Family sues over chase that ended in fatality

Posted on October 22, 2009 By Greg Tuttle, Billings Gazette   The family of a Billings nurse killed by a drunken teenager who was fleeing from police has filed a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit, claiming city officers and county deputies violated their own pursuit policies.   The lawsuit also claims that after the crash that killed 27-year-old Lillian Stahl, city and county law enforcement agencies lied to the public by stating that the sheriff’s deputy leading the pursuit called off the chase several blocks before the fatal collision.   Arnie Stahl, a brother of Lillian Stahl, filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Yellowstone County District Court as the personal representative of the Stahl family. The suit, filed on behalf of the family by the Billings law firm of Edwards, Frickle & Culver, seeks unspecified damages from Yellowstone County and the city of Billings.   “We recognize the Billings Police Department and Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office have a difficult job,” said Chris Edwards, a lawyer representing the Stahls. “That is precisely why they have policies and procedures in place that are designed to protect the public while they carry out that job. Unfortunately, on the day that Lilly Stahl was killed, those policies and procedures were violated numerous times, resulting in a completely preventable loss of life.”   Allegations against the law enforcement agencies in the lawsuit include: the first city officer involved in the incident was driving an unmarked police car; the chase was unwarranted because the driver was suspected of committing only misdemeanor offenses and had been partially identified; that numerous patrol cars from both agencies converged on the area and joined in the chase; and that a city officer’s written report and patrol car video “don’t match up.”   Sheriff Jay Bell and Police Chief Rich St. John declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday. Bell referred questions to Deputy County Attorney Kevin Gillen, who also declined to comment. City Administrator Tina Volek and City Attorney Brent Brooks did not return messages.   Stahl died shortly before 7 a.m. on April 18, 2008, when her car was hit broadside by a GMC Jimmy driven by 17-year-old Brian Houston. The collision happened when the Jimmy went through a stop sign on Sixth Street West and hit Stahl’s car headed east on Grand Avenue.   Stahl was on her way to work as an operating-room nurse at Billings Clinic. Houston was fleeing from city and county officers after a night of drinking. Stahl died at the scene from internal injuries. Houston and another teenager in the Jimmy survived the crash with minor injuries.   Houston was charged as an adult with negligent vehicular homicide and other felonies. He eventually pleaded guilty to the charges, and in October 2008 Judge Susan Watters sentenced him to 20 years in prison.   The lawsuit filed this week alleges that the chase that ended Stahl’s life and sent Houston to prison should never have taken place. It also alleges that the two law enforcement agencies recognized the policy violations and provided a “blatantly false” account of the events to the public.   A different picture of the chase surfaced through a review of patrol car audio and video recordings and interviews and statements by the officers involved in the fatal incident, according to the lawsuit.   “Based on the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office and Billings Police Department’s repeated attempts to change the facts of this horrific event, it is clear they knew the chase should have never occurred,” the lawsuit states.   The 27-page complaint details several alleged violations of both the Sheriff’s Office and Police Department policies on pursuits. The first officer to encounter Houston, and the first officer to violate department policy, was police Sgt. Mark Kirkpatrick, according to the lawsuit.   Kirkpatrick was in an unmarked patrol car when he saw what he believed to be an accident caused when an SUV hit a pickup truck or a garbage can, which then hit the pickup truck. Kirkpatrick pulled up to the scene of the accident and saw the SUV driving away down an alley. Kirkpatrick followed the SUV.   The Police Department’s policy prohibits unmarked cars from “engaging in pursuits because of the high possibility that people will flee when an unknown vehicle is chasing them,” the lawsuit states. The policy also states that an unmarked patrol car is not authorized to chase a suspect “except in extreme circumstances when there is immediate danger to life.”   Kirkpatrick also violated department policy by “failing to consider risks created by initiating a pursuit” and that a pursuit should not “needlessly endanger other persons.”   The fleeing vehicle was involved in only misdemeanor offenses, the lawsuit continues. Later, when the SUV stopped, Kirkpatrick radioed in the vehicle license number and a description of the driver, which could have been used to locate him later without a chase, according to the lawsuit.   Instead, Kirkpatrick “pursued a suspected misdemeanor traffic offender, which he had already identified, in an unmarked car, when there was no immediate danger to life,” the lawsuit states.   Sheriff’s Capt. Bill Michaelis was in the first marked patrol car to join the pursuit. He overheard Kirkpatrick’s radio reports, and joined the chase as the SUV was passing Central High on Broadwater Avenue, the lawsuit states.   As the chase evolved, officers and deputies began to “swarm” to the area, some from several miles away and traveling at high speeds through morning traffic. Pursuit policies state that only two patrol cars will be involved in a chase at any time. When the crash happened, seven city and county patrol cars had converged in the area, the lawsuit states.   The lawsuit contends that after the crash, the Police Department issued a press release that “materially misrepresented the facts and circumstances leading up to the death of Lilly Stahl.” Specifically, the press release “was particularly misleading in regard to when the deputies and officers called off the chase.”   Houston was fleeing north on Sixth Street West until his SUV entered Grand Avenue and hit Stahl’s car. Michaelis said he reported to a dispatcher that he stopped the pursuit several blocks before the crash. The lawsuit contends that he told the dispatcher that he was “backing off” the pursuit at about the same time Houston’s SUV slammed into Stahl’s car.   The press release from the Police Department stated that “it became evident that the suspect was not going to stop and the deputies called off the pursuit, shut off their emergency equipment, and pulled over at Sixth and Clark.”   The lawsuit alleges the press release was “blatantly false” because the deputies and officers continued to chase Houston’s SUV into the intersection of Sixth Street West and Grand Avenue.   “As a result, they chased (the fleeing SUV) into its deadly intersect with Lilly Stahl,” according to the lawsuit.   The lawsuit also seeks unspecified damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress on Stahl’s surviving family members, who have suffered “shame, humiliation, degradation, embarrassment, anger, disappointment and worry,” the lawsuit states.   District Judge Ingrid Gustafson has been assigned to preside over the civil lawsuit.

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