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Prologue- “Well I’m takin’ my time, I’m just movin’ on…”
It looks like every dashboard-video-camera-records-high-speed-pursuit you’ve ever seen on TV; from Cops to America’s Wildest Police Chases to Real TV to You Gotta See This. The elusive video footage is grainy, cryptic, choppy, losing much in the translation from real life drama to cold, detached video scrutiny some six months after the fact.

At first glance it would appear to be shot entirely in black and white, like the oft-seen surveillance footage from a low-rent convenience store or dimly lit ATM machine. But it’s only the sloppy duping of the tape in response to a Sunshine Law request and the late hour—nearly 1 a.m.—and the pitch dark funk of an early Thursday morning surrounding the deserted residential side street that makes it appear that way.

Yet as the drama quickly, inescapably unfolds before the camera’s all-seeing, clinical eye, there are various clues that the footage is, indeed, being shot in color: the speeding police cruiser’s circling blue sphere atop its roof, just out of frame, and, finally, the horrific glare of blood red brake lights gleaming like beacons contemporaneous with the resulting hail of carnage, flotsam, and debris that turns this high-speed chase . . . into a homicide.

The chase itself starts innocently at first, almost playfully. Cat and mouse. Dog and pony. Facing outward from the fish eye lens of the dashboard video camera, the marked police cruiser of Sergeant Paul Hopkins, perhaps still unaware of the gravity of the unfolding situation, pulls up directly beside the silver Jetta as it brakes to a stop behind a random black vehicle that has appeared out of nowhere, even as the tail lights of another, mystery car disappear around a slight curve in the road ahead.

Inexplicably, perhaps unfathomable, instead of blocking the Jetta in with the big, sleek body of his imposing police cruiser, the 20-20 vision of the silently recording video camera watches uncritically as Sergeant Hopkins’ cruiser remains stationary as first the black car inches forward, and then the crafty Jetta.

Hopkins leaves his cruiser momentarily, presumably to assist an unknown deputy who has deployed stop sticks to deter the first car, perhaps thinking it is the offending vehicle, perhaps just eager to stop both cars at all costs. Without warning, the unknown deputy removes the stop sticks and motions the black car forward.

By the time the silver car has rolled almost imperceptibly forward, Sergeant Hopkins finds himself just behind the Jetta. The tactical error, this split-second decision—and perhaps less than five feet of space between the Jetta’s bumper and the cruiser’s front fender—leaves the 22-year-old driver of the silver car plenty of room to maneuver.

And maneuver he does. Perhaps realizing his mistake, yet making no attempt to rectify it, the sergeant’s stern, detached voice can be heard issuing instructions from the cruiser’s onboard PA system as he leaps back into his ill-fated cruiser: “Driver. Stop the car. Silver car. Stop!” Falling on deaf ears, neither the driver nor his passenger make any move to comply.

Immediately, with a felon’s instinct and an addict’s energy, the young driver steers the Jetta expertly away from the dawdling police cruiser and embarks on a rapid and almost perfectly executed escape from what only moments ago seemed like a routine traffic stop. The time on the digital readout in the lower right-hand corner of the grainy video footage reads 12:03:03 a.m. on December 13, 2001.

The sound of shifting gears and the powerful high performance engine straining underneath Sergeant Hopkins’ glowing white hood revving to catch up with the suspect fill the audio track of the video. The numerous speed bumps that litter this normally peaceful residential side street register on the just-as-grainy audio tape with audible gaps of white noise in the recording.

Then the powerful engine revs again, inching up to speeds exceeding 50, then 60, and finally over 70 miles per hour! Barely visible off camera as Sergeant Hopkins speeds by is a speed limit sign reading 25 mph. Speed bumps shake not only the flying frame of the speeding police cruiser, but jolt the video recording and insert more empty gaps into the audio feed as well.

Soon enough, the sound of the cruiser’s revving engine returns, louder than ever. Powerful, muscular, heavy, and solid, the high performance police cruiser keeps pace with the speeding Jetta as it careens around corners and steadies itself once again. Never does the video camera, and thus Sergeant Hopkins, lose sight of those notorious Volkswagen taillights as the chase continues onward toward its bitter, tragic end.

