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OSHP: Trooper was trying to prevent tragedy by chasing wrong-way driver before crash that killed 2

'Unfortunately, this crash still occurred'
Posted at 3:38 AM, Oct 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-24 17:43:01-04

EUCLID, Ohio — Two people are dead after a chase with the Ohio State Highway Patrol ended in a head-on crash on Interstate 90 in Euclid Thursday morning, according to officials with Cleveland's post of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

Officials with the post said the pursuit began around midnight after a trooper attempted to stop a 2005 Pontiac Grand Prix heading east on I-90 near the E. 222nd exit. Troopers said the driver reached speeds in excess of 90 mph.

“Vehicle was coming up behind [the trooper],” said Lt. Robert Sellers. “He slowed down to allow that vehicle to pass to initiate a traffic stop. The vehicle did not stop and led the trooper on a brief chase.”

The driver, identified as 28-year-old Vernon Hayes Jr., sped off, leading law enforcement on a chase for three miles. During the chase, Hayes exceeded 90 mph and weaved through the sparse traffic on the roadway at the time, officials said. As Hayes was approaching the Euclid Avenue exit, he braked to a near stop and suddenly made a U-turn in the middle of the highway.

“It’s shocking because you’re trying to stop this individual and they almost do the unthinkable and go the wrong way to elude you. At that point, you’re just trying to prevent something bad before it happens,” Lt. Sellers said.

Hayes began driving westbound in the eastbound lanes while the trooper, who had lights and sirens activated, followed behind in order to warn oncoming drivers. Roughly twenty seconds after Hayes began traveling the wrong way, he swerved into the path of another vehicle driven by Johnell Smith, 41. The head-on crash had a violent impact as both vehicles were badly damaged.

Immediately after the crash, troopers began to provide aid to both drivers. Hayes’ vehicle caught fire and troopers used fire extinguishers to put out the flames. Smith was trapped in her vehicle, prompting firefighters and paramedics to extricate her from the car.

The driver of the Kia was trapped in the vehicle and was freed after the fire department and EMS arrived on scene.

Hayes was transported by EMS to the hospital where he was pronounced dead, according to a news release.

Lt. Sellers told News 5 that because the driver posed a risk to the motoring public before he made a U-turn to go the wrong way on I-90, the chase was warranted. After the suspect’s U-turn, the trooper followed the suspect with lights and sirens in order to warn oncoming traffic of the wrong way driver.

“We’re only going to pursue when there is a danger to the public, right? This driver was already endangering the public and himself prior to this pursuit by the way he was driving,” Lt. Sellers said. “At that point that he made that u-turn, the only thing we could do is try to prevent a tragedy from occurring. That’s exactly what our trooper tried to do. Unfortunately this crash still occurred.”

OSHP released dash camera video showing the pursuit, crash and aftermath. Because of the graphic nature of the video and out of respect to the victim's family, News 5 has opted not to show the moment of impact or aftermath of the crash.

According to court records, Hayes was on probation stemming from a 2017 felonious assault case out of Cuyahoga County.

“We don’t know what kind of problems, what kind of situation Mr. Hayes was in at that time but we do know this, if he had stopped we could have dealt with it at that time and this would not have occurred,” Lt. Sellers said. “It could all be prevented if Mr. Hayes had just stopped. We could have dealt with the problem there, whatever it was, and we wouldn’t have had this tragic event occur.”

The crash remains under investigation at this time.