Petaluma’s Own Keystone Kops

There have been recent incidents of police vehicle pursuits in which, too often, un-involved citizens are injured or killed.  Many people, in law enforcement and out, are saying such things should be discontinued unless the pursued person is known to be a dangerous felon; and, even then, only after serious consideration.  That’s probably not a bad idea, given the amount of cars on the roads these days, even at all hours of the day or night.  It has not always been that way, though.  I remember back in the good old days…

At about 9:00 or 10:00 o’clock one night in the city of Petaluma, a lovely little town in the coastal hills of Northern California sometime in the early 1970’s when the city’s population was probably not over 17,000, Officer Bill Lane tried to stop a car for speeding or some other infraction while eastbound on East Washington Street at about Payran Street.  They continued east two or three blocks to the U.S. 101 freeway where Bill followed him onto the southbound on-ramp.  That’s when Bill called it out as a pursuit.  They continued at speeds of 80 and 90 MPH to somewhere near the Marin County line south of town.  Traffic on the freeway was fairly light at the time, even for back then.  The other car, the rabbit, did a U-turn on the freeway and came back at Bill head-on.  After a near-miss, the rabbit crossed the center divider and headed back northbound.  Bill crossed the divider and continued to pursue.  After two or three miles, Bill chased him onto the first off ramp, Petaluma Blvd. South (PBS).

When they came back into town on PBS, at least three and maybe as many as a dozen other patrol cars (it seemed; of course, Petaluma PD only had six or so at that time, including the chief’s) were waiting, myself included.  I was driving and Johnny Turner was my shotgun.  Remember that, Johnny?  We all tried to block off the Blvd. at McNear Avenue, but it’s a wide four lanes and the guy easily slipped around us and barreled on northbound on PBS towards downtown.  With Bill still first in line, the rest of us fell in behind with light flashing and sirens blaring.  Somewhere before “D” Street, the car turned off into the residential area west of PBS (which is 3rd Street).

This is an area of straight streets and square corners, a typical, older residential area.  North-south streets are numbered starting with 1st St. next to the river and progressing west to 12th Street with the next beyond being Sunnyslope Avenue.  East-west streets are lettered starting with “A” St. near downtown and progressing south to “I” St.  The next street south is Mountain View Avenue and the one past that is McNear Avenue.  The terrain in this area of town is flat and level east of where the hills start west of Sunnyslope Avenue and north of Mountain View and “I” Street.  The only street that continues out into the countryside from this area of town between PBS, which goes south to the freeway, and “D” Street, which goes west to the coast, is “I” St.

The rabbit kept making U-turns and coming back head-on at the first pursuing patrol car.  But when he would get past that one, there was always another one ready to pick up the pursuit.  This went on around a number of blocks, seldom more than one or two before turning left or right.  The highest speed attained during this phase was probably not much over 50 MPH since everyone kept turning.

While one or two cars stayed behind the pursing officer as back-up, the rest of us kept trying to get ahead to block off streets.  So when the parade went westbound on “I” Street for a distance, another car and mine just happened to be in place to block him.  Even before “I” Street gets out of town, the western hills begin, and, if you know the area, you can get back to U. S. 101 a couple of miles south of town or keep going west through the unlit maze of hills and curves in the 30 miles or so between town and the coast.  We didn’t want him to get out there.

We set our cars across “I” Street in the area between Sunnyslope Avenue and Sunnyslope Road farther west.  There was a drop-off of eight or ten feet to a wooded creek bed on our north side, and the south side of the road was bordered by a high, rocky bank, no sidewalks on either side.  It should have been an ideal place for a roadblock, a real choke-point.  It was an ideal place.  The driver of the rabbit car just didn’t play fair.  Or he was crazy.  Or drunk.  From the way he was driving, I don’t think he was drunk.  We had our cars in a vee, with the other car pointed east towards the direction of the rabbit’s approach, and my car pointed in his direction of travel.  It wasn’t planned that way; that’s just the way we ended up after we both came sliding to a stop when we realized our opportunity.  There were about four feet between my car’s left-front and the other car’s left rear.

We didn’t have time to get out and take shielded positions before the rabbit and his pursuers came screaming around the curve just east of us.  Johnny had called out the position of the roadblock on the radio so the other guys wouldn’t slam into us as well as the idiot they were chasing.  But when the idiot they were chasing came around the curve and saw us, he sped up and aimed straight for the space between us—those very small four feet.  Now, there weren’t a lot of big, beefy cars from Detroit in the sixties and seventies that were less than four feet wide, but, fortunately, the officer driving the other car had a better view then I had.  He had the good sense to widen the space between us just before the rabbit got there.  However, in attempting to get turned and proceeding in the direction of the rabbit that was roaring on down the road, the other officer managed to get his car across the road in such a way that every other pursuing car had to stop, or at least slow down and try to squeeze past him.  Meanwhile, there I was with Johnny, facing in the right direction with my engine running, warmed up and ready to go.  So, we went.

Instead of the rabbit continuing on out “I” Street where he might have been able to lose us in the dark, rural wilderness, he turned onto Sunnyslope Road which curved back to the east and delivered him right back to Sunnyslope Avenue, then across it and back into the grid of numbered and lettered streets.

