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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

High Above L.A.'s Freeways, a Wild Ride of Another Sort

April 08, 2001|BOB RECTOR | Bob Rector is opinion editor of The Times San Fernando Valley and Ventura County editions

I don't know Raynell Charmichael personally. We are just two of several million people who occupy this town at any given time. But our lives intersected on a recent Thursday in what was surely a surreal moment for both of us.

On that hazy spring day, a blue Toyota led a battalion of police cars in a 90-minute chase over the freeways and through the streets of the city.

The pursuit, in turn, was followed by enough media helicopters and airplanes to accommodate the evacuation of Saigon. This flying phalanx followed every twist and turn of the chase in a curious aerial ballet played out in the skies above Los Angeles.

Charmichael was driving that Toyota, according to police. I was in one of the helicopters.

I don't know what Charmichael's intentions were that day. I'm sure his attorney will have something to say about his innocence. But I do know that my motives were innocent enough. I was aboard Jetcopter 98 with KFWB aerial reporter Jeff Baugh and pilot Aldo Bentivegna out of Van Nuys Airport. My intent was to do a story on traffic conditions in the city from the viewpoint of Baugh, who has been observing them for 13 years. Surely he must have some insights to share with us.

He does. But that's a story for another day.

In journalism, you don't bury the lead. And the lead this day was a harrowing trip over Los Angeles watching Mr. Charmichael's wild ride.

Police pursuits aren't my favorite television fare. The prospect of some innocent getting maimed in a traffic accident is neither entertaining nor enlightening. Nothing will drive me faster from a TV set, with the possible exception of an XFL football game or almost anything on the Game Show Network. I would have walked away from this as well, but the first step would have been about 1,000 feet straight down. I therefore became an unwitting member of a media feeding frenzy, one of the more unfortunate realities in our profession.

*

This particular incident began about 4:30 p.m. March 22 when police said they attempted to pull Charmichael over because he had a broken taillight. According to the police report, the driver told a passenger he was a murder suspect and took off after pushing her out of the car, saying he was not going back to jail.

Baugh picked it up from a police scanner. So did every other media helicopter in town. Soon we were circling over the freeway like dragonflies over a pond.

I counted 11 aircraft, including two from the police and at least one fixed-wing plane above the chase. All must have been within a thousand feet of each other.

This high wire act was complicated by the fact that the Toyota driver changed directions and freeways at least eight times during the chase, prompting the aerial armada to do the same. In the hazy late afternoon sky, visibility was often murky at best. This was clearly dangerous stuff.

Bentivegna was doing a hell of a job not only keeping up with the pursuit but avoiding a midair collision that, considering the numbers involved, would have resembled the Mir reentry. I had the feeling watching him that he would have rather been doing long, languid TV aerials over a golf tournament.

There's a curious protocol attached to police pursuits. The pilots almost never watch the action. They are too busy looking out for each other. Their position relative to the pursuit is dictated by others on board. I observed that TV crews always fly on the left, radio and others on the right. The reason? By flying on the left, TV cameramen can shoot through the driver's side window and get a good look at who's behind the wheel.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, the pursuit continued. The blue Toyota reached dangerous speeds at times, driving on shoulders and through ride-share lanes. It was remarkable that a car could cover that much territory at rush hour.

After an hour, the incident began to take on the look of a fox hunt. No matter how fast or long he ran, he couldn't get away, not with this pack of dogs on his heels. My horror gave way to impatience: Give it up, pal. You've got no options. Give it up, pal, so we can go home.

And fortunately in this case, he did give it up, and the chase came to a quiet conclusion. With the city slipping into shadows, the suspect stopped in front of a relative's residence in Long Beach and surrendered quietly to police. The hunt was over. Call off the hounds.

*

On the aircraft radio, there were verbal high fives for everyone. Cops congratulated cops, cops congratulated the media, the media congratulated the cops for a job well done. All agreed it was "fun."

I have no idea what demons were driving Charmichael. But he attracted dozens of members of the airborne media who engaged in a dangerous pursuit in order to cover one. Ironically, by late evening, Charmichael was a forgotten man. One station gave the incident a few minutes. There was nothing on most of the other newscasts.

To make it in prime time, someone has to get hurt.

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