TULSA, Okla. (AP) – U.S. 75 motorists experienced more than just the glare of the morning sun on their windshields on May 24, 2017, in north Tulsa – a stolen, heavy-duty truck barreled the wrong way as law enforcement officers gave chase.
Two state troopers and two Sapulpa officers pursued the southbound truck for about 1 minute and 40 seconds in the northbound lanes. The law-enforcement caravan passed about 30 oncoming vehicles with the fleeing truck still in sight of the three lead pursuers, dashcam video of the chase shows.
A voice came over the Highway Patrol radios: “And he’s going the wrong way on 75.
“Just make sure we’re not following the wrong way on 75.”
Moments before, the lead vehicle – a Highway Patrol cruiser – had begun slowing for traffic. But the trooper didn’t peel away and onto a ramp to disengage until that radio message. The trailing units followed his lead.
Approximately 20 seconds later, the heavy-duty truck plowed head-on into a Ford Focus driven by William Bruckman. The 23-year-old was killed, with his crumpled sedan only a half mile beyond the pursuers’ exit point, according to OHP documents.
“It was just a property theft; was it worth all of that?” Melissa Bruckman, the victim’s widow, tearfully asked in a recent interview with the Tulsa World. “Was it worth him never coming home? Was it worth a husband and a father leaving and never coming home?”
Video of the pursuit shows a Tulsa police officer breaking off from the chase when he sees it enter the incorrect lanes, radioing in: “I pulled over. I wasn’t going to do that.”
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol and Sapulpa Police Department each deemed their respective employees’ actions in the chase to be within policies and procedures.
The Highway Patrol keeps its pursuit protocols secret. An exemption in state open records law allows OHP – and only OHP – to protect policies, procedures and operations that are “of a tactical nature.”
The Sapulpa Police Department promptly released its policy to the Tulsa World. It doesn’t address wrong-way pursuits.
For comparison, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office prohibits chasing a vehicle in the wrong lane of traffic, according to its policy.
While not codified in policy, Tulsa Police Sgt. Shane Tuell said his agency won’t engage in a wrong-way chase because of the heightened risk it presents.
“We don’t want our cars going the wrong way on the highway,” said Tuell, a department spokesman. “It can take an already dangerous situation and escalate it. That’s our issue. Other agencies might view it differently.”
The Highway Patrol, led by Department of Public Safety Commissioner Rusty Rhoades, is an agency that views it differently.
Rhoades said it doesn’t bother him that troopers pursued the suspect in the wrong direction, saying, “We’re duty-bound to do everything we can to stop that.”
He didn’t view the supervisor’s warning – “Just make sure we’re not following the wrong way” – 100 seconds in as an indicator the supervisor would have nixed the wrong-way chase at its outset or didn’t approve of it.
“No, not at all. That’s part of our layered process. Those troopers were making split-second decisions during this pursuit,” Rhoades said. “And then you have the supervisory oversight that has the authority to make those decisions (to call it off). That’s part of everything we do every day is the supervisory oversight.”
Rhoades said he was unaware anyone had chased the suspect in the wrong direction until a Tulsa World reporter asked him why the troopers chose to do so and if it was too risky.
Rhoades addressed questions about the dangers posed by saying that courts have ruled officers aren’t responsible for a fleeing suspect’s decisions.
He pointed to the Scott v. Harris case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.
“(W)e are loath to lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive so recklessly that they put other people’s lives in danger,” according to the court’s opinion. “It is obvious the perverse incentives such a rule would create: Every fleeing motorist would know that escape is within his grasp, if only he accelerates to 90 miles per hour, crosses the double-yellow line a few times, and runs a few red lights.”
OHP identified the lead pursuer as Trooper Eddie Weilert. The secondary unit was Trooper Jeremiah Hoyt. The two Sapulpa officers, in order, were identified by their agency as Sgt. Jolen Boyd and Officer David Snelson. A third, Sapulpa Capt. Steve Thompson, joined the wrong-way portion of the chase partway through.
Rhoades said the fact the driver crashed after law enforcement stopped chasing “very clearly dictates” that they had no control over what he did.
“The courts have been very clear in their statements that it is our duty to catch people,” Rhoades said. “Had we let him go, what if he had hit five, six, seven, eight cars?
