A suspected car thief who led police on a wild pursuit that ended a mile into a Metro Gold Line subway tunnel was charged Thursday with six felonies and could get more than four years in prison if convicted.
Rafael Lopez Jr., 27, was apprehended Tuesday night after police said he drove a stolen truck into the Gold Line tunnel and jumped out halfway into the 2-mile light rail passage. Police officers found Lopez hiding in a storage closet, but a female passenger was able to get away.
Prosecutors charged Lopez with fleeing a pursuing officer while driving recklessly, fleeing a pursuing officer and driving against traffic, taking a vehicle without the owner's consent, receiving a stolen vehicle, hit-and-run driving resulting in injury and hit-and-run resulting in property damage. They are seeking to hold him in lieu of $150,000 bail. If convicted of all the charges, Lopez faces up to four years and four months in prison.
Huntington Park police spotted Lopez in the stolen truck near Gage and Salt Lake avenues Tuesday night, according to prosecutors, and when officers attempted to pull him over, he sped off.
Pursuing officers reported that Lopez reached speeds exceeding 80 mph, ran red lights, traveled on the wrong side of city streets and struck a taxi, injuring two people.
With officers on his tail, the driver veered his truck off the road and into a Metro subway tunnel in Boyle Heights, disappearing from the view of helicopters broadcasting the chase. Metro officials shut down the Gold Line as officers went into the tunnel and checked the subway station at Soto Street.
At that moment, authorities worried the truck could hit a train. Metro quickly shut off service, and it turned out there were no trains in the short tunnel, which runs through a portion of Boyle Heights.
"The tunnel — it was a first for us in a pursuit," said Huntington Park Police Lt. Al Martinez. "We don't like firsts."
Televised car chases have long been a source of fascination in Southern California, even though the vast majority end the same way, with drivers eventually being stopped and arrested. Sometimes, drivers simply give up or run out of gas. Other times, police use spike strips or the PIT maneuver to spin the vehicle and stop it.
Yet watching these chases involves a certain faith that maybe, just maybe, the driver will outrun the cops.
Against the odds, some do get away. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that the Los Angeles Police Department reported making arrests in 82% of chases from 2006 to 2014, well above the state average of 68%. More recent data were not immediately available.
"People are always going to try and get away, but it is pretty hard to escape," said Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles police captain and pursuit training expert.
In November, three suspects thought to be involved in the armed robbery of a Laguna Niguel wireless store managed to escape police after a lengthy pursuit from Orange County to Pasadena, where they jumped out of their vehicle at the Paseo Colorado mall. They have yet to be caught.
A Los Angeles County civil grand jury studied 421 police pursuits in the county that were reported to the California Highway Patrol in a 12-month period beginning October 2015. The grand jury's report found that suspects were immediately apprehended in 67% of the chases, leaving 139 pursuits that did not end in an arrest. Fifty-nine involved vehicles that escaped, and 47 ended because police abandoned the pursuit, usually for safety reasons. The others included suspects who fled on foot vehicles that crashed.
The report concluded that some pursuits caused "unnecessary bystander injuries and deaths" and that law enforcement officers need better training to reduce the risk of crashes during high-speed pursuits.
The Times analysis showed that LAPD pursuits injure bystanders at more than twice the rate of police chases in the rest of California. From 2006 to 2014, 334 bystanders were injured — 1 for every 10 LAPD pursuits, according to the review of pursuit data reported to the CHP.