Investigations


Meade County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Casey’s voice came across the radio at 8:14 p.m. In the background, sirens screamed and an engine roared.

He was in pursuit.

A truck had caught his eye when it turned off the highway down a dead-end road just north of the small town of Flaherty, Ky. — about an hour’s drive southeast from Louisville.

“I decided to investigate and see what he was doing,” Casey testified in a Meade County courtroom earlier this month.

But the driver of the truck sped away when Casey approached. The chase on October 20 crossed into a different county and passed through busy intersections, down largely rural highways and neighborhood roads. At times, speeds topped 100 mph.

The pursuit covered more than 20 miles in about 17 minutes.

Two other law enforcement agencies joined the quest to apprehend the unknown driver, but for most of the pursuit, Casey stayed in the lead.

The chase ended with a crash. The fleeing truck collided with a car full of teenagers, passing through an intersection with a green light. Two of the teens were killed.

Police said the driver, Shawn Welsh, was in a stolen truck and carrying methamphetamines. The Meade County sheriff said the chase was justified after Welsh attempted to assault a deputy, and his department is not investigating the pursuit further.

But the dispatch records raise questions about the circumstances of the pursuit and why it started. And the family of one of the dead teens is calling for policy changes, supported by experts who question the wisdom of giving chase through such dangerous conditions.

Jacob Barber, 18, was one of the teens who died in the crash. He was driving a 2000 Honda Civic when it was rammed in the side by the pickup driven by Welsh. Katarina Peeters, 17, was also killed. Two other passengers were critically injured.

The friends were on their way to get ice cream, said Sharon Combs, Jacob’s mother.

Tears well in her eyes when she tries to explain the void in her life now. It just doesn’t feel real, she said.

“I’m really glad they got their man and they made a bust,” she said. “But in the process you just killed two people. It’s not worth it.”

‘Like pointing a gun’

According to Meade County Sheriff Department policy, pursuits “shall be for a violent felony offense, or use of force likely to cause death or serious physical injury, or threatened use of such force.”

The deputy wrote in his arrest report that, as he approached a silver Chevrolet parked on a dead-end, one-lane road, “the vehicle accelerated towards this officer, causing this officer to swerve off the roadway to avoid a head-on collision.“

He testified in Welsh’s preliminary hearing to the same chain of events.

According to Meade County Sheriff William Kerrick, that acceleration was “like pointing a gun” at the deputy.

Jacob Ryan | wfpl.org

Street sign for Down Home Lane in Meade County.
Ky HWY 313 stretches in the background.

But Casey never told dispatchers that Welsh attempted to strike him, call and dispatch records provided by the Meade County E-911 Center show. The Meade County sheriff doesn’t provide in-car cameras or body-worn cameras for officers.

The reason for the pursuit is only explained twice in dispatch records. In one call, a dispatcher told an unidentified person that the officer was in pursuit because the driver failed to stop, or was involved in suspicious activity. Neither of those reasons are listed in the pursuit policy.

The other explanation was from the sheriff himself, who told a dispatcher that Casey got out of his car, interrupted Welsh during a “meth fix,” and then Welsh sped by.

“He floor-boarded it and almost got him,” Kerrick said in the recorded call.

That description contradicted Casey’s arrest report and court testimony, that he had swerved in a vehicle to avoid a collision.

Even if Welsh attempted to ram the truck into Casey, it doesn’t warrant a high-speed chase stretching more than 20 miles through residential areas, according to Walter Signorelli, an adjunct professor and lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Signorelli spent 30 years with the New York Police Department. He said people often flee from police for a myriad of reasons, even minor offenses.

“Weigh that against these young people that were killed,” said Signorelli. “Doesn’t compare.”

It’s unclear why Welsh sped away from Casey. The deputy speculated in court that Welsh, who was in a stolen truck, became nervous after seeing the sheriff’s deputy approach.

Welsh’s attorney declined to comment for this story. Welsh is being held in lieu of $1 million bond at the Meade County Detention Center, and faces an array of charges in Meade and Hardin County, including two counts of murder. A passenger in the truck was charged with possession of a controlled substance.

Whatever the reason for fleeing, Welsh was soon barreling down Highway 313, a rolling two-lane road stretching south from Brandenburg. He was speeding, passing cars on the shoulder and running red lights.

And Casey was close behind.

Pursuit Continued In Next County

Casey followed Welsh as he shot down a rural highway, tore through a small town center and bounded over railroad tracks.

The pursuit made a right turn shortly after crossing the Hardin County line. Casey’s sirens still blared in the background of the dispatch recording. Soon, they veered left onto Main Street and sped into the small downtown of Vine Grove.

