The fatal injury Wednesday afternoon of Heather Cater, 22, a dental clinic worker struck in a Walgreens parking lot by a car driven by a drug suspect, leaves questions in addition to pending criminal charges against the hit-and-run driver.
They include details about a pursuit that arose from what proved to be a minor marijuana transaction and why the Little Rock police, in whose primary jurisdiction the crime occurred, is not the lead investigator.
The Pulaski sheriff’s public information officer, Lt. Carl Minden, talked to me at length about the case this morning.
He said two undercover narcotics officers for the sheriff just happened to stop around 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Walgreens at University and Col. Glenn, not far from the sheriff’s office, as he and other deputies often do. They were not on a stakeout.
They observed men in two cars engaging in what appeared to be a drug transaction. They had not had the men under surveillance, though Minden notes that deputies have countywide jurisdiction and their work takes them where drug crimes occur, inside and outside Little Rock city limits.
The officers approached one of the men, observed to be in possession of drugs, and placed him under arrest. He was found in possession of 19.5 grams — less than an
half-ounce — of marijuana. Then one of the officers walked to the other vehicle, a black Tahoe. He tapped on the window and displayed his badge. The driver backed up and began driving off, with the officer chasing on foot. About this time, a marked sheriff’s patrol car arrived with blue lights flashing. It had been called to transport suspects.
The key events happened in a matter of seconds. The Tahoe struck Cater, who’d just gotten off work at a business in the same strip center with Walgreens and was in the parking lot talking to friends. The Tahoe dragged her 75 feet and fatally injured her. The car drove on, struck other vehicles and was abandoned several blocks away, with the driver fleeing on foot. The suspected driver, Deonte Jones, 18, was arrested later. We’ve learned today he’s another young offender — like a suspect in a recent Arby’s robbery — charged as an adult but then transferred to juvenile court by Circuit Judge Leon Johnson. That was in 2012, when he was 16. He was charged in another robbery in 2013, but the charge wasn’t prosecuted. He faces a capital murder charge in this case.
There’s been debate over the years about police pursuit and the dangers it can present. Minden says this case is being viewed technically as a pursuit, though it began as a foot pursuit and the critical event happened very quickly. He said — had the Tahoe not struck Cater — he doubted if the officer would have continued the pursuit. “It’s not what most people would consider a pursuit,” he said.
Minden noted the officer in pursuit didn’t know what was at issue from the initial arrest — a misdemeanor quantity of marijuana — only that the suspect was fleeing over a suspected drug violation.
Then comes the question of the decision for the sheriff’s officer, whose officers were involved, to investigate a Little Rock homiciden. The record shows that the sheriff’s office called the Little Rock police to the scene. Little Rock police told media later it was handling only the traffic accident and leaving the rest to the sheriff’s office.
Minden said “a decison was made” for the sheriff to be the investigating agency. He noted its officers were involved. Lt. Sidney Allen, the LRPD information officer, when asked about division of responsibility:
The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office has jurisdiction throughout the county.
That is a better question for the county to answer.
The county is not regulated by LRPD Policies and Procedures
I responded to Allen by saying the outward appearances were that LRPD did not want to investigate the case. I also asked whether the homicide would count in Little Rock’s annual total if the sheriff’s office was the investigator. Allen has not responded.
But Sheriff Doc Holladay called me later to say he’d discussed the case Wednesday evening with Police Chief Kenton Buckner. “We wanted the case worked and we wanted it worked quickly and we have the resources to do it,” Holladay said. “We initiated the event and personally I took it as a challenge that we needed to make sure we were involved.”
To any who’d say that an appearance of favoritism could be presented by taking control of investigation of an event involving his deputies, Holladay said, “We have our protocol. That’s what we do. I don’t intend to sugarcoat anything.”
Of the event itself, he said his narcotics officers didn’t know the extent of drugs involved, but knew some were. “Law officers are required to take action and that’s what they did. The action of the suspect, the driver, took it to a different level.”
As lead investigator, the homicide will be among the crimes reported to reporting agencies as within the sheriff’s jurisdiction, Holladay said.