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Officers testify drugged driver steered tractor-trailer toward police during I-81 chase

A judge will render a verdict against Thomas L. McNeel within ten days

December 08, 2011|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • McNeel
McNeel

A Mississippi man using methamphetamines steered his tractor-trailer toward police during a chase that spanned three states last December on Interstate 81, officers testified Thursday in Washington County Circuit Court.

Thomas L. McNeel, 43, of Pontotoc, Miss., was in court to face four counts each of first- and second-degree assault, as well as charges of failing to stop after an accident, fleeing and eluding police, careless driving and reckless driving.

McNeel waived his right to a jury trial.

Circuit Court Judge M. Kenneth Long Jr. said after listening to testimony that he would render a verdict within 10 days.

McNeel, motorists whose vehicles were struck during the chase and police officers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia were called to testify.

The chase started at about 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 20, 2010, after police received a call reporting a reckless tractor-trailer driver in the northbound lanes of I-81 in Berkeley County, W.Va., officers said.

The pursuit continued through Maryland and ended in Pennsylvania when McNeel drove the tractor-trailer into a median near Greencastle.

Police in Maryland said they were able to flatten two of the tractor's front tires by using Stop Sticks, a tire-deflation device that can be laid across roads during hot pursuits.

Deputy 1st Class Carl Witmer of the Washington County Sheriff's Office told the court that he got involved in the chase on I-81 near Williamsport, where he waited for the truck to throw the Stop Sticks in front of it.

He said he heard the sirens coming from West Virginia before he saw the truck.

"I was going to deploy the sticks, and right before I did it, this tractor-trailer made a hard right turn and started coming towards me," Witmer said. "... I dropped the sticks, and I ran."

Witmer said he grabbed the Stop Sticks after the truck passed, got back into his vehicle and joined the pursuit.

Maryland state troopers and Washington County Sheriff's Office deputies testified that the truck traveled erratically throughout the chase. On occasion, the truck steered toward them as they tried to pass it or throw Stop Sticks on the road to slow it down, police said.

At one point during the pursuit near the Interstate 70 interchange, police said the truck slammed into several vehicles, causing crashes that littered the roadway with debris.

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Motorists feared for lives

Hagerstown resident Holly McKendrick was one of three civilian witnesses who were called to testify about McNeel striking their vehicles.

She said she was driving north on I-81 when her 2007 Toyota Prius was hit.

"I didn't think I was going to make it," McKendrick testified. "I think at the time I was just happy to get out of the car."

Karli Waltz said she was on her way to work when she saw a purple rig coming up fast in her rearview mirror. Waltz said she thought her car was going to be sandwiched by the truck and the vehicle in front of her.

"After it hit me, I went spinning," she said.

Waltz said she grabbed her belongings and got out of the car because she thought it might explode.

Both women said they declined medical treatment at the scene, but went to the hospital later. They said they have suffered back pain since the accident occurred.


Driver doesn't remember

Defense attorney Carl Creeden asked Long to acquit McNeel of the first-degree assault charges, saying McNeel was intoxicated and didn't intend to hurt anyone.

"There is not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of first-degree assault," Creeden said.

At first, Long said he needed to review a 30-minute police videotape of the chase that the prosecution entered as evidence to make a decision on that request, but later agreed with Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael that police testimony presented sufficient reason to maintain the assault charges.

McNeel testified that he took methamphetamines and "bath salts" — or synthetic stimulants — on the day of the chase when he stopped in Virginia to get gas. He said he was hauling furniture from Mississippi to New Jersey.

McNeel said he had used methamphetamines in the past to stay awake, but the drug never affected him like it did on that day.

He said he couldn't remember anything about the chase except when  Pennsylvania State Police used a Taser to shock him as he sat in the truck after it stopped.

"I thought I was in Georgia," McNeel said. "I thought it was Wednesday."

The chase occurred on a Monday.

Michael argued that McNeel couldn't say that he didn't intend to hurt anyone if he couldn't remember what happened.

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