Fairfax County police pursued a fleeing motorist across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Maryland yesterday, shooting him to death after a wild 10-mile Beltway chase that ended with his car in flames and traffic backed up for miles, Prince George's County police said.
The suspect's black Pontiac Trans-Am burst into flames after crashing into a guardrail just north of the Temple Hill Road overpass on the outer loop of the Capital Beltway.
Prince George's police identified the dead man as Merachew Luca Fitigu, 24, of Alexandria. Police said Fitigu fired at them during the chase, which began when he bolted from a traffic stop, but they declined to say whether his shots were returned, to specify the number of Fairfax officers involved, or to identify them.
Three Fairfax officers from the Franconia district station have been put on paid administrative leave.
Police said they found a semiautomatic handgun, 1 1/2 pounds of marijuana and more than $1,000 in cash in the car. It appeared that a bullet hit a pursuing Fairfax police cruiser, officials said.
Royce D. Holloway, a Prince George's police spokesman, said homicide detectives were interviewing the Fairfax officers involved to determine the sequence of events.
This is how the chase began, according to a Fairfax police spokesman, Officer Tom Harrington:
About 11:35 a.m., a Fairfax officer on patrol in the Kingstowne neighborhood, near Springfield, attempted to stop the Trans-Am for allegedly driving in a reckless manner.
Instead of pulling over, the driver sped off. With the officer in pursuit, the suspect sped onto the Beltway's outer loop, heading toward the Wilson Bridge.
Additional officers joined the chase as the Trans-Am sped toward Maryland. Fairfax police said the car appeared to be pulling away, and Fairfax's policy on pursuit dictates that officers not continue a chase across jurisdictional lines for a traffic violation unless a supervisor orders them to continue.
But before that decision could be made, police said, the Trans-Am driver fired several gunshots at the pursuing officers. One of the shots hit one of the police cars above the grill. Harrington said he did not know whether the officer fired back.
The suspect's car crashed into the guardrail just north of Temple Hill Road and was engulfed in fire. A Fairfax officer reportedly pulled the suspect from the burning car. The officer, who was not named, was taken to Washington Hospital Center, where he was treated for smoke inhalation and released.
Neither Fairfax nor Prince George's police provided an account of how the Trans-Am crashed or the circumstances under which the suspect was shot.
Fairfax police declined to discuss their policy concerning the use of deadly force on a moving vehicle. The county's general pursuit policy states that officers are allowed to follow suspects into Maryland and the District only if probable cause exists that a felony has been committed.
For about three hours after the shooting, the Trans-Am, its hood crumpled, remained smashed against the guardrail as police investigators combed it and the surrounding area for evidence. Two Fairfax cruisers were within about 30 feet of the Trans-Am, inside yellow tape that is used to cordon off crime scenes.
Investigators shut down all four lanes of the Beltway's outer loop at the scene, allowing cars to inch past on the shoulder. The resulting traffic snarl stretched for more than five miles back across the Wilson Bridge and into Virginia.
The Maryland State Highway Administration used message boards to alert drivers as far north as Baltimore that they should avoid the Wilson Bridge and cross the Potomac River via the American Legion Bridge. All Maryland lanes were opened by 3:30 p.m., a state highway spokesman said.
For legal and safety reasons, many major police departments prohibit their officers from shooting at moving vehicles.
D.C. police are allowed to shoot at moving vehicles only in extremely rare cases. Police departments in New York City and Los Angeles ban their officers from shooting at moving cars under any circumstances.
Shooting at moving vehicles is prohibited by many departments, because stray bullets may strike unintended targets, and police fear that even if a suspect is hit, the car could become a dangerous, unguided missile.
Maryland State Highway Administration officials said that 137,000 vehicles a day travel on the Beltway near the point where the incident ended.