“You can’t what-if that a million times over. It’s easy to sit back and have that discussion and what-if. Who’s to say he wouldn’t have gone somewhere else and car-jacked somebody and killed them when he was car-jacking them?”
Now a widow at age 35 with three children, Melissa Bruckman wakes each day haunted by other what-ifs from that morning.
What if her hand lingered in her husband’s a bit longer? What if he didn’t leave for work 20 minutes early?
Perhaps most of all, the Berryhill resident questions the actions of law enforcement.
Bruckman, who remains on leave from her job at the customer solutions center for BH Media, parent company of the Tulsa World, said she hopes the Highway Patrol understands the consequences of dangerous vehicle chases.
“No other family should wake up to finding out that their world is gone,” Bruckman said.
Will Bruckman was commuting to his job at Containment Solutions near Mohawk Park when the crash happened at 6:28 a.m.
He was driving about 17 or 18 mph at impact and tried to avoid the oncoming truck, according to the collision report. His view was obscured by the low rising sun.
The alleged fleeing driver, Jerry Lee Newman, ran from the wreck site and was apprehended eight hours later by authorities.
Newman, 25, has a trial date set for Aug. 27 on charges of felony first-degree murder, larceny of an automobile, assault with a dangerous weapon, leaving the scene of a fatality collision, false impersonation and driving with a suspended license.
Officers first responded at 5:44 a.m. to a report of a possible burglary at Rush Truck Center at 61st Street and 49th West Avenue in Sapulpa. Newman allegedly stole an Oklahoma Natural Gas truck and drove through a fence toward an officer’s car, beginning what would become a half-hour pursuit.
A Tulsa police officer put out stop sticks on Sheridan Road near Oklahoma 11 about 15 minutes into the chase, but the truck’s driver swerved around them. That action spun him out and off the street before he recovered to continue fleeing.
Twenty minutes in, the Highway Patrol attempted to disable the truck twice through tactical vehicle interventions – bumping the rear of the vehicle to make it spin out – as it drove through the Tulsa International Airport grounds.
The chase continued on to 36th Street North, continuing to U.S. 75.
Three separate Sapulpa officers involved in the chase wrote in their narratives that the chase entered the wrong lanes of U.S. 75, at which point the pursuit was terminated, according to records provided by the department.
Those statements – two of which came from officers (Capt. Steve Thompson and Officer David Snelson) who drove the wrong way – don’t match video of the chase.
Sgt. Jolen Boyd was the first Sapulpa officer in line, following the two troopers. In a preliminary hearing, Boyd characterized his stint on U.S. 75 as “just a limited time.”
In explaining his officers’ actions, Sapulpa Police Chief Mike Haefner said they were “trying to warn people” ahead that the truck was going the wrong way.
“We are simply there,” Haefner said. “There were numerous vehicles involved in this pursuit. Some were able to stay up; some were pulled off.”
Sapulpa was the lead agency in pursuit from the break-in site to north Tulsa. The Highway Patrol took over as the chase wound through the airport grounds.
Melissa Bruckman stirred her husband to wake at 5:45 a.m. May 24, 2017 – part of their morning routine. He never could rouse himself.
At the same time, Newman allegedly was breaking into Rush Truck Center only 5 miles away, south on I-44.
After readying for work, Will and Melissa kissed, exchanged goodbyes and I love you’s.
“We left his blanket on the floor in the bathroom for months,” Bruckman said. “He would wrap himself in a blanket and go into the bathroom to get ready.”
The pair would share blankets and pillows in the bed of their pickup truck to lie under the stars. They hiked. And camped.
He loved God and sang in church, with his favorite tune being “I have been Redeemed.”
Will and Melissa were friends for three years prior to dating, brought together through a mutual friend. They were married for almost two years.
“As corny as it sounds, I knew the second day we started dating,” Bruckman said. “He just looked up at me and it was like he was looking through my soul.
“And I knew right then that I was in so much trouble.”
The evening before the crash they hosted friends and cooked chicken on a grill Melissa purchased early for his birthday.
The grill remains untouched in the yard, adorned with utensils where he left them. He also left behind children: Justin, 16; Alexia, 12; and Lilly, 2.
His family talks of him each day. The pain was intense when Lilly uttered “dada” for the first time and he wasn’t alive to hear.
“Every day when I wake up and he’s not here, the question is, ‘Why?’” Bruckman said.