If Payson resident Mary Shelley gets her way, all of Arizona's police agencies will one day be forbidden from engaging in high-speed pursuits unless it is necessary to save a life.
If such a law had existed last year, it would have already saved at least one life: that of Shelley's 25-year-old son.
Evan Edward Shelley, a Mesa college student, died in late September after his car was struck by a Department of Public Safety officer who had disobeyed an order to stop chasing a stolen car.
"We want to change the law so such pursuits will be criminal," Shelley said. "If someone is firing a gun out their window and they have a baby in their arms, of course you would want (law enforcement officers to engage in a pursuit). But not if some kid is stealing a car ..."
The collision occurred at 1:22 a.m. Sept. 25 at Country Club and University drives in Mesa. The DPS officer making the pursuit, 32-year-old Christopher Valdez, had turned off his lights and sirens by the time he broadsided Shelley's Chevrolet Nova, fatally injuring the engineering student. According to the newspaper reports, Valdez was going 62 mph in the 40 mph zone.
According to Mary Shelley, the officer was going 105 mph.
She was at home when a DPS officer came to her front door with news of the collision.
"I was told that my son was hurt," Shelley recalled. "I wasn't told that he was dying ... They kept him alive until right after I arrived (at the Mesa hospital). He'd been (unconscious) since being at the scene of the accident ... He had lacerations in his skull, and his internal organs were so torn up ... There was nothing they could do. I was told that, after he got hit, Evan asked if he'd hurt anybody. That was really the last thing he said."
Shelley was still struggling to accept her son's death, and working to change the state's pursuit laws, when she received another blow last week.
Valdez, now the first Arizona officer to face criminal charges resulting from a high-speed car chase, changed his plea to guilty in a deal that reduced his criminal charge from manslaughter to negligent homicide. The maneuver has possibly paved the way to probation with little or no jail time when Valdez is sentenced April 23 by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Gaylord.
Prior to the plea bargain, Valdez faced up to 21 years in prison. He will now be placed on probation for a maximum of four years and could be ordered to serve up to a year in jail.
After the crash, Valdez resigned from DPS in the face of being fired for violating several DPS procedures during the pursuit, including failure to follow orders to end the pursuit, DPS officials said. Valdez also will be forced entirely out of his law-enforcement career, as no one who is convicted of a felony can serve as a police officer.
But that isn't enough, as Shelley sees it.
"I want him to do some time," said the 6-year Rim country resident. "When he was in court, the only things he showed remorse for were his family and that he lost his job. He never said a word about Evan. I feel he needs to go to jail, that at least something should happen. I don't want to ruin his life, but I do think he doesn't seem to understand (what he's done). If they don't give him time, I think it's going to send a message that the police as a whole are not going to be punished for anything they do."
To keep that from happening, Shelley said, she is planning to take as many voices as possible to Valdez' sentencing.
"I will speak, my parents want to say something, and my sister and a lot of people are going to go and request to talk to the judge ... But I'll tell you, I'm almost feeling like the fix is in. I feel like they've already decided what's going to happen to him.
"Last week, the prosecutor was telling me about what a great guy Mr. Valdez is, and how he just wants to get on with his life. I said, 'Yeah, well, I'd like to get on with mine, too. But the fact of it is, my son is dead. He killed my son. How am I supposed to forget that?'"
As Shelley waits to learn the fate of her son's killer, she is continuing her battle with the DPS, which she has sued in order to force a change in pursuit policy. Her Phoenix attorney, Dick Treon, also has asked for $5 million and an apology.
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley has said that Valdez showed "gross deviation" by disobeying a direct order from his supervisor to break off the pursuit. And DPS officials have admitted that Valdez was hired three years ago despite a prior DUI conviction and a citation for reckless driving, both from New Mexico in 1990.
Whether Shelley will succeed in legally changing pursuit policies or if those changes would help or hinder her cause remains to be seen. In any case, Shelley is not likely to alter pursuit policy in Northern Gila County, Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner said.
"Our policy is probably one of the most restrictive in the state, and has been for years," Gartner said. "Basically, you can't pursue unless the person you're pursuing is suspected of being involved in a very serious crime such as first- and second-degree murder, armed robbery, civil assault, and other crimes wherein the suspect poses a danger to the public. But even then, those pursuits need to be carried out very carefully and weighed against the factors that exist at the time."
If Shelley and her attorney manage to ban all high-speed pursuits outside of life-and-death situations, Gartner said, "it may not affect us as much as it might some other departments. But I don't think it's the right approach.
"I don't think that the passage of legislation is the way to govern this particular situation because officers have to have the ability to make some decisions within their policies and every circumstance is going to be different than the circumstance before," the chief said. "It's a matter of training, leadership and supervision."
Within the Payson Police Department, Gartner said, every pursuit is reviewed by himself and Lt. Don Engler. As a result of that review, "the officer involved in the pursuit either gets a commendation for staying within policy ... or a reprimand or other disciplinary action. You're either in or you're out, and the officers know that at the street level. This policy has made a huge difference for us. Before we instituted it around 1995, we had some rather ugly accidents result from pursuits. But we brought that to a grinding halt."
Payson DPS Officer Bernadette Koren said that her department has already adopted a simple solution to high-speed chases: "We don't do them anymore. If there's a threat of serious injury by the person you're chasing like he just shot somebody then yes, we will. But if it's a traffic infraction, no."
"I don't know that a new law would affect us with the policy we have in place right now," Koren said. "That's when we're going to go ahead and chase somebody anyway when there's that obvious threat of somebody else being severely injured or dying if we let the person go."
The Payson DPS policy was initiated Jan. 1 by DPS District Commander Larry Scarber in response to Evan Shelley's death. It is now in effect across Scarber's district, which comprises Payson, Globe, Roosevelt and Fountain Hills.
"This is not a statewide policy and I don't know that it ever will be," Scarber said. "I didn't get any approval from the attorney general's office, I didn't ask for permission. But this is what we're doing now, and it gives us some leeway as far as our procedures from district to district."
Even so, Scarber added, "The situation in the pursuit that killed Mr. Shelley was not as much a policy problem as just a following-the-policy problem. Still, just to preclude that from happening again, or at least make an effort to do so, we established this separate district policy."
Whether a new law would further preclude history from repeating itself, Scarber said, is a topic that's wide-open for debate, "not just here in Arizona but nationwide.
"I know the International Association of Chiefs of Police has looked into model policies on pursuits," Scarber said. "The one argument is that if you ban pursuits, everyone will flee ... and the other argument is, if (the pursuit is initiated over) something minor, is it worth risking someone's life? I'm not aware of any place that's found a happy medium on those points."