Witnesses say a man who was being pursued by police in Parleys Canyon on Sunday was reckless, out of control and possibly even suicidal.
The man died after crashing into a large tanker truck. Some bloggers on the Internet Monday praised police for stopping the man before any innocent victims were hurt, while others questioned whether the chase should have been called off earlier because of the risk to other motorists.
The Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office is conducting an outside, third-party investigation into the crash, while the Summit County Sheriff's Office said it would review its high-speed pursuit policy, as is standard in any chase.
Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds noted, however, this was more than just pursuing a simple fraud suspect. Once the man refused to pull over, the situation was elevated to a felony crime.
"What's the alternative? If you fail to pursue you're sending a message to the criminal element that you can do your crime and go about your business," he said. "I feel very strongly that when people fail to yield, there's a reason for that. What exactly that guy was running from, I don't know yet. It's possible he was involved in a much more serious crime."
The incident began about 2:40 p.m. Sunday when the sheriff's office received a call from a person reporting a possible fraud. Dispatchers broadcast the make and license plate of the car reportedly involved, and a deputy spotted it on I-80. He tried to pull the vehicle over, but the driver kept going, Wall said. Speeds at that time were between 50 and 70 mph.
Near the Salt Lake County border at the summit of Parleys Canyon, the driver dramatically increased his speed going down the canyon, reaching at least 100 mph and weaving in and out of lanes, said Summit County sheriff's detective Josh Wall.
At Lamb's Canyon, the man made a U-turn in the median, went back up the canyon, got off at the Kimball Junction exit and then got right back on the freeway and headed down the canyon again.
This time, the driver made it to the quarry exit before again turning around and heading back up the canyon. By this time, other Summit County deputies and Utah Highway Patrol troopers were assisting in the chase.
Near the summit again, deputies tried to stop the vehicle with road spikes, but the man swerved to avoid them, losing control of his car in the process. The vehicle spun around and headed west in the eastbound lanes, then hit a deputy head-on, Wall said. The deputy suffered shoulder and arm injuries.
The driver kept going, crossing the median again and heading back down the canyon. About a mile later, the driver crossed the median again into the eastbound lanes, where he was struck by a tanker truck hauling ethanol. The chase had lasted about 30 minutes.
The driver of the fleeing vehicle, Douglas E. Cottrell, 57, was pronounced dead at the scene. Investigators believe Cottrell was from the Wasatch Front but were still looking for an exact residence Monday.
A check of Utah state court records showed Cottrell has had numerous civil suits filed against him since 1984 for failure to pay for various services. Most recently, an eviction notice was filed in court against him a year ago.
I-80 was shut down in both directions Sunday. One lane of westbound traffic was opened a short time later. Eastbound traffic remained closed until 10 p.m.
Edmunds admits his department's chase policy is "aggressive" but said it mirrored the policies of several other departments. Although the policy and the incident will be reviewed, he said, the unpredictable actions of Cottrell made him a danger to the public.
"I know at one point our supervisor and deputy talked about if it's just a fraud and we know who it is, let's let him go and get him later," said Wall. "But then we also looked at the fact he's all over the road, and they were concerned about the public safety risk if we let him go."
The detective said like all pursuits, Sunday's chase was a rapidly evolving situation that was constantly monitored and evaluated by a supervisor and deputies.
Edmunds added that his deputies take many factors into consideration during a chase. But the bottom line is, "If you're going to run, we're going to chase you. If a pursuit appears too dangerous, (deputies) can call it."This was a desperate individual. Why he was so desperate? I don't know if we'll ever have the answer to that," he said. "All we were attempting to do was make a traffic stop, get his side of the story and find out what's going on. We didn't know what we had."