When should law enforcement ask for public help to solve a crash?
Suspect driver not apprehended in June 20 crash
Alan Larson was heading west on Interstate 90 to the Black Hills for a little vacation time last month when things took a turn for the worse.
As he attempted to pass a pickup truck towing a gooseneck trailer, he was forced off the road and into the median. The resulting crash that occurred on June 20 brought his vacation time to a screeching halt and hit him and members of his family with injuries and steep medical bills.
But the driver of the pickup has not been caught. The crash has frustrated Larson on multiple levels due to the lack of eye witnesses to come forward and what he said was a lack of publicity of the incident by law enforcement.
“This is the part that frustrates me. With the number of people on the road, how was nobody making calls to report this? I can’t tell you how many people I saw looking at their phone, texting, for god’s sake,” said Larson, who hails from near Alexandria, Minnesota.
Larson said he edged over to avoid colliding with the truck, and with his own left wheels leaving the pavement he hesitated to hit the brakes for fear of losing control. With cars following behind him he didn’t want to cause a larger crash. But he said he had no choice, and he drove down into the median to avoid hitting the pickup.
“We’re heading west, going out to the Black Hills for vacation. We were in the process of passing a darker-colored pickup pulling a stock trailer,” he said. “We’re neck and neck with the pickup, we’re in the left lane and he’s in the right. Next thing I know he’s drifting into my lane.”
“We go down in the median, got on the grass and hit the brakes. And low and behold, here comes an approach,” Larson said.
Larson estimated his minivan, with seven people on board, hit the approach between 50 and 55 mph, which launched the vehicle into the air nearly 80 feet. They landed nose-down in the median. The truck that had forced them from the road weaved off the road itself, but recovered and continued west without stopping.
A Good Samaritan stopped to check on Larson and his passengers and informed him that he had witnessed the incident.
“He told me right away I didn’t stand a chance,” Larson said.
Larson, 52, said some passengers were treated at a hospital in Chamberlain, and he was checked for injuries at a hospital in Sioux Falls. Treatment for his wife has exceeded $50,000 so far, and Larson himself incurred a $20,000 bill from an emergency room check in Sioux Falls following the accident. He had to cancel his vacation, and the rental house he had planned to stay in refused to refund his fee.
The incident occurred at about 1:45 p.m. near mile marker 245 on Interstate 90, Larson said.
A highway worker was a witness and radioed information to law enforcement, and the Lyman County Sheriff’s Office and South Dakota Highway Patrol responded to the incident, but Larson is unaware if any fellow drivers reported the vehicle in question, he said.
“We gave the description as best we could, but when you’re in the process of passing, you’re not getting the license plate number. You’re just not doing that,” Larson said.
Larson said law enforcement pulled over some vehicles farther west, but the culprit was not identified. He said the passengers in the minivan forced off the road were not consulted if any of the suspect vehicles matched the one involved in the incident, and Larson said the truck couldn’t have been too far down the road from where the incident occurred.
“There were some vehicles pulled over and they were released. The thing that’s a little frustrating is that we never even had the ability to see if the vehicles were the one,” Larson said.
Larson praised the deputy who assisted them on the scene, but wished more had been done in the way of finding the offending truck.
“The young deputy that was with us, he did a good job, and I understand his first concern is for us. But we also have to look at the back side of things as well, because this isn’t cheap,” Larson said.
More than a month later, Larson has little hope for finding the driver responsible for the crash, but he would like to see law enforcement try to enlist the help of the public or utilize social media when trying to keep the roads safe.
“Given how late it is, I don’t think that they’re going to be doing anything more,” Larson said. “I went to see if there was any mention (on social media), and there wasn’t. On their Facebook pages there was nothing out there. Zero. Zilch.”
Tony Mangan, public information officer for the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, of which the South Dakota Highway Patrol is a part, said the policy for seeking public assistance in locating an offender depends on how widespread a threat is to the public.
“We do try to publicize things that are general in nature, such as severe weather,” Mangan said. “That’s not to say that this isn’t important to the people involved, but we do have to have some sort of consistency there.”
It is impossible to ask for the public’s help in every case, Mangan said, but the department is always looking for ways to improve its ability to effectively investigate incidents like the one that happened to Larson. There have been no recent discussions on adjusting the policy for the department to be more active on social media, but Mangan said that revisiting the issue is a definite possibility in the future.
“The South Dakota Highway Patrol and South Dakota Department of Public Safety are always looking to see what else they can do. There may come a time when we might change that, but we haven’t really talked about it a great deal,” Mangan said. “In the fluid world of social media anything is possible.”
It is a matter of being consistent and giving priority to the most clear and serious public safety threats.
“We do try very hard to make sure we use our social media in a responsible way. Our goal is to find a way to help the public that is not frivolous and that we’re not putting stuff out there just to put stuff out there,” Mangan said.
Mangan stressed that he was not dismissing the seriousness of the incident that occurred to Larson, but with how the department currently handles social media, it must be judicious in how it uses it with active cases.
“We just need to make sure we do it the right way,” Mangan said.
Mangan agreed with Larson that when the public sees something to report what they saw to law enforcement as soon as it is safe to do so. That in itself can make a huge difference in helping identify the responsible party in cases like this.
“The first thing you do is call law enforcement and let them know what’s going on,” he said.
Mangan said he did not have any specific statistics on how often these kinds of crashes occur or how often the perpetrator is caught. He also said he did not believe any arrests had been made in the case, but that the Highway Patrol would follow up on any leads that come its way.
“If we get any other information, the Highway Patrol will look into it, absolutely,” Mangan said. “I think it’s important to know that the Highway Patrol takes all such calls seriously, and they do whatever they can to help the public.”
While Larson said he had hoped for more social media activity from law enforcement, he also wished more people sharing the road with him that day would have simply taken a moment to provide information. He knows they were there and saw what happened, but he’s disappointed more didn’t lend a hand.
“I just can’t believe in this day and age that people are just so callous and heartless that they can’t take the time to make a phone call or report a truck,” Larson said.