Investigators Probe Fatal Chase, Police Policies
Posted December 3, 2007 5:23 p.m. EST
Updated December 4, 2007 6:19 a.m. EST
Franklinton, N.C. — Relatives and community members had questions for the Franklinton Police Department after a high-speed chase Saturday ended in a head-on collision that killed three people.
Investigators reconstructed the chase along a blackened stretch of road in neighboring Granville County, and town leaders planned to hire an independent consultant, even as the police department began to take a look at the chase and its own policies on Monday.
"We're trying to put together a lot of unanswered questions right now .... We're not going to stop until we get some answers," Franklinton Police Chief Ray Gilliam said.
Franklinton Town Attorney Mitch Styers briefed the Town Council about the police chase and the crash behind closed doors for about an hour Monday night.
Afterward, town leaders said they planned to hire an independent consultant to review their policies and advise them on any changes that might be appropriate.
Franklinton Police Chase Probed
Experts said chases are always tough calls, because officers must weigh the dangers posed by the suspect and by a chase. Police consultant Jon Blum said investigators must consider a lot of factors to determine if this particular chase was justified.
"What were the facts known when they started? It's always the key – what were the reasons for the pursuit," he said.
Surveillance video from a gas station shows the chase began when Guy Christopher Ayscue, 38, of Henderson, drove a Pontiac through a red light on the wrong side of N.C. Highway 56. Officer Michael Dunlap flashed his lights and sirens, but Ayscue drove off and Dunlap pursued, police said.
Ayscue forced several cars off the road as the chase stretched across two counties and 13 miles. Officers were laying down stop sticks about a mile ahead of where Ayscue tried to pass another vehicle in a no-passing zone on U.S. Highway 15 north near Creedmoor in Granville County.
His vehicle crashed head-on into a 1999 Kia with Linsay Lunsford, 18, and her 9-year-old sister Maggie inside. All three died.
North Carolina does not have any state standard for police chases, so each department must make up its own. The Franklinton Police Department policy tells officers to consider traffic congestion, road conditions and the severity of the violation for which they are pursuing a person.
Dunlap initially attempted to pull over Ayscue for a traffic violation, but when Ayscue fled from the officer, he committed a felony, for which officers are allowed to pursue suspects, Gilliam said.
Speed will be an important fact while the Franklin Department considers whether or not Dunlap violated policy during the chase. Dunlap, who was hired in 2005, was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation. He has had no prior personnel issues.
Troopers estimated the speed of impact at 90 mph. If Dunlap were chasing Ayscue at the same speed, it would be a violation of his department's policy.
The Franklinton Police Department bans high-speed chases – which it defines as any speed more than 20 mph over the speed limit. The speed limit on U.S. 15 is 55 mph.
One witness estimated that Dunlap was going at 75 mph while he drove about a quarter of a mile behind Ayscue, Styers said. Highway Patrol Sgt. R.P. Hargrove, who is leading the investigation into the crash, said Dunlap said he did not know how fast he was going.
An on-board camera in Dunlap's patrol car was not operational, police said.
On Sunday, police said they believed Dunlap followed proper procedure in the chase.
“As of now, we have not found anything in violation or infraction of violating the policy as it stands now," Gilliam said.
Investigators do not know why Ayscue was driving erratically. He had a series of drug and traffic convictions, including one DWI, in his past, and was set to appear in court on speeding charges in January.
Ayscue's parole for assault with a deadly weapon and robbery ended Sept. 27, and he had spent six of the past 10 years in jail or on parole.
Blum, who was not involved in the accident and subsequent investigation, said although hindsight is 20-20, he believes the chase became too dangerous to pursue.
"The sooner you can stop it from happening, that's the best way you can go," he said.
Blum said officers might need better guidelines, whether from their departments or the state.
"I think we need to take a look at other methods and policies for stopping a pursuit before they get started," he said.
Mary Ann Lunsford, the girls' mother, said police need to take a look at how the chase was handled. She also said "the whole thing needs to be revamped."
Families, Officer Grieve Deaths
Dunlap was shaken by what happened and was greatly affected by it, Styers said. The town has offered to meet with the Lunsford family to talk about the case as soon as it is ready.
“Words cannot express the sincere sadness each of us feels for the loss to the Lunsford family. ... these two innocents, these two sisters that meant everything to their family,” Franklinton Mayor Jenny Edwards said. “I want to express our sincere condolences to the family of Linsay and Maggie Lunsford.”
There were no plans for Dunlap to meet with the Lunsford family as of Monday night, Styers said. Earlier in the day, Mary Ann Lunsford said she wanted to talk to him.
The sisters were two of six children in their family. Linsay was studying at UNC-Greensboro to be a teacher. Maggie, a fourth-grader at Mount Energy Elementary School, had won a trophy at a karate tournament earlier Saturday.
Mary Ann Lunsford also asked for prayers and support as her family grieves.
"This leaves a very big hole, as you can imagine. And you never expect to bury your children," she said. "Just continue to hold us up in prayer, please."
Funeral arrangements have been made for Linsay and Maggie Lunsford. A visitation will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Gentry, Newell and Vaughn Funeral Home in Oxford. A funeral is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Mount Energy. The family will have a private burial Thursday.
Donations for the Lunsford family may be sent to:
c/o Stem United Methodist Church
P.O. Box 10
Stem, NC 27851