Miss. truck driver sentenced to 21 years in 2010 drug-fueled chase

January 09, 2012|By DON AINES |
  • Thomas McNeel
Thomas McNeel

A Mississippi truck driver who led police on a drug-fueled chase through three states in December 2010 was sentenced Monday in Washington County Circuit Court to serve 21 years in prison.

The outcome could have been worse for Thomas McNeel, whom Pennsylvania State Police were prepared to shoot as he drove a tractor-trailer across the Mason-Dixon Line, Washington County Deputy State’s Attorney Joseph Michael said.

Circuit Judge M. Kenneth Long Jr. sentenced McNeel, 43, of Pontotoc, Miss., on four counts of second-degree assault against police officers for aiming his tractor-trailer at Washington County Sheriff’s deputies Carl Witmer and Gregory Johnston, and Maryland State Police Sgt. Brian Smith and Trooper 1st Class William Talbert.

Long said the dashboard cameras of the cruisers involved in the Dec. 20, 2010, chase helped McNeel avoid conviction on more serious charges.

“Had I not seen the video, I’m pretty sure I would have convicted you of first-degree assault,” Long told McNeel.
The judge said he believed McNeel’s intent was to frighten the officers rather than injure them, as he steered toward them before veering away.

Witmer was in a cruiser when McNeel swerved toward it, Michael said after the sentencing. Talbert was driving alongside the truck when McNeel tried to crush his cruiser between the truck and a concrete barrier, and Smith and Johnston were standing near their cruisers when McNeel aimed the rig toward them.

Michael said during the sentencing hearing that Pennsylvania State Police were prepared to shoot McNeel if he had done the same thing in that state. Steering a tractor-trailer toward the Maryland officers was like pointing a deadly weapon at them, he said.

McNeel had a bench trial in front of Long on Dec. 8, and the judge issued his verdict Dec. 20, a year after the offense. He found McNeel guilty of the second-degree assaults, as well as leaving the scene of an accident, fleeing and eluding police, reckless driving and failure to control his speed to avoid a collision.

The pursuit started in West Virginia and reached a speed of about 80 mph in Maryland before police flattened tires on the tractor-trailer, Michael said. That reduced the truck’s speed to about 35 mph, he said.

South of the Interstate 70 intersection, McNeel damaged four civilians’ vehicles before police were able to slow the truck, Michael said after the hearing. Two of the drivers submitted victim-impact statements asking that McNeel pay more than $11,000 for damage to their vehicles. One of the women also wrote that she experienced back problems as a result of the crash.

Smith told the court he accepted the risks of being a police officer and he did not take personally what McNeel did to him that day. Smith said he was more concerned about the danger McNeel posed to the civilians on Interstate 81 that morning.

McNeel served a county jail sentence for driving under the influence in Franklin County, Pa., where the truck eventually was disabled. Police said he had been using methamphetamine, and officers used a Taser and a police dog to get him out of the cab.

McNeel testified at his trial that he used methamphetamine and a synthetic drug known as “bath salts” that morning, and he claimed he couldn’t remember the incident.

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