Cannon stands by high-speed chase in Mount Pleasant despite policy violations
It was the call sign that snagged deputies’ attention. Their boss, the leader of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, radioed that he was in a vehicle pursuit. They jumped on a chance to help.
One diverted from a court appearance and hurried toward the Francis Marion National Forest, where Sheriff Al Cannon was chasing a pickup that had nearly hit his SUV.
The public information officer responded from North Charleston. He planned to talk with journalists, but he ended up firing his Glock.
The chief traffic investigator left downtown Charleston, knowing the situation could turn grave if the suspect’s tires were shot.
A lieutenant hit 133 mph in his unmarked cruiser and passed five other police cars in his 40-mile trip to join the action.
One deputy drove at 130 mph without a siren and crashed into another’s car as the chase came to a halt. He blamed faulty brakes.
Twenty-five deputies sped through Mount Pleasant to lend a hand on Jan. 30, 2012.
But state police officials who reviewed the response said it was too much. The chase and the number of deputies involved posed a greater danger than a single traffic violator.
Supplemented by the newspaper’s follow-up interviews, the state’s probe depicts 30 minutes of high adrenaline, high speeds, miscommunications and close calls, and it points out nine policy breaches and possible law violations.
But Cannon regrets only slapping the suspect after the man was handcuffed.
He plans little action on the state’s criticism, and he doesn’t see his deputies backing off from pursuits.
Recently, deputies again exceeded 130 mph in following a suspected drug dealer for 75 miles, bringing into question the same policies cited in the state investigation.
“We aren’t immediately transported to the middle of the desert to have a shootout or a pursuit,” the sheriff said. “Those things happen in the general public, and they put the public, the suspect and the deputies at risk.
“That’s just the nature of the job.”
The analysis was part of an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division and the S.C. Department of Public Safety that delved into the thoughts and actions of the deputies, firefighters and motorists who played a role. The Post and Courier acquired the file through a Freedom of Information Act request.
By the pursuit’s end, some deputies hadn’t made it in time. One ran out of gas. Rough forest roads disabled another’s cruiser. A helicopter arrived just as the fleeing motorist was handcuffed.
About half of the deputies got some piece of the action. Three fired shots, one released a dog, and four struggled with the enraged suspect.
The deputies were not necessarily motivated by an eagerness to please their boss, Cannon said, but by the thought that a chase involving the sheriff must be serious. He felt vindicated after learning that Timothy Shawn McManus, now serving 30 months of hard time for fleeing, was a repeat traffic offender.
What follows is an account based on the state’s probe and reporting by The Post and Courier:
About 9:45 a.m., a black Dodge Ram swerved on Hungryneck Boulevard and nearly hit the right side of a black SUV.
Blue lights ignited on the grille, the tailgate and each side of Cannon’s Chevrolet Suburban. A siren sounded.
Ticketing traffic scofflaws isn’t a typical duty for the sheriff, but he wanted to know why the driver was so erratic.
Finding out wasn’t going to be easy.
The Dodge continued to U.S. Highway 17, where traffic blocked the road at a red light.
Mark White’s Ford F-150 was in the way. The Dodge bounded over the sidewalk and missed the Summerville man’s pickup by an inch. Tires squealed.
At 70 mph, the Dodge slalomed through lanes of heavy traffic on northbound Highway 17. Cars swerved in the construction zone.
Mount Pleasant resident and pilot Joe Bustos, who is also head of the Charleston County Republican Party, was driving his Kia Amanti to an appointment with a flight surgeon when the Dodge filled his mirrors.
“There wasn’t any room,” he said. “He just came right at me. I had to run off the road to let him go by.”
The Dodge cut through a Harris Teeter parking lot and barreled northward on Rifle Range Road. It veered around a propane truck on Hamlin Road, then re-entered northbound Highway 17.
With each car forced off the road, Cannon grew more determined to stop the driver. He’s a wild man, the sheriff thought. He’s crazy. He’s going to kill someone.
