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03-01-05 Hearing set for deputy involved in auto chase

By Margie Wuebker

  A predisciplanary hearing is scheduled for a Mercer County Sheriff's deputy currently on paid administrative leave in the wake of a high-speed chase through parts of Mercer and Auglaize counties last week.

  Deputy Jerry Wolford, 44, of Celina, will meet with Chief Deputy Tim Fink at 10 a.m. Wednesday to discuss an alleged violation of sheriff's office policy regarding pursuits. This is the fifth time there has been a disciplinary matter involving Wolford.
  The sheriff's department's pursuit policy, last revised in December 2001, prohibits vehicle pursuits unless there is probable cause to believe the person has committed a violent felony. In addition, the policy says any deputy sheriff participating in a pursuit must immediately stop chasing a vehicle for five stated reasons, which include safety concerns and knowing the violator's identity.
  The pursuit, which took place Wednesday, involved a 15-year-old Celina boy being sought for a probation violation. His identity was known before the pursuit started.
  Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey said footage from in-cruiser cameras show the pursuit headed eastbound along busy U.S. 33, with the suspect's car, Wolford's cruiser and at least one other pursuit vehicle passing three semitrailers as two others approached. The rigs apparently moved to the side allowing the pursuit to continue down the center of the two-lane highway.  "This was a very, very dangerous pursuit over a very, very, very trivial matter," the sheriff said, adding he was speaking only on behalf of his department and no other agencies.
  The footage was from cameras in the cruisers of Celina and St. Marys police officers, who also participated in the pursuit.
  The pursuit started when a Mercer County Juvenile Court probation officer spotted the youth, who was a runaway, driving through Celina and followed in an unmarked car. A Celina police officer in a marked cruiser caught up with the pair north of Celina and Wolford apparently joined the pursuit after the boy ran a stop sign at the intersection of U.S. 33 and Neptune-Mendon Road.
  Speeds ranged from 75 to 109 miles per hour during the course of the pursuit with speeds of 80 miles per hour clocked inside the city of St. Marys. The pursuit ended when the suspect's car, later determined to have been stolen from the Celina High School parking lot, crashed into a house at the corner of Clinton and South Perry streets in St. Marys.
  Grey also learned by watching the camera footage that Wolford allegedly failed to pull over after entering the St. Marys city limits.
  Wolford was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday because there has been no determination of guilt at this point. The decision was made on the recommendation of attorney Mark Fishel, a member of a Columbus-based law firm the sheriff's office retains for personnel-related matters.
  Grey has forwarded to Fishel camera footage as well as Mercer County Central Dispatch tapes of Wolford calling out speeds and road names as the pursuit unfolded. He plans to meet with Fishel later this week to discuss the predisciplinary hearing and any action that may be taken against Wolford.
  The sheriff's office standards of conduct 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. The standards also take into account past infractions.
  Wolford's past incidents involve being found guilty of using excessive force, in which the county paid $20,000 to a man with an injured hip; another lawsuit claiming use of excessive force where the county settled out of court; a suspension for drawing his gun during a traffic stop; and a uniform violation.
  The teenager in last week's pursuit sustained minor injuries in the crash necessitating treatment at Joint Township District Memorial Hospital in St. Marys. There was no one in the home at the time.
  Grey said today it has not been determined as yet who will pay damages to the home and car, which is expected to run into thousands of dollars. In addition, several cruisers from other jurisdictions sustained brake and exhaust system damages.


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