Running red lights, weaving into traffic: Report calls police chase that killed teens 'reckless'


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Mar 01, 2024

Running red lights, weaving into traffic: Report calls police chase that killed teens 'reckless'

The Addis police officer who ran a red light during a high-speed pursuit last New Year’s Eve, causing a crash that killed two Brusly teenagers, did not apply his brakes despite having ample time to

The Addis police officer who ran a red light during a high-speed pursuit last New Year’s Eve, causing a crash that killed two Brusly teenagers, did not apply his brakes despite having ample time to slow down, according to a sheriff's deputies investigation.

The report on the crash says the officer and others ran several red lights and weaved in and out of traffic before the fatal crash. And it says the officer had never received defensive driving training.

Investigators said they found "conclusive evidence" that the officer, David Cauthron, violated the law for negligent homicide.

The crash was the result of a police chase that started in Baton Rouge when 24-year-old Tyquel Zanders stole his father’s car. The pursuit ended across the Mississippi River when Cauthron ran a red light and slammed into a silver Mazda, killing Maggie Dunn, 17, and Caroline Gill, 15 and seriously injuring Dunn's brother.

The teens' deaths stirred a massive public outcry; a grand jury indicted Cauthron on a count of manslaughter. The crash, along with several others that caused the deaths of bystanders, led to a legislative task force and calls from elected officials for police to rethink how they handle high-speed pursuits.

The report was completed on Feb. 8, but released to The Advocate last week.

“This investigation reveals that [Cauthron] was negligently driving his assigned police unit, with complete disregard for the safety of other motorists,” reads the report. “His actions were a deviation from the standard of care expected of him by not slowing down and preparing to stop before proceeding past the intersection of LA1 at East St. Francis St while the northbound light was red.”

An attorney representing Cauthron did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did the Addis Police Department.

To Jason Elliot, the stepfather of Caroline Gill, the report raises questions beyond just Cauthron's behavior during the chase.

“Every one of those cops violated the law, violated the pursuit statutes,” he said. “And not a single one is getting charged except for David Cauthron.”

According to a timeline of the dashcam video from Cauthron’s police vehicle included in the report, he and Brusly police officer Tim Gilbert stationed themselves at the median on La. 1 and Hebert Street at 12:28 p.m. When Zanders passed them, followed by two Baton Rouge Police Department units, they joined the pursuit.

The report says officers with the Addis, Brusly and Baton Rouge police departments were involved in the chase. No West Baton Rouge sheriff's officers participated, according to the report; a Port Allen police officer saw Zanders zoom by but chose not to join the chase.

Camera footage shows Zanders and the officers weaving through traffic, at times forcing cars into the median on La. 1, the report says. Among the report's descriptions of the chase:

Cauthron ran four red lights before approaching a fifth — the intersection of La. 1 and East St. Francis Street, into which the Mazda with three teens was headed. The bystanders' car was being driven in a safe and legal manner, the report found.

As he barreled toward the intersection, Cauthron clearly saw a crash coming, the report says. His dashcam caught him yelling: "F*** this is going to hurt."

In an interview with West Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office investigators, Gilbert, who was driving behind Cauthron, said he did not see Cauthron brake.

“Officer Gilbert further stated that as they approached the intersection of East St. Francis, he noticed that the traffic light was red and can see traffic entering the intersection," the report says. "Officer Gilbert stated that Officer Cauthron was still "pushing pretty hard" at which time he decided to slow down because he didn't know if Cauthron was going to brake hard and then stated that he never saw the brake lights of Officer Cauthron's unit."

Cauthron told investigators that speeds reached more than 100 mph. He said he did not remember seeing the Mazda that he hit until it was too late, and that he did not remember having time to slam on his brakes.

“Officer Cauthron stated that he knew and understood that he had to slow down and prepare to stop before going through the intersection and could not explain why he didn't do that on that specific day,” reads the report.

Dash camera video suggests Cauthron's view of the Mazda may have been obstructed by a truck, the report says. But even if Cauthron did not see the vehicle, officers are supposed to slow down at red lights, and in some cases stop, according to the Louisiana Emergency Vehicles statute.

A report from Zachary Simmers, at the time a major with the West Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, found, “while reviewing this video footage there was no apparent attempt to yield by Officer Cauthron.”

Baton Rouge City Police Accident Reconstruction Expert Lt. James Pittman found in his report that “Officer Cauthron was driving in a reckless manner while in pursuit of a vehicle without regard for other motorists on the highway.”

Further, Pittman’s report said Cauthron “observed the potential hazard ahead 11 seconds before reaching the intersection.” The report found he “had time and distance to slow his police vehicle and safely pass through the intersection.”

“Had he began braking three seconds later when he said, "THIS IS GOING TO HURT", he could have applied a relatively normal braking application and stopped at the intersection,” reads Pittman's report. “Any other braking would have allowed Officer Cauthron to stop before the intersection.”

An inspection of Cauthron’s police unit found no issues with the vehicle or the brakes.

Witnesses described the seconds leading up to the fatal crash.

Grant Griffin, who was stopped in the northbound lane at the red light, told investigators he started to blow his horn at traffic crossing the light to alert drivers to the chase. Reece Guerin, who was at the light, said Zanders’ car passed right in front of him while he was attempting to turn onto La. 1 north, forcing him to drive into the median. Debra Pedigo, who was sitting on West St. Francis Street, said she saw flashing lights in the distance.

“She stated that she can see the police units approaching at a high rate of speed, so she began to honk her horn to alert the other drivers. She stated that she heard the crash and saw metal flying,” reads the report. “Mrs. Pedigo stated that ‘He did not apply the brakes.’”

Just seconds after running the red light at St. Francis Street, Zanders was involved in a three-vehicle crash when he sideswiped two other vehicles at the next intersection. He did not stop, and law enforcement apprehended him back in Baton Rouge.

While the report focuses on Cauthron's actions, it could also raise questions about how BRPD officers handled the chase.

An Advocate review of BRPD’s chase policy suggested the decision to launch the pursuit was questionable under the existing guidelines, which say chases will be “immediately terminated” whenever the person being pursued “can be positively identified and there is no longer a need for immediate apprehension,” — as was the case with Zanders.

Previously, BRPD Spokesperson L’Jean McKneely said his department's administrative review of the pursuit led to no disciplinary action against the BRPD officers involved because they officially terminated the chase when they crossed into West Baton Rouge.

But according to the WBRSO investigation report, BRPD officers were part of the chase until the end. The report mentions at least three instances where BRPD officers ran red lights on La. 1 after they had crossed into West Baton Rouge.

When asked about the information in the report, McKneely issued a correction.

"BRPD notified West Baton Rouge of the pursuit as they continued across the Mississippi River Bridge. West Baton Rouge law enforcement officers took the lead when the pursuit crossed over into West Baton Rouge jurisdiction. BRPD uniformed officers followed behind those officers," he said.

BRPD has updated its pursuit policy to require more communication between officers and supervisors about traffic violations that suspects commit during a pursuit, such as running a red light or hitting high speeds. That way, BRPD said supervisors can make a more informed decision on when to halt a chase.

But Elliot said policy changes don’t matter if existing rules aren’t being enforced.

“Until a DA will go, ‘you all were breaking the law, so everybody’s getting something,’ it’s just going to be business as usual,” he said.

Cauthron was indicted by a grand jury with two counts of manslaughter, malfeasance in office and other charges related to the crash. Cauthron has asked a judge to quash his indictment, and a hearing on the request is set for next month.

Email Rebecca Holland at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter, @_rebeccaholland.