A man who died after a pursuit with St. Stephen authorities had stuffed NyQuil, Sudafed and Alka-Seltzer Plus into his pants after plucking the items from a dollar store’s shelves, the town’s police chief said Wednesday.
But the 53-year-old man’s alleged crimes didn’t require a high-speed chase until he swerved at two officers and a civilian vehicle during his attempt to get away Tuesday, Chief John Waters said.
“People will look at this as a shoplifting case,” Waters said. “But when he took it to the level of endangering lives, it’s our job to eliminate that threat.”
Bonneau resident Ronald Smith, a felon with a history of theft but of little violence, died after his pickup crashed into trees in rural Berkeley County.
Waters aims today to release a video that he said justifies his two officers’ chase through a town with fewer than 2,000 people and a four-member police force.
The Post and Courier requested the video, as well as an incident report, under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
The St. Stephen Police Department was called after 5 p.m. to a Dollar General store on Byrnes Drive. Officers spotted a GMC pickup at Byrnes Drive, or U.S. Highway 52, and Ravenel Street that matched a description of a shoplifter’s vehicle.
The pickup stopped at first. But as an officer walked toward it, the GMC lurched at him, Waters said. That officer leaped from the pickup’s path.
A pursuit began. At one point, the GMC reached 70 mph.
The only other officer on patrol at the time was waiting for the GMC when it swerved into the cruiser’s lane, the chief said.
Traffic was light, but farther down U.S. 52, when the GMC approached the only civilian vehicle it would meet during the chase, the pickup darted into the opposing lane again.
The chief said officers pulled alongside the pickup to attempt another traffic stop near U.S. 52 and Forty-One Road, but the GMC’s driver again tried to ram a patrol car.
No collisions occurred, according to the chief, despite an initial report to the contrary.
“The officer was on the radio, communicating that he had started to back off,” Waters said. “They tried to get him to stop, but he chose not to.”
The GMC continued over back roads near Timberland High School.
Concerned about visibility problems caused by dust, officers again held back when the pickup barreled over the dirt-surfaced Bullhead Road A in the Francis Marion National Forest.
The GMC then crashed into trees.
The chase stretched over about 10 miles.
The S.C. Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team was tasked with examining the crash. The squad probes wrecks resulting from police pursuits and other high-profile accidents in an effort that requires other agencies’ cooperation.
Troopers must reconstruct the crash and factor in whether any contact with cruisers played a role, though police indicated that they were not near the scene when the pickup wrecked.
That process could take weeks or months, patrol Cpl. Bob Beres said.
“We’ll look at this from A to Z,” he said. “We haven’t reviewed the tape yet either.”
Smith died at the scene.
Stuffed into his pants were several bottles of NyQuil, Sudafed and Alka-Seltzer Plus, as well as a pack of T-shirts that had been stolen from the Dollar General store, Waters said. Smith also had bottles of pills, the chief added.
Smith has a lengthy arrest history during the past two decades throughout the Lowcountry and the Columbia area, according to the State Law Enforcement Division.
His convictions include burglary, forgery and distribution of cocaine base.
He was a target of an undercover operation in 2007, when an informant bought crack cocaine from him at a St. Stephen home. Deputies searched the house, an incident report stated, and found cocaine, crack, marijuana, 198 Ecstasy pills, pistols and long guns, and about $70,000 in cash.
Smith’s criminal record is dominated by thefts: four convictions for petty larceny, two for grand larceny and two for shoplifting. St. Stephen officers knew of Smith after his May arrest on a shoplifting charge.
“We had dealt with him in the past,” Waters said. “But we didn’t know who it was at the time, until it was too late.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.