ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Leaders of the St. Louis and St. Louis County NAACP on Monday criticized a lack of response from area law enforcement following a fatal crash earlier this month, saying a police department’s role in the death might never have come to light if Post-Dispatch reporters had not looked into it.
Lacey P. Schoster, 18, of St. Charles, was killed in the Nov. 1 crash on Interstate 170, which is under investigation by the Missouri Highway Patrol. The death got scant attention until last week, when a passenger who was injured in the crash told a reporter that a black police car had been chasing their Dodge Neon and that the officer did not stop to help them after the crash. The newspaper also obtained documents from a source indicating that Berkeley police officers had seen a black police car chasing a Neon right before it crashed.
After first claiming he could find no evidence his department was involved, the Bel-Ridge police chief acknowledged on Friday that a sergeant had pursued a car that night on I-170. Until then, no St. Louis-area police department had taken responsibility for the pursuit.
Even so, the chief said the sergeant had ended the pursuit without knowing a crash occurred. But three Berkeley officers working an unrelated traffic stop said they saw the black car chasing the Neon about a half-mile north of where the Bel-Ridge chief said the sergeant had exited the interstate.
The NAACP leaders said they questioned why the Bel-Ridge officer involved in the pursuit did not come forward after the fatal crash. Any officer working in the area would have known about it immediately, they said.
They also questioned the seriousness of a Highway Patrol investigation that, a week after the crash, had apparently not figured out that the black car was from Bel-Ridge.
“You’d think the Highway Patrol would have contacted all the surrounding police departments to see who owned a black car,” said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the city NAACP. “And that’s the scary part — why is it that a reporter can get something from a police department in a matter of one day? And the Highway Patrol has had all week and has been unsuccessful.”
A Highway Patrol spokesman could not be reached later Monday.
At a news conference at the county’s NAACP office in Northwoods, Pruitt joined county NAACP president John Bowman, and two other prominent activists, the Rev. Phillip Duvall and the Rev. Linden Bowie, to express their concern about the case. They said it was an issue that transcended race: While their groups usually take up the treatment of black people, Schoster is white.
“Why did it take so long for there to be more dialogue regarding the loss of life in this particular chase?” Bowman asked.
Bel-Ridge police Chief Mark Harris initially told a reporter on Friday he had reviewed dashcam video and other logs from Nov. 1 and found no record of his officers being involved. But later Friday, he acknowledged that he had spoken with a sergeant who had been on duty the night of the crash and who confirmed he had tried to stop a car going 90 mph with its headlights off.
Harris said the sergeant told him he stopped the chase and exited the interstate at Scudder Avenue because the department only allows chases in felony cases involving crimes against a person. He said he did not realize a crash had occurred, Harris said.
But that didn’t match the account of three Berkeley officers who had been at the scene of an unrelated vehicle stop on I-170 near Airport Road — about a half-mile north of where the Bel-Ridge sergeant said he had exited the interstate — and said they had seen the pursuit pass them.
On Monday, the NAACP leaders provided further proof that the Bel-Ridge officer did not exit at Scudder: A Berkeley police call for service record that showed the location of Berkeley’s vehicle stop as being I-170 and Airport Road.
Harris could not be reached for comment later for a response.
Pruitt said the explanation from Bel-Ridge seemed like a cover-up. “If Bel-Ridge had some idea that a fatality took place from a chase at 11:30 at night going northbound on I-170 … this officer would say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I remember chasing a Neon that night,’ but that didn’t happen. Why is it that between Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 this stuff was virtually quiet?”