The mother of a man who died earlier this week during a chase with St. Stephen police officers said her son “was no angel,” but was not violent.
She’s skeptical of an official account that 53-year-old Ronald Smith tried to ram cruisers with his pickup, though the police said a video of the chase justifies their actions.
Smith, who had been suspected of shoplifting over-the-counter medications earlier that afternoon, died after his GMC veered off a dirt road outside town limits and struck a tree.
“From King Street in Charleston to Highway 17 in Bonneau, all the lawmen know Ronnie, and they know he’s harmless,” said 77-year-old Shirley Smith, who lived with her son in Bonneau. “I’m not saying he’s right; he should have stopped. But he didn’t have to die.”
Police Chief John Waters stood by his officers, saying they wouldn’t have pursued the man if he hadn’t threatened lives. He said a video would prove that.
The Post and Courier requested the video under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, but technical issues delayed its distribution.
Waters said the video was “scratchy” but that the key moments of the chase could be discerned. A copy could not immediately be provided to the newspaper.
“We don’t want to see anybody lose a life,” Waters said. “This wasn’t what any of us wanted.”
Smith said her son graduated from Macedonia High School in 1976, then served as an electrician for four years in the Marine Corps.
He fathered two children, who are grown and living in California.
He developed medical issues related to drinking contaminated water at the corps’ Parris Island training facility in Beaufort County, she added. He received government disability benefits and underwent regular treatments and received oxygen from the veterans hospital in Charleston.
But he developed a drug addiction years ago that dogged him until the day he died.
He had several drug arrests, in addition to his theft convictions.
Police in St. Stephen said he stole NyQuil, Alka-Seltzer and a pack of T-shirts from a Dollar General, whose workers called the authorities Tuesday.
Officer Shawn Padgett first stopped the suspect’s GMC near U.S. Highway 52 and S.C. Highway 45, then Officer Kenneth Younginer arrived to block traffic.
But the GMC moved “in an aggressive manner” toward Younginer, who managed to avoid it, according to an incident report released Friday. The pickup then backed toward Padgett’s cruiser and went around a car stopped at a red light.
During the ensuing chase that wound over 10 miles of sparsely traveled roads, reached 70 mph and lasted 20 minutes, the report stated that the GMC tried to run into Lt. Harold Wadford’s cruiser as well.
The pursuit ended after Wadford ordered officers to fall back and allowed the GMC to continue down a dirt road, where the pickup sped through a slight curve and crashed into a tree. The stolen medicine and T-shirts, as well as some pill bottles, were found in the car.
Investigators from the S.C. Highway Patrol will look into whether any contact between the pickup and police cruisers led to the crash, but officers insisted they were not near the GMC when it wrecked.
That perplexed Smith, who said her son was a proficient driver whose four-cylinder, 17-year-old pickup couldn’t outrun high-horsepower police cars. She won’t be convinced that the police acted appropriately, she said, until she sees the video.
“He might try to outrun someone for a while, but he was not a murderer,” Smith said. “All I do know is he was my baby, and I didn’t want him to die like that.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.