Nine years after Louisville Metro Police chased a stolen car that crashed into a tree, killing four boys inside who didn’t know the vehicle was stolen, the city has agreed to pay $1.6 million to their families, who claimed the pursuit was dangerous and violated department rules.
The boys were returning home from a field trip sponsored by Youth Alive and had been told to get into the car because the anti-crime group’s van was full. The driver, who was 16 and had a criminal record, had stolen the car two weeks earlier.
After discovering the vehicle was stolen, police Officers Aaron Tinelli and James Franklin initiated a high-speed chase through Old Louisville on Dec. 18, 2008, despite wet streets, a dark night and poor visibility – and a rule that allows pursuits only if the “necessity of immediate apprehension outweighs the dangers” of the chase.
Attorney William McMurry, the lead counsel for the families, said in court papers that if police had complied with standard operating procedures, “the deaths of four children would not have happened.”
McMurry and co-counsel Aubrey Williams and Sam Aguilar confirmed the settlement amount and said the accord was struck on March 1, the day the case was mediated. The county attorney’s office provided documents confirming the settlement.
The boys – Marc Claybrooks, 14, and his 16-year-old twin brothers Demar and Jemar Claybrooks, along with their friend, Aaron Shields, 15, were fatally injured when the car split in two after striking the tree. The driver, Herbert Lee III, who was injured but survived, was convicted of manslaughter and served one year in prison, the maximum allowed for a juvenile. He has since been convicted of other offenses and is serving a five-year prison sentence.
“… As soon as they took off, I thought, ‘Oh my God they are going to have an accident.’ It’s the first thing in my head.”
~Officer Aaron Tinilli
The families sued multiple defendants, including Lee’s mother as well as Youth Alive, which later shut down, but all claims except those against the police officers were resolved.
The plaintiffs alleged that both officers knew the high-speed chase was likely to result in a collision, but pursued it anyway.
In a deposition, Tinnelli, who led the chase, said later that “as soon as they took off, I thought, ‘Oh my God they are going to have an accident.’ It’s the first thing in my head.”
Franklin was recorded on the dashboard camera in his cruiser saying: “Nobody gonna want the city to get sued. You know we are going to be sued but who cares. We didn’t do anything wrong — period. They were all black. There were five of them in the car. They were all teenagers. I mean, it’s horrible.”
The city maintained the officers were protected by governmental immunity and that Kentucky’s high court has held that officers cannot be held responsible for the “conduct of culprits they chase.”
The city also pointed to the findings of a Professional Standards Unit investigation that exonerated both officers. It found Tinelli had probable cause to stop the vehicle because it was stolen, demonstrated “sound judgment throughout this incident, and was compliant with departmental policy.” It said Franklin followed Tinelli at a safe distance and had his lights and sirens activated.
But Jefferson Circuit Judge Barry Willett rejected the city’s arguments to dismiss the case and said a jury should decide it the officers were negligent.
The tragedy unfolded after a Christmas pageant at the Presbyterian Community Center. Willett said in his order that because there was no space in Youth Alive vans to drive them the four boys home, a staff member for Youth Alive told them to get into Lee’s car.