By Margie Wuebker
A Mercer County Sheriff's deputy has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the completion of an investigation in the wake of a high-speed chase through parts of Mercer and Auglaize counties Wednesday afternoon.
Deputy Jerry Wolford, 44, who joined the sheriff's office in the fall of 1991, was notified of the action Thursday afternoon due to an apparent violation of department policy.
"Very few crimes warrant putting the public as well as the offender and pursuing officers into jeopardy," Sheriff Jeff Grey told The Daily Standard this morning.
A probation officer with Mercer County Juvenile Court spotted the 15-year-old suspect, a reported runaway, driving through Celina around 1 p.m. Wednesday. The officer followed in an unmarked car as the unidentified youth drove northbound along U.S. 127. He radioed for assistance and a Celina Police cruiser caught up with the vehicles at Oregon Road.
Wolford heard radio traffic while heading eastbound on U.S. 33. He reportedly stopped traffic as the pursuit continued along Neptune-Mendon Road and then joined in as the lead car when the youth ran a stop sign and headed east on U.S. 33 bound for Auglaize County. Police scanners crackled with traffic as unidentified officers called out speeds ranging from 75 to 109 miles per hour as well as passing roads. Grey indicated he has not reviewed Central Dispatch tapes as yet to determine whether the voice is Wolford or a police officer in the second cruiser.
The youth, who is not old enough to possess an operator's permit, reportedly passed semitrailers and private vehicles against traffic at points along the route. The pursuit came to an end when the teenager crashed into a house at the intersection of Clinton and South Perry streets in St. Marys.
"Jerry did stop active pursuit after entering St. Marys," the sheriff noted. "At that point the suspect was able to get a four-block jump on officers"
The teenager sustained minor injuries necessitating treatment at Joint Township District Memorial Hospital in St. Marys. Fortunately, the 80-year-old resident was not home when the car crashed into the front of the white frame residence.
"I want to stress that this investigation involves only the sheriff's department," Grey said. "Our policy is more stringent than a lot of other departments."
The pursuit policy, last revised in December 2001, prohibits vehicle pursuits unless there is probable cause to believe that the person has committed a violent felony. In addition, any deputy sheriff participating in a pursuit must immediately stop chasing a vehicle for five stated reasons. The most noteworthy in this case involves the issue of safety as well as the violator's identity being known and apprehension could occur later under more favorable conditions, according to Grey.
"The suspect in question was not a dangerous felon -- he was a juvenile facing a misdemeanor probation violation," the sheriff added. "Fortunately, he was not hurt seriously although the home he hit sustained considerable damage."
Grey learned of the pursuit following the crash via a telephone call during a meeting with an area law enforcement official.
An investigation was launched immediately as in the case of any incidents involving a pursuit situation. Lt. Matt Grunden, the supervisor in charge at the time, has interviewed deputies involved in any way in an attempt to determine whether Wolford's actions fell within policy guidelines.
The report then goes to Chief Deputy Tim Fink who is expected to conduct a pre-disciplinary hearing early next week. Wolford will have an opportunity to offer mitigating circumstances at that point before the final report lands on Grey's desk.
Although no determination of guilt has been made at this point, attorney Mark Fishel recommended Wolford be placed on paid administrative leave until the investigation is completed. Fishel is a member of a Columbus-based law firm the sheriff's office retains for personnel-related matters.
The sheriff's office standards of conduct clearly spells out a course of action in the event a determination of guilt is made. Under a section related to the commission of unsafe acts or endangering oneself as well as others, sanctions range from progressive disciplinary action to termination in the event of serious injury or excessive property damage.
Wolford initially served as a road deputy until 2001, when he assumed supervisory duties of the medical co-pay program at the Mercer County Jail. He returned to road duty in July of this year in the wake of retirements and budget cuts.
Grey, who assumed office Jan. 1, 2001, said Wolford has only one disciplinary action in his personnel record since that time. It involved a uniform violation regarding the patches and insignias.
But it is not the first time Wolford has been in hot water with the department.
A jury found Wolford guilty of excessive force in U.S. District Court in June 2001 and ordered the county to pay $20,000 to Richard Craw, who sustained an injured hip during a 1998 altercation with Wolford. Craw had originally sought more than $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
The county's general fund paid the $20,000 but Craw forfeited the money for back child support payments he owed.
The county settled another lawsuit involving Wolford out of court for $100,000 in August 2000. In that case, Wolford was accused of injuring Kye Orick following a traffic stop in December 1998. Wolford was accused of forcibly removing Orick from her vehicle, causing numerous minor injuries.
The $100,000 settlement was paid through a combination of county tax dollars and insurance claims.
Wolford served a two-day unpaid suspension in the summer of 1999 following a traffic stop during which he drew his gun. An investigation showed Wolford was justified in drawing his weapon but violated department policy by using "abusive and demeaning language" with the occupants of the car he had pulled over. The suspects had matched the description of individuals involved in an alleged gun incident.