Miss. trucker found not guilty of first-degree assault in 3-state chase

Thomas L. McNeel faces sentencing for second-degree assault and other offenses connected with I-81 pursuit in Dec. 2010

December 20, 2011|By DON AINES |
  • Tow truck operators begin removal of the tractor-trailer from the median of Interstate 81 at Pa. 16 following a three-state chase Dec. 20, 2010.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

A Mississippi truck driver who led police on a wild, drug-fueled chase through three states last year was acquitted of four counts of first-degree assault Tuesday, but faces sentencing on four second-degree assault convictions and a several other offenses.

Washington County Circuit Court Judge M. Kenneth Long Jr. announced his verdict Tuesday morning, based on testimony and evidence heard during the Dec. 8 bench trial of Thomas L. McNeel, 43, of Pontotoc, Miss.

Long also found McNeel guilty of fleeing and eluding police, reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident involving bodily injury and other charges stemming from the chase on Dec. 20, 2010, up Interstate 81 that began in Berkeley County, W.Va., and passed through Washington County before ending near Exit 5 in Franklin County, Pa.

“I find that his intention was to frighten” the four police officers at whom McNeel was accused of aiming his tractor-trailer during the chase, Long said.

But the judge said he was not satisfied that McNeel intended to cause serious harm to the four police officers involved in the pursuit.

McNeel was found guilty of the second-degree assault against Washington County Sheriff’s deputies Carl Witmer and Gregory Johnston, and Maryland state troopers Cpl. Brian Smith and Trooper 1st Class William Talbert.

Based on dashboard camera videos from police cruisers and testimony, Long said McNeel was able to control the tractor-trailer, both intentionally swerving at police officers and then taking evasive action to avoid hitting them — although the mirror of one cruiser that was pulled over was clipped during the incident.

McNeel testified at his trial that he had taken methamphetamine and another drug known as “bath salts” in Virginia that morning, but Long said he did not find credible his claim that he did not remember the incident following his arrest.

The truck had been running on its front rims after police used Stop Sticks to flatten it tires, Long said.

The Dec. 8 trial also included testimony from civilian witnesses, drivers whose vehicles were hit and run off the road during the chase.

After the tractor-trailer became disabled in Pennsylvania, McNeel would not come out of the cab of the truck even after being shocked with a Taser, and a police dog had to be sent into the truck to get him out, Long noted.

The judge deferred sentencing to allow the victims to be present at a later date. Each count of second-degree assault carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

McNeel pleaded guilty to charges in Pennsylvania and received a county jail sentence earlier this year. He was also indicted on charges in West Virginia in October, court records said.

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