Driver faces felony charge in fatal chase

November 26, 1996


Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The driver of a car that rammed another car while being pursued by police on Sunday, killing a 21-year-old Shepherd College student, has been charged with driving under the influence resulting in death, a felony.

Berkeley County Magistrate Sandra Miller said Tuesday that she signed a warrant charging Robert Lee Sparkman Jr., 28, of Gerrardstown, W.Va. Sparkman remained in stable condition Tuesday in Winchester Medical Center, a hospital spokesman said.

Sparkman was driving a Nissan 200 SX that rammed a Ford Escort driven by Amanda Marie Smailes on U.S. 11 near Darkesville early Sunday. Police believe the car they were chasing was traveling around 100 mph when it struck Smailes' car, forcing it off the road and into a utility pole.


Smailes was on her way to her Inwood, W.Va., home from her job at the Wal-Mart store in Martinsburg when the collision occurred.

A West Virginia state trooper initiated the chase when he saw a car swerving on U.S. 11 near Inwood and suspected the driver was under the influence of alcohol, police have said. The chase continued for several miles on U.S. 11.

State Police have said they believe Trooper Kevin Plumer used proper judgment in the chase.

Officials in Berkeley County's three police agencies are calling for increasing the penalty for fleeing police from a misdemeanor to a felony.

"It ought to be a severe penalty, a mandatory six months in jail," said Berkeley County Sheriff Preston Gooden. "People who flee think we won't follow at high speed because we won't risk hurting somebody or ourselves.

"Long, high-speed chases are dangerous. We encourage deputies not to do it," Gooden said. "Our policy is to do what is the least dangerous to the public, but a drunk driver is a serious threat."

Martinsburg Police Chief Wayne Cleveland said his department's pursuit policy requires an officer to get permission from a supervisor before starting a high-speed chase.

Cleveland said he agrees with Col. Thomas Kirk, head of the West Virginia State Police, who is calling for a tougher law for drivers who flee police.

Cleveland said the number of drivers who flee is increasing. "They know we're reluctant to get into a high-speed pursuit."

It's frustrating for officers because they can't get DUI convictions unless they stop suspected drunk drivers and test them, he said.

On Nov. 22, 1980, Deputy K.C. Bohrer, then 21, was on patrol in Bunker Hill when he chased a car into Virginia and eventually on to U.S. 50. The car collided with another car and four members of a family were killed.

Bohrer, 37, now a sergeant, said had he known the outcome of his pursuit he would have backed off. "But 16 years later I still feel that given the same circumstances I did what I thought was right."

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