On S.C. Highway 41, the Dodge picked up speed. At 120 mph, it started pulling away and came upon 81-year-old Lona Lacour.
The Anderson woman was heading toward Huger to visit relatives when the Dodge whipped around her Toyota Avalon in the oncoming lane.
“Now that’s what I call reckless driving!” she told herself.
Panic turned to relief when she saw blue lights.
But Cannon’s Chevrolet topped out at 95 mph and couldn’t catch up. That’s when he noticed the marked cruiser behind him.
Deputy Robert Nesbit, who had been following Cannon for 8 miles, took over as they wound down Halfway Creek Road and Willow Hall Road in the national forest. Nesbit figured the driver was suicidal.
But the fleeing motorist knew the forest as a good place to shake the police, and McManus was well ahead of them. But he took a wrong turn down Forest Service Road 202A — a dead end, and a big mistake.
The Dodge was out of sight, but Cannon spotted its tracks on the dirt road. He retook the lead.
He knew McManus would come back, so he blocked the road with his SUV.
The sheriff got out, drew his .45-caliber Wilson Combat pistol and aimed it over the hood. Bullets, he thought, would act as tire-puncturing spikes.
McManus stopped at the sight of the gun, revved his pickup’s engine, then drove through a ditch to get around the sheriff and Nesbit. Cannon shot nine times at the Dodge’s back tires.
But it didn’t work, and the Dodge got away. He feared that the pickup could make it back to Highway 17 and cause a fatal crash.
“The argument could be made,” Cannon said. “Why didn’t I shoot him when I had the opportunity?”
Two dozen deputies responded to a call summoning all available units.
For those with dogs, the order was especially urgent. Their animals often are used when a fleeing driver bails out.
Ransom Williams, Shawn James and Mason Ashby drove 40 miles from the sheriff’s kennels on Leeds Avenue.
In an unmarked Dodge Charger, Lt. Williams hit 133 mph, passed civilian cars and police cruisers and traveled for six minutes without a siren.
Deputy James pushed his Chevrolet Tahoe to 130 mph. His siren was silent for a minute of the journey, which ended when he crashed into a cruiser that he said cut in front of him.
Known for his hard-charging work ethic, James was a reason McManus kept fleeing. McManus blamed the deputy for taking away his driver’s license, and he feared that James might be chasing him again.
Williams and James pulled behind Deputy Delmar Powell, who had found the Dodge on a dusty forest road and chased it back to northbound Highway 17.
They were going 100 mph.
Other deputies gathered north of the action.
Maj. Jim Brady, the sheriff’s public information officer, helped set up spike strips at Steed Creek Road.
But as the Dodge approached, it slipped the trap and zigged across the grassy median toward Brady.
The major had misheard Cannon’s earlier radio call: “Car 1 fired at the tires.” He thought it meant that the sheriff had authorized the use of force.
But Brady would have acted regardless of what Cannon had said because the pickup was coming at him. He drew his .40-caliber Glock pistol and fired twice at the tires about 20 feet away. He stopped out of a concern for Heather Fireash, her friend and two children in a nearby pickup. A Huger resident, Fireash knew Brady was just trying to protect her.
After it turned onto Steed Creek Road, the Dodge accelerated. Williams thought it was getting away, so his unmarked car passed Powell’s marked cruiser and took over.
Deputies threw spikes into the Dodge’s path. They missed.
Also thinking that Cannon had given him the go-ahead, Deputy Kevin Ford shot his Glock eight times at the pickup’s left tires.
His .40-caliber bullets were on the mark. The back tire peeled away, sending the Dodge into the roadside grass.
Williams ordered McManus to the ground at gunpoint. The motorist looked blankly at the lieutenant, smiled and reached into his pickup, where a steel chisel sat on the floorboard.
Williams tried punching McManus in the neck, but his fist hit the suspect’s face instead. McManus grabbed something from his pickup and tucked it under his body, so Williams punched him again and pulled him away from the doorway.
