Officers are still trying to piece together a series of convoluted events that started with four car thefts in the White Mountains early Monday morning and ended in Payson with the death of one man and the arrest of another. Police are still looking for two other suspects.
Police are also scratching their heads over an earlier rollover incident Sunday morning that left a 26-year-old woman dead off Highway 87.
In the latest accident, a man, who has not been identified, died after the stolen white Ford pickup he was driving slammed into a guardrail and careened off an embankment just south of Corvair Curve at milepost 245.5 around 1:30 a.m., Dec. 21, said Payson Police Chief Don Engler.
Minutes later, Gentry Dane Ault, 29, of Snowflake, was arrested on charges of theft and unlawful use of means of transportation after the stolen Audi he was driving was stopped by an officer with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office in Rye, Engler said.
The domino series of events tipped off around 1:30 a.m. when a Payson officer attempted to pull over a Volkswagen Jetta just south of town on Highway 87 for non-visible plates.
The driver refused to pull over and sped away from the officer at a high rate of speed.
The officer did not pursue the Jetta because it did not meet the department’s guidelines for a high-speed chase; however, the officer did continue south on the highway and asked the sheriff’s office to assist.
As a sheriff’s officer drove to meet up with the Payson officer, the sheriff’s officer was almost struck by the driver of an older model white Ford pickup that was heading quickly down Highway 87, Engler said.
Police are still investigating if the driver of the pickup intentionally attempted to strike the sheriff’s officer.
The sheriff’s officer let the pickup go by and it continued speeding down the highway, out of view.
When the sheriff’s officer caught up with the pickup several miles later, it had flipped over a guardrail and was lying in a ravine, the driver dead.
As officers investigated the crash, other officers continued looking for the stolen Jetta, which was spotted by witnesses in the Rye area.
After searching, officers could not locate the Jetta; however, they found another vehicle stolen in the area, the Audi, driven by Ault.
Officers pulled the Audi over and arrested Ault.
Several minutes later, Lt. Tim Scott with the sheriff’s office found another stolen vehicle, a second white Ford pickup, abandoned in Rye just east of the Rye restaurant, Engler said.
Police later learned the Jetta, Audi and two Ford pickups were all stolen from used car dealerships in Snowflake and Show Low earlier that morning.
Police believe the drivers knew each other.
Officers are still looking for the Jetta and two suspected car thieves.
Woman dies in rollover
Firefighters discovered the body of a 26-year-old Payson woman Sunday, the day after her car went over the edge of the roadway north of town on Highway 87.
After dropping off her son in Pine Saturday night, Anastasia Pierce, 26, called her work in Payson to say she was running late, however, Pierce never showed up to work.
Firefighters found Pierce dead in her car at the bottom of a canyon just north of East Verde Estates Sunday morning, said Officer H. Thomason with the Department of Public Safety.
DPS believes Pierce was driving south on Highway 87 around 10:30 p.m., near milepost 260, when she lost control of her Isuzu Trooper, overcorrected, rolled and was sent over the edge into the canyon.
No one saw the accident occur and the vehicle was only discovered when a group of firefighters headed to training stopped to investigate skid marks on the highway.
When firefighters looked over the edge, they saw Pierce’s Trooper below.
Ironically, DPS had been on scene of another accident an hour prior to Pierce driving off the edge. At 9 p.m., a motorist rolled near milepost 258, two miles south of where Piece went off the roadway.