Nine years after Louisville Metro Police chased a stolen car that crashed into a tree, killing four boys inside who didn’t know the vehicle was stolen, the city has agreed to pay $1.6 million to their families, who claimed that the pursuit was dangerous and violated department rules.
The boys were returning home from a field trip sponsored by Youth Alive and had been told to get into the car because the anti-crime group’s van was full. The driver, who was 16 and had a criminal record, had stolen the car two weeks earlier.
After discovering that the vehicle was stolen, police officers Aaron Tinelli and James Franklin initiated a high-speed chase through Old Louisville on Dec. 18, 2008, despite wet streets, a dark night and poor visibility — and a rule that allows pursuits only if the “necessity of immediate apprehension outweighs the dangers” of the chase.
McMurry and co-counsel Aubrey Williams and Sam Aguilar confirmed the settlement amount and said the accord was struck on March 1, the day the case was mediated. The county attorney’s office provided documents confirming the settlement.
Marc Claybrooks, 14; his 16-year-old twin brothers Demar and Jemar; and their friend Aaron Shields, 15, were killed when the car split in two after striking the tree. The driver, Herbert Lee III, who was injured but survived, was convicted of manslaughter and served one year in prison, the maximum allowed for a juvenile. He has since been convicted of other offenses and is serving a five-year prison sentence.
The families sued multiple defendants, including Lee’s mother and Youth Alive, which later shut down, but all claims except those against the police officers were resolved.
The plaintiffs alleged that both officers knew that the high-speed chase was likely to result in a collision but pursued it anyway.
In a deposition, Tinnelli, who led the chase, said later that “as soon as they took off, I thought, ‘Oh my God they are going to have an accident.’ It’s the first thing in my head.”
The city maintained that the officers were protected by governmental immunity and that Kentucky’s high court has held that officers cannot be held responsible for the “conduct of culprits they chase.”
The city also cited the findings of a Professional Standards Unit investigation that exonerated both officers. It found that Tinelli had probable cause to stop the vehicle because it was stolen, demonstrated “sound judgment throughout this incident, and was compliant with departmental policy.” It said that Franklin followed Tinelli at a safe distance and had his patrol car’s lights and sirens activated.
But Jefferson Circuit Judge Barry Willett rejected the city’s arguments to dismiss the case and said a jury should decide whether the officers were negligent.
The tragedy unfolded after a Christmas pageant at the Presbyterian Community Center. Willett said in his order that because there was no space in Youth Alive vans to drive the the four boys home, a staff member for Youth Alive told them to get into Lee’s car.
Tinelli saw the car, with five people inside, near Shepherd Square, a known area for drug trafficking, called in the plate and found that it was stolen, according to the order. He was told to hold the vehicle for “latents,” which he took to mean that a felony was involved and that he could conduct a “felony stop,” Willett said.
Tinelli pulled the car over, but as soon as he got out of his cruiser, Lee sped away, fishtailing and heading south on First Street.
Tinelli followed, Franklin behind him. Franklin’s cruiser reached a speed of 74 mph at the Magnolia Street intersection before he slowed to between 49 and 64 mph, according to the order, because of road conditions and because he knew a dangerous curve loomed just pass Hill Street a few blocks ahead.
The families said Tinelli violated department rules by failing to report that there was a pursuit in progress, and his speed and traffic conditions, “all of which is necessary to evaluate danger posed” and to ensure that the officer is not succumbing to the “adrenaline of the pursuit.”
The plaintiffs also said that the chase, in which six cruisers were involved, violated a department rule allowing only two; the city claimed that four of the cars were there only for support.
“The actions of defendants in pursuing a pursuit they knew was likely to end in a collision was a substantial contributing factor in the death of the four children,” the plaintiffs said.