Here, buildings sit just feet from the roadway and homes are clustered nearby. Welsh sped over a railroad track and damaged his vehicle, Casey told a dispatcher.

“It’s smoking,” he said.

Jacob Ryan

A railroad crossing in downtown Vine Grove, where the pursuit crossed and the suspect’s car began smoking.

It was near the railroad tracks that Casey was joined by an officer from the Vine Grove Police Department, according to dispatch records. Meade County Sheriff policy requires pursuits to be terminated when it “leaves the jurisdiction of Meade County and another agency of competent jurisdiction takes over.”

Kerrick, the sheriff, said Casey “backed off” the pursuit when it crossed from Meade County in to Hardin County.

“He stayed with it, but Vine Grove (Police) took the lead,” he said.

But dispatch records show Casey didn’t relinquish the lead of the pursuit until just minutes before the fatal crash — about ten minutes after he’d crossed into Hardin County.

Kerrick refused to clarify the discrepancy. When a reporter asked, Kerrick threatened to arrest him for harassment.

“You call again and I’ll go up to get a warrant on you,” he said.

Officials with Vine Grove Police declined to comment for this story.

A Kentucky State Police report said Radcliff Police Department was also involved; Capt. Mark Skees said his agency’s vehicles set up stop sticks at some point during the chase. He declined to comment beyond that, and said Radcliff Police is investigating its involvement.

Mike Weaver, the Mayor of Radcliff, said high speed pursuits are “in most cases, unnecessary.”

“You can call ahead, and stop people in their path,” Weaver said. “You don’t have to get behind them and cause them to go faster than they would have to go.”

As the chase pushed further into Hardin County — past neighborhoods and churches, through intersections and busy corridors — Casey never terminated the pursuit, as the policy requires.

He never discussed terminating the pursuit with any supervisors, according to radio communication. Meade County Sheriff policy doesn’t require supervisor approval to initiate a chase.

Policing experts say the conditions of the pursuit justified calling it off.

Intersections, railroad tracks and tight rural roads are all dangerous places to be driving at high speeds, said Tom Gleason, who works for PursuitSAFETY, a national group that advocates for pursuit policy reform.

These risk factors can increase when coupled with the high stress and adrenaline of a police pursuit, he said.

“The deputy thinks about getting the offender, so he doesn’t always see the danger,” he said.

Meade County Sheriff

Sheriff Deputy Brandon Casey

Because of that, Gleason said a supervisor should have considered these factors and instructed Casey to end the chase.

Kerrick said he is confident in his deputy’s actions. He read Casey’s report, consulted the Meade County Attorney, and everything checked out.

“I have no reason to suspect he did anything wrong,” he said.

Kerrick has no plans to review the policy or launch an internal investigation to ensure protocol was followed, however. He and the Meade County attorney told KyCIR they expect an investigation will come with litigation.

No lawsuit has been filed, but Kerrick anticipates there will be at least one.

“And I don’t blame them. If it was my child, I’d probably file a lawsuit, too,” he said.

If anyone does sue, Kerrick likely won’t be in office. He lost the Republican primary for sheriff this spring, and will leave office at the end of the year.

‘An Amazing Life’ Cut Short

Clutching a photo of her son, Sharon Combs smiled as she told stories about Jacob.

There was the time he wore footed pajamas emblazoned with cats, a Christmas gift from his mom, to a high school basketball game. Another time, she found him studying “gibberish” in a notebook.

“And he said, ‘Oh, these are just chemistry notes,” she said. “We couldn’t be more proud of him.”

He was a bookish introvert, she said, who liked anime and was learning to speak Japanese. He’d celebrated his 18th birthday in early October.

“He was going to have an amazing life,” she said.

The day he was to begin a much anticipated welding apprenticeship, his family instead held his funeral.

Jacob had been out with friends the night he died. The teens were dressed in costumes for a “trunk or treat” event. Later, they’d planned on going to a Halloween dance at the high school.

Jacob was dressed as a Viking.

“And he’ll be 18 and a Viking, forever,” Combs said. “And we’ve got a guardian angel the rest of our lives.”

She posts the time and date of Welsh’s court appearances on her Facebook page so friends and family can come show support. She sits in the front row of the courtroom, holding tight to that photo of Jacob.

Earlier this month, she glared at Welsh as he shuffled in to a Hardin County courtroom, shackled and wearing an orange jail jumpsuit.

“I want him to remember every single second of taking those kids’ lives and live with the fact that he just killed babies,” Combs said.

She also wants an explanation — not from Welsh, but from the sheriff. She wants to know why the chase began, why it was allowed to continue and why he won’t investigate the pursuit.

“I want things changed: policies, laws,” she said. “I want this to be something people think about.”

 

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.