A Richmond County sheriff’s deputy might have broken department policy earlier this year when he pursued a suspect on a motorcycle that ended in a fatal crash.
Jason Steven Ycaza died Sept. 23, just moments after Deputy Bill Wright said he quit chasing him and a friend on Windsor Spring Road because their motorcycles did not have valid license plates.
The victim’s mother, Ana Ycaza, said eyewitnesses tell a different story.
They say Wright never stopped pursuing her son and that the deputy was on a motorcycle, a vehicle that – because of the risk involved – is “strongly discouraged” from initiating or participating in chases in Richmond and Columbia counties unless extenuating circumstances exist, policy states.
Ycaza has contacted a lawyer and is considering taking legal action against the city for a death she feels could have been avoided.
“It’s been very hard to lose my son,” said Ycaza, who lives in Hephzibah, fewer than five miles from her son’s crash site. “Every minute he’s on my mind. I see his pictures at work, at home and on Facebook, and I cry almost every day.”
Lt. Calvin Chew, a spokesman for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, said Wright followed protocol, calling off the chase moments after it started around 5 p.m. because he lost sight of the suspects near Windsor Spring Elementary School.
A Georgia State Patrol investigation showed Ycaza, 30, raced almost another full mile up the four-lane highway, unaware he was no longer being followed. Consequently, he ran a red light at Rosier Road, collided with a left-turning motorist and was thrown 35 feet nearly 10 minutes after the chase began. His friend got away.
“There’s nothing to critique,” Chew said of the chase. He said Wright was not required to file a pursuit report or complete a supervisor review, as required by policy, because the chase was so short.
“There was not even an opportunity to get a marked unit involved because the pursuit only lasted maybe five seconds at the most,” Chew said.
Police recordings on file at the Richmond County 911 Center indicate the pursuit lasted between 90 seconds and 2½ minutes, and nowhere on the tape does Wright specifically call it off.
“The last place I saw them was at northbound Windsor Spring Road and Meadowbrook Drive,” the deputy says 90 seconds after starting the chase. Twenty seconds later, he says, “It looks like he’s still out at Rosier Road.” Ten seconds after that he calls for an ambulance.
Incident and crash reports filed by the Georgia State Patrol and the sheriff’s office do not state where Wright suspended his chase. Chew said he has reviewed Wright’s file but has not listened to the tapes.
“Whatever the tape says, I cannot change that,” Chew said of the pursuit. “If it’s more than a minute, then it’s more than a minute.”
According to policy, deputies in Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties are justified in beginning a chase even when the only information available is that the suspect hasn’t stopped as ordered.
Chew said the two motorcyclists pulled to the shoulder of Tobacco Road as if they planned to stop. However, Chew said, when the officer approached, they turned right on Windsor Spring Road and sped away.
After a chase has started, policy states that deputies must continuously evaluate the circumstances, such as the initial reason for the pursuit; traffic and weather conditions; time of day; direction of travel; the possible consequences; and most importantly, the safety of the public, the deputy and other law enforcement personnel.
“Pursuits may continue if there are reasonable grounds to believe the suspect presents a clear and immediate threat to the safety of others or if the suspect has committed or is attempting to commit a forcible felony,” policy states.
On those grounds, Ycaza said she feels her son’s chase was unnecessary.
She acknowledged that her son had prior run-ins with the law. Court records show he fled police for running a stop sign and being in possession of marijuana. After the wreck, authorities discovered heroin and three bags of marijuana in his possession.
Ycaza said the deputy put the public in danger by starting the chase during rush hour for a routine traffic violation.
“He and a friend were headed to the gym,” she said. “He was not a threat.”
This year, Richmond County deputies have chased suspects 47 times. In one case, two North Augusta brothers were killed when their car struck a tree as they fled. Ycaza’s death is not counted as a fatal pursuit because it did not directly result from a chase, according to the department.
Richmond County’s 2013 total nearly exceeds the number of chases in Columbia County for the past three years combined – 49.
Nationally, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 6,000 to 8,000 police chases end in crashes each year, with close to 5,000 people being injured and 500 being killed.
Lt. Ramone Lamkin, the head of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office’s new traffic division, said the pursuit policy is not one of “catch at all costs.” He stressed that “while it is the deputy who initiates the traffic stop, it is the violator who initiates the pursuit.”
“Once we put the lights on, all someone has to do is stop,” he said. “The ultimate goal is for everyone – the officer and the suspect – to go home safely.”
Ycaza said if that is the ultimate goal, then it was not accomplished.
“We’re still in shock,” she said. “We shouldn’t have lost him that way.”