July 24, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Suspect owes her life to Saco officers' restraint

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

Monique Vallee is one lucky woman.

Listen to the police radio

Click on the icon for edited audio of the exchanges between the dispatcher and the officers involved in the Saco chase.

Saco police have released this recording of the exchanges between Saco dispatchers and the city’s officers chasing – and sometimes dodging – Monique Vallee, 43, of Andover, Mass., who is charged with ramming three cruisers early Monday morning.

Vallee, who declined a request for an interview, is scheduled to be arraigned by video Wednesday. The call signs for the officers used during the radio traffic are: Sgt. Daniel Beaulieu, 14; Officer Donald Fiske, 50; Officer Nicholas Stankevitz, 41; and Officer Matthew Roberts, 51. The dispatcher was Aaron Hatch.

Sure, she's still behind bars at the York County Jail following a police chase early Monday that left most of the Saco Police Department's cruiser fleet looking like the aftermath of a NASCAR wreck.

And yes, as she awaits a Sept. 12 court appearance to face four counts of aggravated reckless conduct, three counts of assault on an officer and three counts of criminal mischief, Vallee's legal problems undoubtedly have just begun.

But Vallee, 43, is still alive. And credit for that belongs to four Saco officers who easily could have opened fire during those frantic few minutes in the wee hours of the morning -- but didn't.

"We're very thankful for that, to be honest," said Saco Police Chief Brad Paul in an interview Tuesday. "You read about these things from time to time where officers are put into that terrible, awful decision-making process where things kick in and you really get trapped by circumstances. And I'm thankful that cool heads prevailed."

Those would be the heads of Sgt. Dan Beaulieu and Officers Nic Stankevitz, Matt Roberts and Don Fiske, who had good reason to believe during their nine-minute encounter with Vallee that she was trying to kill them.

Which, according to Maine law, would have justified the use of "deadly force" -- also known as discharging your service weapon -- to stop her.

As Maine's Criminal Code states, "A law enforcement officer is justified in using deadly force only when the officer reasonably believes such force is necessary ... for self-defense or to defend a third person from what the officer reasonably believes is the imminent use of unlawful deadly force."

Let's go to the replay:

Just after 1 a.m. Monday, Maine State Police alerted Saco police that a woman driving a convertible south in the Maine Turnpike's northbound lane may have turned off the highway at Exit 36 onto the limited-access, Interstate-195 spur in Saco.

Officer Fiske headed for the I-195 spur and, seconds later, saw the convertible speeding toward him. He escaped a head-on collision only by bailing into the breakdown lane, at which point Vallee stopped, shifted into reverse and backed into Fiske's cruiser.

"Whoa! Hold on!" Fiske can be heard saying in the audiotape of the incident.

Over the next minute and 12 seconds, Saco dispatcher Aaron Hatch tried three times to raise Fiske on the radio. All he heard was silence.

Officer down? Nobody knew.

Officer's exact location? Nobody knew that either.

A grave threat to anyone on the road at that moment? It doesn't get more dangerous.

Finally, as other units converged on the area, Fiske radioed his comrades, "My radio was shut off. I've been rammed. I'm going back towards Old Orchard, wrong direction ... this vehicle's trying to engage me."

That was an understatement. Through two more collisions over the next two minutes, Fiske repeatedly warned that the driver of the convertible, which he mistakenly assumed was a man, "is intentionally trying to ram when he sees officers."

"Ten-four. All officers use caution," dispatcher Hatch calmly advised the other units.

Moments later, Fiske reported that it was a female driver and that she had disabled his cruiser on the Industrial Road on-ramp near the entrance to the turnpike

"My vehicle is totaled. I am unharmed," he told Hatch. "I do not need rescue, nor do I need fire."

Meanwhile, up on the turnpike, three other units were in hot pursuit of Vallee as she headed north in the northbound lane -- after crossing over from the southbound lane.

Again she stopped, shifted into reverse and this time struck Roberts' cruiser. Then she drove headlong into Beaulieu's cruiser, disabling both her and Beaulieu's vehicles.

Time out for a second: Imagine you're one of those three officers getting out of your cruiser with your gun drawn.

Your heart is pounding.

Vallee, rather than give up, is still revving her engine and ignoring your orders to exit the vehicle.

Inexplicably, according to Chief Paul, she repeatedly tries to ignite a cigarette lighter as she sits in the driver's seat.

What would you do?

Noted Paul, "It takes a lot longer to say what happened than it does for it to occur."

In the end, the officers twice hit Vallee with a Taser -- once to get her out of the vehicle and again to get her into handcuffs -- before carting her off to the slammer.

Beyond the bumps and bruises that often occur when two vehicles collide, no one was seriously hurt. While Vallee's use of her car undoubtedly constituted "deadly force" under Maine law -- meaning it could cause "death or serious bodily injury" -- not one of the officers involved chose to respond in kind.

Big deal?

It was to Vallee's father, himself a retired Massachusetts police officer, who showed up at the Saco Police Department Monday morning to apologize on his daughter's behalf and thank Paul and his officers for their restraint.

"Apparently she has been through some very difficult (child) custodial issues that didn't go well for her," said Paul, adding that there was no evidence that Vallee was intoxicated or otherwise impaired.

Time will tell exactly what was going through Vallee's mind as she turned three perfectly good Saco police cruisers into so many insurance settlements.

Meanwhile, at a time when many equate the phrase "stand your ground" with "shoot now and ask questions later," Vallee's apprehension offers a few valuable lessons for law enforcement officers and civilians alike.

One is that there's a big difference -- and a world of discretion -- between situations where deadly force is "legally justified" and those where it's "absolutely necessary."

Another is that when someone's trying to hurt or even kill you, training trumps reflex every time. Beyond that initial "Whoa!" from an understandably surprised Officer Fiske, the Saco police tape is as noteworthy for what isn't said as it is for the professional, deliberate demeanor exhibited by the dispatcher and officers involved.

But here's the real takeaway from this tragedy averted: Compelled as we must be to scrutinize police officers whenever they discharge their weapons in the line of duty, who keeps tabs on the countless other times when police could have, maybe should have, pulled the trigger -- but in the end held their fire? If there isn't a medal for that, there darned well should be.

"Sometimes deadly force is used (against an officer)," said Chief Paul. "And you're sucked into a kind of vortex where things seem ordained and difficult to veer away from."

Monday morning, much to Monique Vallee's good fortune, Saco police veered away.

 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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