was accused of robbing a Beverly Hills grocery store at gunpoint.

In an interview about the Nevels chase, Van Etten told agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, "I'd do the same thing again. Given the same circumstance."

Nevels said he was trying to turn his life around but, admittedly, has problems he cannot handle alone. He said he abuses alcohol and drugs and has coped with some mental problems for years.

Recently, while attending alcohol abuse classes, Nevels said he would bring a cup filled with Zima, a clear malt beverage. His teachers, he said, thought he was drinking water.

"I've had so much stuff happen to me," he said. "I've had mental problems in the past. I just click in and click out at times, it seems like."

On May 14, one month before the chase, Nevels was taken into custody under the state's Baker Act, which allows authorities to pick up people they determine could be a danger to themselves or others.

Nevels already had tried to slit his wrists and told a counselor he was thinking about suicide again. During the interview last week, he said he could not cope with the pressure of having to find a new place to live because his stepsister was moving out of her house.

On top of that, he knew he was getting into trouble by drinking a case of beer a day, often starting after working for Able Body labor and continuing into the early morning.

The reason Nevels moved to Inverness was to escape a circle of bad friends and a cycle of trouble in Palatka. He does not know why he found trouble again.

"I was trying to start over," he said. "It's a peaceful town. I don't know too many people here, so I can't get into mischief. I do need help. I just don't know how to ask for it."