Kenneth Clark Mitchell Jr., 24, of the District was arrested in the city early Tuesday morning. Kevon Darnell Neal, 23, of Fort Washington — who investigators think was driving the Acura — remained at large Wednesday afternoon.
Online court records show both men have faced previous criminal charges, and Neal has been convicted of crimes including escape and conspiracy to commit robbery.
While the intense manhunt for Neal continued Wednesday, police grappled internally with the sobering fact that Morris, who was ejected during the crash, was not wearing a seat belt and that his pursuit apparently violated department policies governing chases. Those policies were tightened in September to allow only chases of suspects involved in homicides, shootings in which someone was hit, armed robberies and armed carjackings, according to law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the investigation.
For Morris and Officer Michael Risher, the incident began about noon Monday at the Shell gas station on Sandy Spring Road in the Laurel area, where they were sent to investigate a report that two men in an Acura had been acting suspiciously and trying to get into customers’ cars, said Maj. Michael Straughan, the commander of the criminal investigations division. As the officers talked to witnesses and reviewed surveillance footage, a station manager saw the Acura return, Straughan said. The officers got into their cruiser — which they were sharing because Risher had yet to be assigned his own — and tried to catch up to it, authorities said.
“Officer Morris was doing his job,” Straughan said. “In my opinion, he was trying to catch a criminal.”
Investigators later learned that the 2005 Acura TL had been stolen a day earlier, when someone hopped in the still-running vehicle at an Exxon station in the Beltsville area and took off, Straughan said. He said they also learned that it had been used in another theft in Burtonsville on Monday.
But as Morris and Risher followed the Acura on I-95, the officers were still trying to relay its tag number to a dispatcher to determine whether it had been linked to any other crimes, authorities have said. The law enforcement officials who declined to be identified said that at some point a supervisor broke into the conversation, saying, “We are not chasing, correct?” That warning — which is what the department’s chase policy calls for — came moments too late.
Straughan said the Acura was in the left lane of I-95 and the officer was “quite a distance behind” it in a middle lane when the Acura suddenly cut across traffic. He said that prompted other cars on the road to brake and swerve, and Morris — trying to avoid those cars — lost control of his cruiser.
Morris was killed and Risher, who was wearing a seat belt, was injured, authorities have said. Crash investigators were still working to determine how fast Morris was traveling.
The Acura kept going after the crash, and Straughan said he did not know whether those inside knew what had happened. He said the circumstances “would lead you to believe that they knew the police were behind them.”
Police launched a search for the Acura and the men inside. About 7 p.m. Monday, officers spotted it parked near 50th Street SE and Drake Place SE in the District, Straughan said. He said officers watched, then arrested Mitchell as he got into the car about 3:30 a.m.
According to charging documents, Mitchell said he was a passenger in the Acura as it fled from police, and he identified Neal as the driver. Efforts to reach Mitchell’s family Wednesday were unsuccessful, and no one answered the door at his rowhouse.
Police said they obtained warrants charging Mitchell and Neal with felony theft and investigators are exploring whether other charges might be appropriate.
Larry Long, 64, Neal’s grandfather, said he last saw his grandson early this year, when the young man was released from jail. He said that while Neal had had previous problems, he “seemed to be on the right track” after his recent release.
Montgomery County court records show that Neal has a history of run-ins with police. When he was eventually sent to a pre-release center after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery in 2010, prosecutors opposed the move, noting that Neal had prior convictions for disorderly conduct, burglary and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. Neal later walked out of the pre-release center and pleaded guilty to escape in that case, the records show.
Long said Neal was raised by his grandmother in Silver Spring and earned his GED after he was incarcerated and left the Montgomery school system in the 11th grade. Long said he frequently warned Neal about hanging out with the wrong crowd and helped him out financially when he needed it.
“I’m just as shocked as anyone else,” Long said. “My heart really goes out for the officers, especially the one that’s deceased. It’s just sad, man.”
Peter Hermann, Michael Laris and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.