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Trooper in fatal OHP pursuit for stolen tag had rifle cocked before spinning out SUV at over 100 mph

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Early in the January 2021 chase, the rookie trooper cocked his rifle in his lap and kept it there while driving, his in-car recording indicates.

In a field, next to the wreck of his grandmother’s SUV, Chris Hamlet saw his younger brother cough up blood before he noticed his own head wound while he screamed and cursed at the state trooper who caused the wreck.

Oklahoma Highway Patrol records show Trooper Tanner Eads had chased the Lincoln Navigator, reaching speeds of 115 mph, because of a stolen license plate and suspicious behavior.

A passenger in the SUV, Hamlet said he was trying to talk his brother out of “joyriding” with a friend that night in Cleveland County.

About 4 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2021, Eads ended the chase by sending the SUV into a violent tumble at over 100 mph. Hamlet, 18, was thrown through the windshield. His brother was also ejected, but died. The other occupant, 17, ended up hospitalized along with Hamlet.

Early in the chase, the rookie trooper cocked his rifle in his lap and kept it there while driving, his in-car recording indicates.

In an interview 69 days later, Eads told his colleague investigators, who had viewed the recording, the rifle was “next to me.” The OHP investigators didn’t pursue questioning about the positioning of the weapon, nor Eads failing to mention he had prepared to fire his rifle from behind the wheel.

Tim Tipton, Department of Public Safety commissioner who oversees OHP, didn’t respond to requests for an interview from the Tulsa World, nor questions emailed to him.

One of the other troopers participating in the chase could be heard remarking about its extreme risks, as he ran a stop sign in the dark only 30 seconds before Eads spun out the SUV.

Trooper Zachary Reynolds can then be heard saying: “Man, I’m about to die doing this [inaudible] stuff.”

‘They’re trying to run from me’

Vinnie Hamlet was 17 when he died after being ejected from the driver’s seat of the fleeing SUV. Chris Hamlet said a brain injury and nerve damage keeps him suffering 18 months later, probably for life.

Chris believes Eads “made the wrong call” and took a valuable life, he told the Tulsa World in an interview earlier this year. He lamented that his brother’s life was cut short before the teenager was able to “get his footwork in life” in dealing with a personality disorder.

“(Vinnie) wasn’t armed. ... I know he’s not the only kid — 17 years old — who takes off in his parent’s car,” Chris said. “It just ended badly for him.”

Vinnie’s grandmother was his guardian, Chris said, and they had argued earlier that night. During a “joyride,” the 17-year-old swapped the license plates in case the SUV was reported stolen.

The sight of an OHP cruiser caused him to freeze at an intersection, and Vinnie’s failure to turn was enough to prompt Eads’ suspicion. He found the tag was registered as stolen and pursued when Vinnie failed to stop.

Chris said his brother spun out on a soccer field.

Eads described it as the SUV turning “doughnuts,” so he went for his rifle.

“Just to put next to me while I sit here just in case I have to get out real quick and pursue this felony,” he told OHP investigators, “try to stop (them) obviously because they’re trying to run from me.”

The SUV appears to come to a complete stop, what Chris said felt like a momentary standoff with the trooper, until Vinnie drove off again.

He questioned whether any of his brother’s actions were serious enough for the trooper to threaten multiple lives by intentionally causing the wreck.

Cosmo — Chris’ 3-year-old dog — also was thrown from the SUV when Eads struck it at over 100 mph.

After believing Cosmo to be dead for two days, Chris said he learned someone associated with a veterinarian clinic had found the dog, limping in the field, after sunrise the day of the crash. The chocolate Lab suffered permanent ligament damage in his right hind leg.

“It kind of lightened my mood a bit,” Chris said of the reunion with Cosmo. “I wasn’t going to go to my brother’s funeral, but then I felt better — good enough to go without breaking down too much.”

Actions ruled justified

The Tulsa World’s ongoing investigation of the Highway Patrol’s deadly pursuits and shootings has uncovered reckless trooper actions, shoddy record-keeping, failure to address “alarming” concerns expressed by commanders, and unwillingness to formally review several fatal chases despite red flags.

In a five-year span, 15 OHP pursuits have killed 18 people — and at least eight of those killed weren’t the eluding drivers. Five were uninvolved motorists, at least two were passengers in fleeing vehicles, and one was an OHP lieutenant on foot struck by another trooper’s cruiser at high speed.

All but one of the deadly pursuits began with stolen property or traffic violations as the basis for the chase.

OHP didn’t provide investigative review documents about the chase that killed Vinnie Hamlet, indicating commanders held only an informal discussion, not a formal review.

