Woman shot while fleeing police

A South Carolina Law Enforcement Division officer walks past the vehicle involved in a police shooting Wednesday in West Ashley.

Brad Nettles

A Charleston police officer shot and wounded a 26-year-old woman Wednesday after she rammed several cars and tried to run him over while trying to escape police in West Ashley, authorities said.

The woman, whose identity has not been released, repeatedly ignored the uniformed officer's commands to stop and kept coming at him even as he tried to get out of her way, said Charles Francis, police public information officer. "That's when he fired the shots," he said.

The woman, who was alone in a Chevrolet sport-utility vehicle, was struck by at least one round at Sam Rittenberg Boulevard's intersection with Ashley River Road about 2 p.m., police said. She was rushed to Medical University Hospital, but her condition was not serious, Charleston County EMS Director Don Lundy said.

The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the incident, which is standard procedure in police-involved shootings. The officer, Cpl. Jeffrey Soniak, has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of that investigation.

The incident began when another officer, in plain clothes, spotted the woman in the parking lot of a nearby department store, Francis said. The officer, who works in the warrants division, recognized the woman as someone who was wanted by multiple police agencies on outstanding warrants, he said. Francis did not identify the agencies or the specific charges.

The warrants officer followed the woman out of the parking lot and over to Belgrade Avenue, where she stopped and demanded to know why he was tailing her, Francis said. He explained that he was a Charleston police officer and told her to halt, adding that other officers were on their way.

Instead, she sped off, Francis said.

The woman drove to Garden Street, a dead end, and then circled back to Sam Rittenberg, police said. But as she tried to make her escape, she encountered a line of traffic stopped at a red light at the intersection with Ashley River Road. She tried to maneuver her way through the vehicles, slamming into several cars in the process, police said.

Soniak, a 14-year veteran, jumped out of his car at the intersection and again ordered the woman to stop, but she ignored his commands and kept coming, Francis said.

Jude Washington of North Charleston was sitting on a CARTA bus when the SUV's driver pulled alongside the bus while trying to get away. Washington said he heard the officer trying to get the woman to stop. Blue lights were clearly flashing on his marked cruiser, he said.

"He was telling her 'Get out of the car! Get out of the car!" Washington said. "She didn't listen. She tried to run him over. That's when the officer opened fire and shot her."

Two other witnesses also said the woman tried to run over the officer. They heard the officer tell the driver, "Don't move, don't move."

The SUV made a hard turn anyway and struck one witness' car in the right rear taillight. "The car hit me and the police started shooting," the witness said.

Another witness who was stopped at the intersection said he ran the red light as soon as he heard the shooting because he wanted to get his son out of harm's way. The SUV "tried to run over the cop and the cop shot out the tire," the man said.

Francis would not disclose the number of times the officer fired at the SUV. Witnesses reported hearing between four and 10 shots.

Authorities closed the roads around the scene while investigators looked for evidence and interviewed witnesses. The SUV sat in the middle of Sam Rittenberg, covered with a tarp, to protect evidence from heavy rains that drenched the area as thunderstorms passed through.

More than a half-dozen witnesses on the CARTA bus were sequestered aboard the vehicle for more than an hour as investigators took their statements.

The incident marks the second police-involved shooting in Charleston in two months.

On July 10, Charleston police officer Christopher Simmons shot 26-year-old Tiraneka Jenkins outside Frankie's Cafe on Spring Street after she refused to drop a gun during a domestic dispute. Jenkins, of North Charleston, died of her wounds the following week. SLED also is investigating that shooting.