Two televised police chases sped through Orange County Tuesday, one ending as officers dragged a drunk-driving suspect from his truck and grabbed his two children, the other stopping when police rammed a stolen van and spun it between two patrol cars.
There were no serious injuries in either incident, but the dramas snarled various freeways and in one case backed up traffic for miles in both directions.
Ralph Christopher Schutte, 37, an unemployed San Diego resident, led officers on a 60-mile pursuit along Interstate 5 from La Jolla to Mission Viejo Tuesday morning. Police said he played the guitar and tossed paper out the windows of his 1956 Ford flatbed as he swerved from lane to lane, never going faster then 60 m.p.h.
The chase ended when the truck conked out in the middle of the road.
"That's the way we like them, we don't want anybody to get hurt out there," said CHP spokesman Bruce Lian. "We've got all the time in the world. We'll wait these things out."
A second chase started near where the first left off in Mission Viejo late Tuesday afternoon and ended in Buena Park. With the television cameras rolling from a helicopter overhead, a stolen van wove through rush-hour traffic and bolted up to 120 m.p.h. on open stretches until CHP officers boxed the van in and drew their guns, forcing three teen-agers from the vehicle.
"A number of people feel like we're just like the old cowboys out there; that's a bad impression," said Sgt. Steve Foulds, instructor of the Emergency Vehicle Operations course at the state CHP academy. "The strategy is just to maintain some visual contact. . . . If the individual just sits there, there's a point in time where we've got to take some kind of action. We are continually looking at how we can better manage these things."
Both chases were carried live on television as helicopter news crews monitored the action.
Last Thursday, TV screens broadcast another live chase as officers criss-crossed four counties in pursuit of a man suspected of shooting a Pomona police officer and then commandeering a pick-up truck with a person inside. That chase also ended without injury as the man scrambled across several back yards in the Santa Ana neighborhood where he grew up and then surrendered.
"With the advent of sky-cams (and) the recent phenomenon of high-speed car chases, there has been a tendency for TV news shows to not only televise the chases but also to dwell on them," said Sherrie Mazingo, who chairs the broadcast journalism department at USC. "It's because the stations have the technological capacity to do it--in part, they're showing off their technology."
The first incident began about 9:20 a.m. when San Diego police officers tried to stop Schutte because they thought he was driving drunk. Nearly 90 minutes later, Orange County CHP officers closed both sides of Interstate 5 as they surrounded Schutte's truck, stopping traffic for miles.
Though police believed that Schutte was armed throughout the chase, CHP officers peering into the truck once it was stopped saw the guitar and no gun in the cab crowded with the children's car seats.
With the two preschoolers inside the cab, officers implemented the swarm technique.
One patrol car distracted Schutte by driving off to his left, while officers smashed the driver's side window and ripped the other door open in hope of rescuing the children.
Schutte, flailing and screaming incoherently about "the land of angels," punched one officer on the nose and scratched another.
"When we started tugging at him we all came tumbling out like Humpty Dumpty off the wall," said CHP Officer Patrick Barnard, who led the chase from the Orange County line to its conclusion and then helped drag Schutte from the truck. "We fell back on top of each other."
After the brief scuffle, officers arrested Schutte and gave 3-year-old Amy and 5-year-old Nicholas stuffed brown teddy bears. At CHP headquarters in San Juan Capistrano, the children played with toys and coloring books as they munched on burgers, fries and Girl Scout cookies, Lian said.
"Anything that builds trust or eases their minds can help the kids be less frightened about the what's-going-to-happen-to-them next," explained Jane Carmichael, service chief for a team of counselors that evaluate children for the Orange County Juvenile Court.
The children returned to San Diego with Schutte's parents Tuesday afternoon. Their father remained in Orange County Jail in lieu of $10,000 bond, facing charges of child endangerment, assault with a deadly weapon, assault on a police officer and resisting arrest.
"Once I saw the kids, that's all that stayed in my mind, that's all you think about," said Barnard, 44, the father of three grown children. "You feel sorry for the kids. When you've got little ones like this it's awful. . . . The kids are crying, they're screaming, they're scared to death, and that just makes it all the worse for you."
The second chase began when CHP officers tried to stop a dark gray Chevrolet Astro on the Santa Ana Freeway near Avery Parkway at 3:40 p.m. While the patrol car's sirens were wailing, the occupants of the stolen van switched drivers and the vehicle darted away.
Airborne television cameras followed the pursuit to Los Angeles County and back as the van sped across congested freeways, forcing its way in and out of car-pool lanes and nearly colliding with other motorists. CHP Officer Rick Pena said the young occupants of the van tossed stereo equipment out of the van as they whizzed along.
The van headed west on the Riverside Freeway, then north on the Long Beach Freeway. At one point, the driver got off the freeway and drove on surface streets in Long Beach before getting back on the Riverside Freeway headed back toward Orange County.
The driver left the Riverside Freeway on Valley View Street about 4:30 p.m. CHP officers boxed in the van a few blocks away on Panama Drive, as one patrol car rammed it from behind and another swung around to block the driver's path.
Two teen-age girls and a 19-year-old man got out of the vehicle and were arrested. The man was identified as Johnny Reyna, who was booked into Orange County Jail on suspicion of evading arrest, possession of stolen credit cards and auto theft.
The names of the girls were not released because they are juveniles. One of the young women was charged with evading arrest because she was driving when the officer attempted to stop the van in Mission Viejo for a traffic violation. The van had been reported stolen on Monday in Anaheim.
"I was listening to the radio in my garage when I heard it was coming this way," said Jack Muir, 35, who lives on the corner of Panama and Valley View. "All of a sudden, I saw them."
Santa Fe Springs CHP Sgt. Steve Beeuwsaert, who handcuffed the male suspect, said officers chose to ram the van because of the driver's recklessness.
"They were in a residential area and we were afraid because there were kids around," Beeuwsaert said. "Officers hit him in the rear and boxed him in."
Irene Macik, 72, was standing outside talking to her husband, who was gardening, when the chase arrived at their front door.
"I don't know what it was, but it was frightening to hear all that," said Macik, 72, who is legally blind. "I went inside and switched on the TV, I tried to watch it off the edge of my left eye. I couldn't see, but what I heard was scary to me."
Debbie Bjorn, 37, who lives on Panama Drive, said she and her family were watching TV and realized that the chase would go through her neighborhood. Bjorn told her three children, ages 10 to 13, that they could go in the front yard to watch the squadron of news and police helicopters fly over the freeway.
Moments later, she ran outside to hurry the children indoors.
"When I noticed (the helicopters) hovering, I said "Oh my God, my kids!' " Bjorn said. "It was scary."
Even Officer Barnard, a 22-year CHP veteran, admitted the high-speed chases are frightening.
"You're always scared. You better be if you're going to do this job," he said, wiping the blood from a cut at the bridge of his nose. "You've got some macho guy who will say he's not scared, but you've got to be scared."
Times staff writers Greg Hernandez, Kevin Johnson, Matt Lait, Jon D. Markman and Eric Young and correspondent Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.
Clip and Box The maneuver the CHP used Tuesday to halt a suspected van thief after an hourlong chase is known as a "fishtail" and is part of the standard training. Ideally, this maneuver is performed away from traffic and at speeds no higher than 35 m.p.h. 1. Van rounds corner; patrol car uses right front bumper to clip van's left rear bumper. 2. Patrol car slowly pushes van to right, officer abruptly brakes as van begins to spin. 3. Van spins 180 degrees as patrol car turns behind it. 4. Second patrol unit boxes in van. Source: California Highway Patrol