By Lynn R. Mitchell
People in the Staunton area will remember that earlier this week there was a police chase on I-81 that began in Shenandoah County and ended in Augusta County. The interstate at Exit 225 — where Rowe’s, Texas Steakhouse, Cracker Barrel, Lowe’s, and Wal-Mart are located — was ground zero for the finale with traffic at a standstill. Local friends were stuck on the interstate as law enforcement successfully worked to end the chase.
A follow-up article in the Staunton News Leader on Thursday by reporter Brad Zinn raised some eyebrows and caused Sheriff Donald Smith to put out a response to correct the record. Well-known Harrisonburg radio personality Karl Magenhofer even wrote on Facebook, “Appreciate this response to what amounted to a hit piece by the News Leader. I’m surprised because the NL folks are usually very good.”
Here is the response from Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith:
To The Citizens of Augusta County,
I apologize for this letter’s length but please read. After the recent article that the News Leader printed, I wanted to address those of you that I serve directly.
I was contacted by the News Leader yesterday after being out most of the night and working the day before. When I received their questions regarding the policies of my office, I informed them that I was on my way home to get some rest and that I would respond today. I am extremely disappointed that our local newspaper, that I or one of my admin staff members speaks to almost on a daily basis, would take the stance to immediately address policy concerns and report that my deputies were in the wrong. Why not a story on how the suspect was arrested the day before and released? I am not interested in getting into a debate or argument with the media, but I do want to put the facts out there so there are no questions.
Furthermore, the article states that when I was struck by the vehicle in 2014, that deputies opened fire on this vehicle. This is NOT true. This incident occurred on July 7, 2014. On that particular day, I was out with the SWAT team participating in a narcotics search warrant and while approaching the suspect vehicle, the driver drove into the team. I had nowhere to go and was unable to avoid being struck. I suffered injuries to my lower back, legs and feet and was in rehab for almost eight months. Also, as a result of being struck, I just had shoulder surgery in March of this year and to this day still go to physical therapy weekly. When the vehicle struck me, it knocked me on the hood of the vehicle and the driver drove me across the yard. This situation quickly escalated for me to use deadly force. However, the team charged the vehicle, knocked the windows out, and got control of the driver about the time I was able to get on top of the windshield and get the driver at gunpoint. Not one shot was fired that day.
The last time a vehicle was fired into by the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office was on August 18, 2013, when a driver of the vehicle tried to run over two deputies on Lee Jackson Hwy near Staunton.
The Augusta County Sheriff’s Office was requested to assist with the pursuit from Shenandoah County. The driver was stopped in the Verona area and when deputies exited their police vehicles, the driver drove his vehicle towards one of my deputies. Let me remind you all that a deputy had already been struck by the suspect’s vehicle in Shenandoah County. When the deputies were able to get him stopped, a second time, the suspect hit an occupied police cruiser, then put his vehicle in reverse and intentionally hit a second cruiser, and did this overt act of aggression twice. The deputies exited their vehicles and discharged their weapons into the tires of the suspect’s vehicle. At this point, the suspect put numerous deputies’ lives in jeopardy.
It is not a common practice for the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office to shoot into or at vehicles “unless all other reasonable means of defense have been exhausted or are not available.” My deputies had seconds to make split second decisions and get control of this situation that was created by the suspect, not my agency. The deputies involved are human beings just like your family members. They are fathers/mothers, brothers/sisters, and sons/daughters. When the suspect decided to hit a deputy in Shenandoah, drive towards a deputy in Augusta, and then ram two police cars, the suspect put all law enforcement officials involved, as well as, the community in jeopardy. The deputies chose to attempt to disable the vehicle before choosing to use deadly force against the suspect.
As the Sheriff, I have some concerns about this stop and will address them internally with my staff. With regards to the deputies firing their weapons at the tires of the suspect vehicle, it is not a common practice, but the only other option was to fire directly at the suspect or let him go completely putting the citizens of Augusta County in danger.
I took an oath as the elected Sheriff to support the United States Constitution, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the ordinances of Augusta County. I take serving and protecting the citizens of Augusta County very seriously, and I employ men and women that feel the same as I do. If a dangerous individual comes into our community using weapons of any kind: firearms, knives, or a 2 ton vehicle putting the citizens of this county or law enforcement within this jurisdiction in harm’s way, I will use every resource that I have to gain control of the situation quickly, effectively and as safely as possible.
Sheriff Donald L. Smith