Crash victims' families sue Petersburg police

By Matt Butner - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

PETERSBURG, VA (WWBT) - The families of two teenagers involved in a deadly police pursuit and crash last July - are now suing the Petersburg Police Department. The families say bad choices by officers are mostly to blame for this tragedy.

The events leading up to this horrific crash on Defense Road in Petersburg in the early morning hours of July 22, 2008, started with a simple shoplifting complaint. The Petersburg officer, who responded to that call, followed a car carrying three teenagers out of the 711 parking lot.  A short chase ended in tragedy. It turns out, no one in the car was actually responsible for the shoplifting - Gary Hargrave's son Donte Howlett was killed, and Ethel Burgess's 16 year-old daughter Jenell was seriously hurt.

An attorney for the parents filed the suit in Petersburg circuit court. It alleges that officer Christopher Womack ignored department policy in initiating the chase, and that his supervisor, Sgt. David Cassort, should have called it off. The suit also suggests that the police department should have come down harder on Womack, who was placed on leave, but kept his job.

Petersburg Police declined to comment on the lawsuit, but defended their officers' actions in the days following the crash.

"There were numerous traffic infractions, including not stopping at stop signs, not stopping for signals, and traveling in excess of the speed limit," said Esther Hyatt.

The estate of Javon Butts, who drove the car and died in the crash, is also named as a defendant in the suit. The families' attorney says he expects the case to go to trial early next year.

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