COVINGTON - A 22-year-old Covington man died Sunday following what Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown termed a "minor crash" after a short car chase. The man allegedly fled from a deputy attempting to make a traffic stop because the car did not have an appropriate tag.
Brown said that about 10:30 a.m., a deputy spotted a vehicle that he had attempted to stop on a previous occasion and once again attempted the traffic stop on Rocky Plains Road. However, the driver refused to stop. The suspect traveled to Digby Road at speeds of "less than 100 mph," where he "basically slid off the road," Brown said Tuesday. He said the vehicle, a Lincoln Town Car, hit a small tree, causing "very minor damage to the car." Brown added that the car was drivable after the crash.
Following the crash, Brown said the suspect exited the car and fled on foot.
"He got away from the officer, and other deputies found him in a wooded area near where he crashed," Brown said, adding that there was only a "short window" of time that elapsed from the time the man crashed his vehicle until he was found.
"They observed he was apparently having some health issues, life-threatening issues, and proceeded with life-saving measures," the sheriff said. "There weren't any visible injuries .... he appeared to have some difficulties or (was in) a distressed mode. Officers administered CPR and called paramedics who took over and performed life-saving methods until they arrived at Newton General ER and turned him over to the hospital staff."
Brown said the man died at the hospital, and the investigation into the crash was turned over to the Georgia State Patrol.
"We've also requested assistance from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to do an independent investigation," Brown said. "And we had our internal affairs division to investigate to determine whether we had any policy violations involved. At this point we believe the officer acted appropriately and there were no policy violations."
Brown declined to give specifics of the department's policy on vehicle chases except to say, "We have a chase policy, and we believe they followed procedure."
Brown said the deputy has been suspended from duty pending the outcome of the investigations, as is customary in similar cases.
Brown declined to give the name of the deceased man.
"We're not releasing his name pending notification of the entire family," Brown said. "I have met with the immediate family and have expressed our condolences and concerns with the family. (It is) equally painful for me because I've known the family for many years. I knew the deceased when he was just an infant and any time there is an untimely death, it always raises concerns."
John Bankhead, spokesman for the GBI, confirmed that his agency was looking into the incident.
He said the deputy had tried to pull over the suspect initially for having a handwritten paper tag, "but the guy got away from him. He didn't chase him, but thought he'd see him again. He did spot him again Sunday and tried to pull him over, but he sped off. The deputy followed and the guy eventually wrecked, got out of his vehicle and went into the woods," Bankhead said.
Bankhead said there was a scuffle and the suspect got away from the deputy who said he saw the man pull something from his pocket.
"He thought it might be a gun, but it turned out it was not," Bankhead said. "He caught up with him and tried to tackle him and used pepper spray ... but the guy got away. He (said) he noticed there appeared to be some tinfoil in his mouth," Bankhead said.
A second deputy arrived at the scene and the first deputy told him the suspect ran in the direction of some culverts.
"The second deputy found the guy lying face up in a creek in about 6 inches of water. He was unresponsive ... they called EMTs who transported him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead."
Bankhead said autopsy results are awaiting toxicology reports. "They pumped his stomach and those results have been sent to the lab for processing," he said.
The investigation is still ongoing into the incident.
"It will be thoroughly investigated and a copy of our findings will be sent to the district attorney for review as in every in-custody death with an officer involved," Bankhead said. "That's our standard procedure. It may take some time as we will have to wait for the toxicology tests to come back."
Barbara Knowles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org