By Tim Eberly
Havre Police Chief Kevin Olson completed an investigation of his officers' conduct during a high-speed chase that ended with a man's death Monday and determined that proper law enforcement procedures were followed.
"I've reviewed the incident in detail and found that our procedures were followed to the letter," Olson said. "There is nothing there that could constitute a violation of policy or procedure on the part of law enforcement."
The victim, Michael David Collins, suffered fatal head injuries Monday afternoon when his vehicle crashed while he was attempting to elude the police a highway pursuit sparked when Collins assaulted patrons at a local bar and fled, police said.
Approximately 7.5 miles south of Havre on U.S. Highway 87, Collins lost control of his vehicle a 1997 Dodge pickup he stole after fleeing from the Gallery Lounge in the Holiday Village Shopping Center, police said. Three police cars gave chase.
Traveling at speeds between 95 and 100 mph, Collins' vehicle drifted onto the right shoulder of the road, then veered into the oncoming lane of traffic, according to the Montana Highway Patrol. When Collins tried to straighten his path, he overcorrected his steering, forcing the vehicle to spin several times in the southbound lane before sliding sideways into a ditch. After rolling one and a half times, the pickup came to a stop upside down, and Collins was pronounced dead at the scene at 2:50 p.m.
Police said Collins had been drinking at the Gallery but that they had not yet obtained his blood-alcohol content.
"The alcohol is what did it," said Lorraine Gardipee, Collins' mother. "Alcohol affected his personality. He couldn't handle alcohol. Every time he drank, something always happened."
Police received a call at 2:38 p.m. from the Gallery, shortly after Collins threatened two male patrons with a hunting knife, said Chad Butcher, a Gallery bartender. Fifteen minutes before the call was placed, Collins entered the bar with a couple who apparently were giving him a ride through town and ordered pizza. Collins, of Rocky Boy, and the couple paid for the food and left the bar for approximately five minutes.
When they returned, Collins challenged three people who were playing pool to a game. Moments later, he bought a pitcher of beer, and spilled much of it on the 20-foot walk from the bar to the pool table, the bartender said.
"I told him he would have to calm down, or he would get booted," Butcher said. "At that point, he got very demanding and belligerent. He wasn't going to leave until he drank his beer and ate his pizza."
Within minutes of the verbal warning, Collins started insulting at least four separate men in the bar, which contained roughly 20 people. Then he brandished the knife, and focused his threats toward two men seated at the bar, Butcher said. "He was flashing it around, doing kung fu stuff," Butcher said. "He had fallen once when he was flashing it around. I think a lot of people were afraid of what he might do."
Soon after, Collins went outside and threatened people in the parking lot, Butcher said. He walked to an adjacent parking lot for Frontier Lawn and Landscape and stole the pickup, whose owner had left keys inside.
Police arrived at 2:42 p.m., just as Collins darted across oncoming traffic on U.S. Highway 2 and nearly collided with one car, police said. Police followed Collins onto U.S. Highway 87.
"There were numerous patrons that had exited the bar and were excitedly pointing toward the vehicle, which led the officer to make the assumption that he was in that vehicle," Olson said Tuesday.
From the start of the chase, Mark Bosch, an investigator with the highway patrol, said Collins "was making bad passes. He was in and out of his lane."
Collins, a firefighter with a Hotshots crew, and his girlfriend were expecting a baby in February, Gardipee said. His first wife, Carol Collins, died from complications from respiratory problems in 1991. And his father, David Collins, was killed in 1983 when a small plane he was in went down in the Utah mountains.
"He was my only child," said Gardipee, 58, who will hold funeral services for her son at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Rocky Boy Catholic Church. "Everybody that knew him was just in shock. I'll miss him but I'm going to raise his baby. (His girlfriend) was going to give us the baby, and I think she still will."
A 1997 graduate of the Chicago Indian Iron Works School in Illinois, Collins was raised in Hayward, Calif., and moved to Rocky Boy in 1979. He attended Stone Child College, and won an award for holding a high grade-point average. He had never been convicted of a felony in District Court in Havre.
Olson said that a high-speed pursuit is justified when "the necessity of immediate apprehension outweighs the level of danger created by the pursuit."
Steve Mitchell, a program manager for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc., said that while the Havre police are not accredited with CALEO, Havre pursuit procedures and reactions during this case are similar to those of police departments nationwide.
"Certainly, if a crime has been committed, the officer has the discretion to pursue somebody," said Capt. Bob Hammel of the highway patrol. "Mainly, it comes down to discretion and the officer's ability to make high-speed decisions. If we let (the suspect) go, is he going to kill somebody down the road?"
The answer to that question, according to Olson, was that it was possible.
"We have an individual who has committed an armed felony and stole another motor vehicle," Olson said. "Hence, the pursuit is justified."