A DPS memo notes that Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn and OHP command staff determined Eads’ actions were justified.

He first encountered the Navigator near the Interstate 240 access road and Pennsylvania Avenue, east of the Will Rogers World Airport.

Eads failed to turn on his emergency siren until more than three minutes into the 10-minute pursuit.

OHP policy requires troopers to “promote the safety of all persons” in auto chases, as well as to discontinue the chases immediately if their danger exceeds the value of apprehending the suspect “based on the known offense(s).”

In the footage available before Eads’ in-car video system malfunctioned about halfway through the pursuit, he can be seen readying his rifle while driving.

Eads cocked his rifle and kept it in his lap as he drove across a middle school’s soccer field, then the field’s track, a downed fence and a curb to re-enter a neighborhood street.

Eads spun out the SUV on Southwest 119th Street near South Meridian Avenue, south of Will Rogers World Airport in the northwestern corner of Cleveland County.

Policy describes a proper TVI — Tactical Vehicle Intervention to spin out a fleeing vehicle — as a “controlled maneuver” to minimize risk of injury. The agency requires troopers do TVIs in a manner that doesn’t “constitute a ramming or uncontrolled collision.”

Eads said of the high-speed wreck: “They rolled for a while.”

The agency didn’t discipline Eads for any of his actions in the pursuit.

‘A bad idea’

It remains unclear whether Eads actually used the rifle or his state-issued handgun during the pursuit.

OHP-provided documentation shows a technician identified a power cable that “dislodged” during the chase, preventing the camera system from operating.

According to Chris Hamlet, the three occupants of the SUV felt something strike the vehicle that sounded like projectiles.

“We all asked — we all said at the same time — ‘What was that?’ It was acknowledged by everybody in the vehicle that something had hit the car.”

Chris described it “like they were trying to hit the wheel.”

OHP didn’t respond when asked whether Eads, the only trooper close enough for such an action, might have used his handgun or rifle to fire on the fleeing SUV.

Nearly one year to the day before the crash that killed Vinnie Hamlet, seven OHP commanders raised red flags about an “alarming increase” of troopers shooting people and into cars.

A subsequent higher-level review issued a report without acknowledging the commanders’ documented concerns. Nor did the report indicate that any actions were taken.

A national expert who studies policing called having an unsecured rifle on a driver’s lap “a bad idea.”

In general, Seth Stoughton says he has a “very difficult time” envisioning a scenario in which it would be appropriate for an officer driving a vehicle to have an unsecured weapon, especially with a chambered bullet that is ready to fire.

Stoughton is a former Florida police officer who became a lawyer. He teaches at University of South Carolina’s law school, as well as in its criminology and criminal justice department.

He said he can imagine situations in which an officer might remove the weapon from its secure mount as the vehicle is coming to a stop — but not expect them to chamber a round until ready or actually exiting the vehicle.

“Having something as bulky as a rifle unsecured and on the driver’s lap during high-speed vehicle operations is just a bad idea,” Stoughton said.

The aftermath

Chris Hamlet has trouble sleeping. The final images of his brother are nested in his mind.

Hamlet feels pins and needles in his left arm from nerve damage, similar to the sensation of a foot fallen asleep. He was incapable of moving his arm for the first two weeks after the crash.

Hamlet, now 20, experiences “ghost pain” where he suffered a hairline fracture in his skull and 25 staples. There’s also random rhythmic facial tics.

“(Sometimes) I just lose it; my brain goes haywire for a second,” Hamlet said.

Hamlet said he doubts the nerve damage in his arm, which limits its use, will ever completely heal.

The high-speed rollover crash pulled his arm out of place and quickly compressed it back in, which he said jumbled his nerves. The only way to repair the damage is surgery, and he doesn’t have the time nor the money.

“It’s a surgery that isn’t covered by my insurance because it’s risky,” Hamlet said. “They would have to take the nerves and reroute them into another nerve set in order for me to regain feeling in my triceps.”

Hamlet said he doesn’t remember speaking briefly with troopers at the hospital while medical personnel had him on drugs to treat him. He said he wants the public to know the story from his point of view.

“They never investigated my side of the story,” Hamlet said of the Highway Patrol. “Nothing. They just kind of got out of the hospital, went and picked up my property, and they just never talked to me again.”

Hamlet said he spent ages 13 to 18 in the custody of the state. He said his brother, who stayed with their grandma, was the one person who was always there for him.

“He was a good guy, though,” Hamlet said. “He was loving, caring — just trying to figure out who he was in life.”

Corey Jones of Tulsa is a member of Lee Enterprises’ Public Service Journalism Team.

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