Now Johnny and I were the ones leading the chase around blocks.  The rabbit car was a late sixties or early-seventies something, large and powerful, like a Lincoln or Ford, or something mean and husky from General Motors; I don’t remember.  I was driving a sky-blue Plymouth Fury, also early 70’s, with a 400 CID engine; not monstrous, but hefty enough.  Having a shotgun officer was handy; he handled the radio and all I had to do was concentrate on driving.

So there we went, around and around the blocks, Johnny calling out each change of direction and me hanging on the guy’s rear bumper.  He tried various tricks to get me off his tail, such as turning at the last instant as we went through intersections, and swerving back and forth before intersections so I wouldn’t have a clue which way he might go if he did turn.  And lots of slamming on his brakes, trying to catch me too close to avoid slamming into his rear end with my more vulnerable front end with its vulnerable radiator just behind the grill.

Well, eventually, he got me, but not my radiator.  When I slammed into him, my big, bulky push-bumper protected my radiator and everything else behind the grill—except for my hood latch.  After all the screeching and slamming and banging and sliding to a halt, Johnny and I sat there watching what looked like about forty acres of blue hood rise up in front of the windshield.  I could hear the rabbit’s tires squealing as the roar of his engine faded into the distance.  Johnny was on the radio, yelling out the direction the guy was going and that we were dropping out of the pursuit.

Our patrol car had a wide strip of louvers across the back of the hood just forward of the windshield.  So, with the hood up, we could look through the louvers at the road ahead.  We both sat there watching through the louvers as the next patrol car took up the chase a couple of blocks away.

Now, Johnny and I were both so pumped full of adrenalin and desire to get that guy, we weren’t about to shut it down.  Even with the hood up, I could see through the louvers well enough to drive, just not very fast.  So when we saw the pursuit take a left turn a block or two up the road, I took off in that same direction on the parallel road.  We kept up with the changing locations with the radio, and I managed to keep us within three or four blocks of the action, moving in the same general direction as the flow of the mobile circus.  Remember Keystone Kops pursuits where one car goes across an intersection one way as another car goes across in the opposite direction a block or two away?

Eventually, we got to “I” Street again.  We were southbound on 5th, and the chase was going across “I” Street on 6th, also southbound.  It just so happened that about the time I pushed my crippled patrol car across “I” Street, Lieutenant DeWitt was crossing on 6th in line behind the pursuing cars (Shut the chase down?  What are you, crazy?).  I suppose when he looked east as he was going through the intersection, he misunderstood our intent, because he immediately got on the radio and, in a voice very close to panic, instructed, “The car with the hood up—shut it down, shut it down!”  He probably assumed I would immediately obey his order, because he didn’t say anything else and kept going in his own position in the line of pursuit.  It really wasn’t necessary, I assured him afterwards, because we weren’t in the chase anymore, anyway…not really.  Johnny and I just wanted to be there when the guy stacked it up, if he did.  We were pretty sure he would.  Well, sure enough, he did.

It couldn’t have been many seconds after the lieutenant issued his panicky orders to the strange looking car a block away that it came over the radio that the rabbit had, indeed, stacked it up.  After 6th Street crosses “I” Street, going south, it goes over a pretty good rise.  And right after the crest, 6th Street makes a slight jog to the left on the way to Mountain View Avenue.  So anyone going south on 6th Street at any rate of speed up and over the hill had better be aware of what the street does on the other side.  Apparently, the driver of the rabbit car wasn’t.

The first car behind him said the rabbit was doing about sixty when he made the crest.  On the other side he went airborne far enough to come down in the parking lane next to the curb.  Unfortunately, a car was already parked there.  After knocking that car out of the way, the rabbit bounced across the next house’s front lawn, and then the big old beast slammed into the corner of the next house after that, and the chase was over–the car chase, anyway.

The pursuing officers were familiar with 6th Street and the sneaky curve south of the crest, so they all managed to stop with only a bit of screeching, tire squealing, broad-sliding, and just plain skidding.  By the time I made it on down to Mountain View Avenue, west to 6th Street, and then back north to the area of the pursuit termination, everyone was out of their cars.  Some were standing around looking at various damaged cars, houses, shrubs and lawns.  Others were talking to some bewildered residents that had gone to bed certain in their knowledge that they were safely in their house and that their car was safely parked at the curb in front of their house.

Johnny and I parked and tried a couple of times to re-latch the hood of our patrol car, but it wouldn’t catch.  I think we had to wire it shut before we were allowed to drive it back to the station.  As we worked on it, a couple of officers came walking out from between two houses.  They had been in foot pursuit after the driver.  They said he ran like a scared deer, last seen heading through back yards northbound towards “I” Street, and who knows from there?  They got into their cars and drove back that way, but they never found him.  The officer that was checking the interior of the rabbit car, just to see if it contained any dead bodies, bales of marijuana or smuggled machine-guns, rose up with a big smile on his face.  In his hand he held a set of dentures he had picked up from the floor beside the gas pedal, apparently having popped from the driver’s mouth from the force of the stop.

As it turned out, the car, which had Texas license plates, was not stolen.  The driver had not just robbed a bank, nor had he just gunned down a group of children.  When he was finally found a month or so later, he said his driver’s license was suspended, and he didn’t want another ticket.  Then he asked if he could have his teeth back.

Ah, the good old days…

 

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