ROCKPORT, Maine — The town’s police chief said his officer acted properly in a Dec. 5 chase that ended with the car that was being pursued crashing into a tree, killing two teens.
Police reports and a transcript of the radio traffic between the officer and a dispatcher with the Knox County Communications Center was released Thursday after a Freedom of Access request for the information.
An independent investigation by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office concluded that excessive speed was the reason for the crash and that alcohol and drugs did not play a role.
“It is the opinion and conclusion of this officer that speed was a major factor in the crash. If [the driver] had not been operating at a high/reckless rate of speed this crash would not have occurred,” Knox County Sheriff Deputy Paul Spear stated in his report.
Rockport Chief Mark Kelley said Officer Craig Cooley acted appropriately on Dec. 5, 2015, when the crash occurred.
Cooley had stopped driver Caleb Byras around 10:30 p.m. for going 74 mph in a 55-mph zone as he was heading into Rockland on Route 17 in Rockport. Then, about an hour later, Byras came speeding along the same road heading in the opposite direction.
Byras initially pulled over to the side of the road when he saw Cooley, but then took off.
Cooley pursued and the chase lasted less than five minutes before the 2001 Subaru Outback crashed into a tree and split into two pieces on Wotton’s Mill Road in Union.
Byras, the 17-year-old driver from Litchfield, and a passenger, 16-year-old Kara Brewer of Rockland, died at the scene.
Another passenger, Emily Vitale, 17, of Warren, survived with injuries to an ankle, according to police who found her standing outside the wreckage.
Deputies reported that Byras did not know the two girls before that night and had picked them up at a house in the Rockland area.
Rockport Chief Kelley said the young driver refused to stop after Cooley turned on the flashing blue lights and the cruiser’s siren. The cruiser’s speed on Route 17 reached 75 to 80 mph, but Byras was traveling faster than that, the chief said.
“I can’t fathom what was going through his mind,” Kelley said about the young driver.
The transcript of radio traffic between Cooley and the dispatcher shows that the officer notified the communications center at 11:38 p.m. that a vehicle would not stop. Thirty-eight seconds later he notified the dispatch center that he was crossing the town line into Hope.
Cooley asked for assistance but was told that two deputies were busy on another call.
A minute and 14 seconds later, Cooley reported crossing into the town of Union. Thirty-three seconds later, he reported that the car he was pursuing had turned onto Wotton’s Mill Road.
A little more than a minute later, the dispatcher requested that all radio communications be restricted to emergency traffic so that they could focus on the pursuit.
The Rockport police chief said that Cooley ended the pursuit as he got onto Wotton’s Mill Road by silencing his siren but keeping his blue lights on as he continued at a lesser speed.
Twenty-two seconds after emergency radio traffic only was ordered, Cooley contacted dispatch.
“I’m on Wotton’s Mill. I’ve lost, I’ve lost him now. I’m just going to continue along ‘cause the way he is ac … operating … yeah, I’ve got him right here in the trees,” Cooley stated at 11:42 p.m.
The police chief said Cooley had not had an earlier opportunity to notify dispatch that he was ending the pursuit because of the amount of traffic over the radio.
The accident report filed by Knox County Deputy Spear states that there was no alcohol in the blood test taken from Byras. Drugs also were not considered a factor in the crash, according to the police report.
The exact speed that the Subaru reached is not known but Chief Kelley said Byras was traveling much faster than Cooley.
He said there was a five-second gap between the vehicles as they traveled west on Route 17 and that when Cooley ended the pursuit after turning onto Wotton’s Mill Road, the crash occurred about a mile and a half farther on the road.
The speed limit along the stretch of the road where the crash occurred is 40 mph.