The Robesonian, Lumberton, NC
STAFF WRITER, MARK LOCKLEAR
Published: February 24, 2007
Pembroke pays $200,000 in wrongful death settlement
2001 police chase ended with 2 dead
PEMBROKE - The family of a 18-year-old Pembroke man killed five years ago in a car wreck that followed a high-speed police chase have reached a $200,000 out-of-court settlement in a wrongful death civil suit against the town of Pembroke.
Christopher Harris died after the car he was riding in crashed as he was being pursed by Pembroke police on Dec. 2, 2001. Gabriel McMillan, a passenger in the car, also died. His family received a $75,000 settlement last year.
Vicky Harris said the police recklessly pursued her son after what was essentially a traffic violation. Seated at her father's kitchen table this week, she thumbed through a picture album dedicated to her son. It was filled with photographs and mementos."
This was not about the money," she said. "I would hate to see another mother go through this. We should never forget what happened to Chris or Gabriel."
At the time, the department said Officers Dewayne Hunt and Chad Locklear began what would become a 16-mile after a hit-and-run at a car wash parking lot. But the Harris family says the accident was no more than a fender bender and the chase was unnecessary because police had necessary information to get the culprits later.
Though five years have passed, the anger that Vicky and her father, Clifford, continue to carry is evident in their tone. "It was such a minor thing," Clifford Harris said. "They had the tag number and they recognized one of the boys. They could have picked them up later."
The high-speed chase began when the 1996 Mazda 626 that Harris, McMillan and two other men, Andre Cummings and Ricky Locklear, were traveling in "nudged a PT Cruiser" in the parking lot of a car wash on Union Chapel Road, according to the Harris' lawyer, Mike Rowland of Carthage.
"This fender bender caused $25 of paint damage," Rowland said.
According to the Harris family, the boys immediately apologized and agreed to pay for the damages. About that time, the patrol car, which was being driven by Chad Locklear, entered the lot and the officers ordered everyone to leave. As the Mazda 626 left, a passenger in the PT Cruiser approached the officers and told them what happened, Rowland said.
Moments later the officers caught up with the Mazda and activated its blue lights and siren."
According to the audiotape, the officers identified the license plate and one of the passengers (Ricky Locklear) within the first two minutes," Rowland said.
The vehicles reached speeds exceeding 100 mph during the chase, which continued for 16 miles until the Mazda lost control on a sharp curve on McDuffie Crossing Road near Saddletree. According to his deposition, Cummings testified that the patrol car bumped the car just before it crashed. There were unidentified paint markings on the Mazda, according to the lawsuit.
The Highway Patrol report never identified a driver of the Mazda. The Harris family believes Cummings was the driver and didn't want to stop because of warrants that had been issued on him, but he has said that McMillian was the driver.
In Dewayne Hunt's deposition, he said they were seven car lengths behind the Mazda when it wrecked. Ricky Locklear testified that he wanted to stop because he was on probation.
"This thing got out of hand," Rowland said. "It went a lot further than it needed to. They were in the wrong in my opinion because they had no business chasing them. It should have been investigated at the scene. It was a fender bender."
The town's police chase policy allows for a three-mile pursuit when a misdemeanor has been committed. The chase can be extended if additional crimes are committed during the chase.
The state Highway Patrol investigated the case and found no wrongdoing by the officers. However, former police Chief Travis Bryant suspended the officers without pay, according to a memo. Bryant wrote that the officers violated the three-mile rule.
"Considering the nature of the offense ... for safety reasons, the pursuit should have ended," Bryant wrote in the memo. "Your best judgment was not used when the decision was made to continue the pursuit. This was clearly a misdemeanor ... ."
Bryant, who now works as an instructor at Robeson Community College, did not want to comment for this story. The town's lawyer, Grady Hunt, referred questions to Scott Hart, a New Bern attorney who worked on behalf of the town in the lawsuit, but he declined to comment. Chad Locklear, who now works as a sheriff's deputy, didn't return phone calls.
Rowland called the settlement a victory.
"The deck was stacked against us from the beginning because of the laws that protect the state," he said. "The town has governmental immunity and can't be sued unless they purchase liability insurance. Luckily in this case the town did purchase liability insurance."
Clifford Harris said they stood a good chance of receiving a larger settlement if they gone to court, but he said his daughter was ready for some type of closure. Vicky Harris received $76,000 after $98,000 was paid to Rowland and $26,000 went to Donald Locklear, her son's father.
"If it had been about the money she would have waited it out," Clifford Harris said. "We were not trying to get rich off Christopher's death. We wanted to prove the point that these officers were way out of line.
"We wanted justice for Chris."
Clifford Harris said no one from the town has ever called the family.
"We don't expect any admission of anything, but at least a little remorse for what happened," he said.
Vicky said she has been battling depression."
This has changed my life completely," Vicky Harris said. "I stay locked up in my bedroom until it is time to go to work. I have no desire to get out and do anything. (Chris) was my life. And now my child is laying over there at Lumbee Memorial."