“He’s got something!” Williams yelled.
James and Williams tried to free whatever was in McManus’ left hand.
“Stop resisting!” someone shouted.
“Bring the dog!” a deputy ordered.
Ashby sicced his dog Ivar onto McManus’ right tricep. Four of the dog’s teeth punctured his skin.
Deputy Kevin Joyce grabbed the man’s legs, and the four lawmen finally controlled McManus.
They found a cellphone in his hand.
McManus spat at the deputies as they led him away, so they put a hood over his head and shackled his hands and ankles. In his truck, they found a makeshift pipe for smoking methamphetamine or crack cocaine, and several of the 15 traffic tickets he had accrued for speeding, not stopping for the police and driving without a license.
When the sheriff pulled up, he was relieved to see McManus sitting in the back of a patrol car. He asked the two Awendaw firefighters tending to McManus for a quick word.
“What the (expletive) is wrong with you?” Cannon asked the suspect.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with me, man,” McManus said.
Cannon slapped him and said, “You could have killed a lot of people.”
He slammed the door.
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she didn’t think she could maintain a perception of impartiality in prosecuting a sheriff who had endorsed her own election campaign. She punted the case to Kevin Brackett in York County.
The solicitor decided that deputies’ methods in subduing McManus were warranted. Only Cannon would face charges for the slap.
SLED agents arrested the sheriff in August. He later took anger-management classes and avoided a misdemeanor conviction for third-degree assault and battery.
Brackett had considered a more serious charge because doctors treated McManus for a nosebleed. But witnesses could not say whether it was due to the slap or the struggle with deputies.
All of Cannon’s deputies denied seeing the slap, but the sheriff publicly confessed to it two days later.
Six days after that, Cannon wrote to SLED Chief Mark Keel, saying his own deputies couldn’t be expected to run an unbiased internal probe. He asked Keel to analyze the chase, pinpoint any policy violations and recommend any punishments.
But whatever the state found, the final decision would be the sheriff’s, he wrote.
Keel assigned the task to the Department of Public Safety, and its director, Leroy Smith, who found problems with the chase from start to finish.
Cannon should have ended the pursuit when McManus weaved through heavy traffic in a construction zone, the review said. His involvement meant no impartial supervisor would make that call.
Deputies’ speeding at 130 mph without a siren also was illegal.
The analysis found other policy violations in the use of unmarked cars and the number of deputies who chipped in: more than a dozen.
Ultimately, it said, “multiple pursuit vehicles traveling at high speeds for long distances posed a greater threat to safety than the violator.”
But judgments are easier to make in an air-conditioned room, Cannon said, than in the heat of the moment in the real world. The sheriff stood by his choices.
He labeled as outdated the policy limiting the use of unmarked cars in pursuits: Advanced technology for flashing lights makes the cruisers visible and safe. He might consider changing the policy to reflect that.
To demonstrate, he showed off his new tan Suburban. It’s decked with blue lights on all sides.
Policies are guidelines, the sheriff said, not absolutes. Deputies needed speed to reach the scene in a timely fashion and offer their expertise and resources.
Public opinion on his stance was split.
Online petitioners scolded Cannon for the slap but thanked him for catching McManus. Others called for his resignation. Some applauded the slap.
Every witness who talked with the authorities hailed Cannon and thought McManus got what he deserved.
McManus now spends his days in prison because of the chase. His attorney, David Johnson, still might sue the Sheriff’s Office once his magistrate-level charges are resolved.
But Cannon attained his goal: to get a bad driver off the road.
The way McManus was driving that day was “the practical equivalent of standing at (highways) 17 and 41 and shooting into traffic,” he said. The steering wheel in McManus’ hands was a weapon, Cannon said, and the sheriff thought he should be disarmed.
“I could have said I’m just a desk guy,” Cannon said. “But if he had gone on and crashed, I’ve got that on my conscience.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414.