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Suspect Said He Knew Risk in Copter Chase, Police Allege

March 18, 1987|JOHN SPANO | Times Staff Writer

Vincent William Acosta ignored repeated loudspeaker warnings from two pursuing police helicopters and at one point turned off the lights of his speeding car during a March 10 chase in which the aircraft collided over Irvine and three people were killed, police allege.

"I knew it was dangerous," police quoted Acosta as saying during an interrogation hours after his arrest. "I needed to get closer, closer to home. I didn't want to get busted."

Acosta's alleged comments, made to Santa Ana police, are contained in police reports made available this week to The Times.

Acosta's alleged description of his own actions was a critical element in the decision by prosecutors to file murder charges in the case.

Acosta is suspected of stealing the car he was driving on the night of the crash. The decision to charge him with second-degree murder marked one of several recent cases in which prosecutors have stretched the traditional definition of the crime to fit new circumstances--to the chagrin of defense lawyers but to the satisfaction of prosecutors, with whom juries so far have agreed.

"Without the crash, you're talking about a car theft," said William G. Kelley, the deputy public defender representing Acosta.

"He (Acosta) doesn't understand how he can be charged with murder," Kelley said. "He doesn't believe anything he did caused the crash. Neither do I."

For Thomas J. Borris, the deputy district attorney who will try the Acosta case, it's a matter of applying age-old principles. Borris must persuade a jury that the three deaths were a direct result of Acosta's flight, done with wanton disregard for human life.

Acosta should have known that helicopters are used in police chases and that he is legally responsible for the tragic results of his flight, Borris said.

"Today it's just as foreseeable that they will use helicopters as well as police cars," Borris said. "Therefore it's just as foreseeable that helicopters might crash or hit power lines or run into a building."

For nearly an hour on the night of March 10, Acosta, driving a stolen 1983 Nissan Pulsar, according to police reports, led officers on a chase from Santa Ana, to Coast Highway and back to Anaheim, where he was arrested on foot.

Helicopters were summoned to track Acosta, a routine procedure in police chases. One rationale for use of the helicopters is that it allows greater safety on the ground, police say.

At 10:20 p.m., about 25 minutes after the chase began, the Costa Mesa and Newport Beach helicopters collided in undeveloped rolling hills near Bonita Canyon Road.

Costa Mesa Police Officers John William (Mike) Libolt, 39, and James David Ketchum, 39, were killed in the fiery crash of their four-seat Hughes 500E turbine craft. The third victim of the first midair collision of law enforcement helicopters in Southern California was Jeffrey Pollard, 27, a civilian flight instructor from Tustin.

"He (Acosta) said he took off in the car when he realized they were cops. He also told me he knew that the policemen were chasing him. He heard a siren from the undercover police car and soon after, he saw red flashing lights coming from the pursuing cars," the interrogating officer stated in the report.

At one point in the interrogation, according to the report, Acosta said he "heard the helicopter speaker three or four times."

At another point, "Acosta told us that he turned off his lights so the helicopter could not see him," according to the statement.

Asked if he drove faster because of the pursuing helicopters, Acosta allegedly responded, "I drove as fast as the car could go."

Acosta reached speeds of 90 miles per hour, ran "numerous" red lights and came close to colliding with "several" civilian vehicles, according to the police report.

A Santa Ana policeman who pulled abreast of Acosta on MacArthur Boulevard near Bonita Canyon Drive wrote that he radioed in a description of the suspect, who was 30 or 40 feet away.

"The suspect to me looked like he was in his early 20s, and when he looked at me, (he) also smiled," according to the report.

Borris acknowledged in an interview that the decision to charge Acosta with murder was "tough." But while the copter crash may be a unique circumstance, the principle that a fleeing suspect is criminally responsible for the foreseeable results of the chase he caused is not, Borris said.

"The stage was set by Acosta," Borris said.

Kelley, Acosta's attorney, disagreed. Compared to a ground chase--where "the danger is right in front of you"--a helicopter collision is not foreseeable, Kelley maintained.

"I don't buy it. What if there was just one helicopter involved. What if it crashed because of a mistake a mechanic made on the ground? Is that foreseeable? Of course not," Kelley said.

"These were professional pilots flying in good conditions," Kelley said. "How can you say that a natural consequence of a car chase could be helicopters colliding in the air?"

County prosecutors have won two unusual murder cases involving drug sales:

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