The sound inside the cruiser is subdued for such an tense chase, although halfway through the pursuit the volume of the cruiser’s FM radio appears to almost magically turn up, as if the driver needed a little classic rock music to accompany him. An old school, faintly familiar, 70s guitar riff cuts into the tense, dramatic silence inside the cruiser, interspersing with the revving engine and debilitating speed bumps as the chase nears its inevitable conclusion.

Finally, at 12:03:30, a mere 27 brief seconds after the official high-speed chase began, Sergeant Hopkins bears down on his elusive quarry once and for all. By the time the speeding police cruiser brakes to a dead stop, pulling up just behind the smoking crime scene, the once slick silver car has already struck another vehicle from behind and now lies across the road, broken and crumpled, in the grassy front yard of a storefront church.

On the road beneath the glaring cruiser’s beaming headlights, there are no rubber marks on the road to indicate the driver of the Jetta ever applied his brakes. On the grainy, nearly indecipherable videotape shot from the cruiser’s still-humming dashboard, all that’s clearly visible is a cloud of radiator steam surrounding a fresh crime scene, oozing through the eerie video like San Francisco fog around a horror movie set.

Now the sergeant’s adrenaline, his rage, his stress, catches up with him and as he emerges from the car his stern, angry, commanding voice can be heard just off screen: “Get on the ground. Get on the ground. Get on the ground. I’ll kill you! Get on the fucking ground. Get on the ground!”

Through the fog and emotion, the Jetta’s bright red brake lights cut through the steam like a foghorn, illuminating a nearly perfect circle of modern carnage and deadly debris. Twisted metal, broken glass, and exploded plastic litters the ground as the suspects emerge, dazed and confused, from both the driver’s and the passenger’s side doors.

The driver hits the ground almost immediately, his hands instinctually rising to the back of his head, as if perhaps he’s done this once or twice before. Meanwhile, the passenger, perhaps more dazed than the driver, perhaps less so, stumbles toward a nearby tree before slumping against the rough bark of its trunk like an oversized and guilty rag doll.

Innocently, almost obscenely, the radio in the now-vacant police cruiser—FM, not the official broadcast channel of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department—plays loudly in the background as Sergeant Hopkins rushes from his car to assist in detaining the suspects. As the camera records the sergeant emerging from his car and approaching the still steaming Jetta, an old hit song by the popular 70’s group Boston rings out merrily on some local oldies station, oblivious to the human tragedy playing out just beyond its airwaves.

The words are unmistakable, almost fateful, as the silent scene before the camera’s uncritical eye unfolds like so many reruns of the hit show, Cops:

“Well I’m takin’ my time, I’m just movin’ on
You’ll forget about me after I’ve been gone;
And I take what I find, I don’t want no more
It’s just outside of your front door . . .”

Perhaps distrustful of his unfocused demeanor, or maybe just suspicious that he might be packing a weapon, or maybe just because he feels like it, Hopkins discharges a Taser at the already dazed passenger. In the corner of the video footage, the helpless victim can be seen convulsing as Sgt. Hopkins discharges his Taser, not once but twice. In short order both suspects from the steaming Jetta are placed on the ground, handcuffed, searched, and detained. Before the still-recording eye of the generic video camera, the officers stand around aimlessly, the massive amounts of adrenaline coursing through their veins still making them appear jumpy, restless.

Officers round the car, checking on one suspect, then return, only to check on the other. Again and again the awkward scene is repeated, like out-takes at the end of a police academy training video gone bad. To the untrained eye, there appear to be too many Indians, not enough chiefs. Uniformed men are running around like bees buzzing around a hive, and it is not until the two suspects are first secured and a sixth deputy arrives that anyone—anyone at all—thinks to check on the occupant of the second vehicle: “County, I’ve got the victim in the other car, signal 4, she’s not breathing.”

Still, inside Sergeant Hopkins’ empty cruiser, the lyrics of the popular Boston song ring out loudly. A soundtrack for the bloody carnage laid out before the video camera.

“Well I’m takin’ my time, I’m just movin’ on
You’ll forget about me after I’ve been gone . . .”

End of Prologue

James Phillips/Rusty Fisher
July 30, 2002

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