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Thu., Jan. 5, 2006

Let police handle high speed chases

For a second straight New Year’s advent, Kootenai County residents are left pondering an avoidable tragedy.

Last year, locals were stunned three days before the new year arrived by a shootout in a quiet Hayden neighborhood that claimed an angry resident accused of stealing beer kegs and left Coeur d’Alene police Officer Mike Kralicek severely wounded. The brave officer’s struggle to regain mobility and his place in the working world has been chronicled in The Spokesman-Review since he regained consciousness after being comatose for weeks.

On Sunday, a reported episode of road rage on the back roads of northern Kootenai County has caused many to wonder what the world is coming to. Tragically, an Athol family will be forever scarred by what appears from reports to be a temporary loss of sanity on one side and poor judgment on the other. In the end, an Athol wife and mother was dead and a Hayden man, with a poor driving record and a contempt for the law, was in jail facing several charges, including murder.

No one can stop another driver from behaving poorly. But a cool head can often prevent, for example, a near accident or a tailgating incident from escalating into road rage with serious consequences. The needless death of Vonette L. Larsen, 41, is a reminder that authorities are better trained and equipped to handle errant drivers than the average citizen – and that staying calm at the wheel during the current epidemic of road rage can save your life.

Although stories conflict in the latest tragedy, Larsen’s daughters did the right thing by calling authorities after Jonathan Wade Ellington, 44, allegedly tailgated them, stopped their vehicle and threatened to beat them up. Also, the young women did the right thing by summoning their parents by phone. Events took a tragic turn when the girls identified Ellington passing in his vehicle again, and the family pursued at speeds of up to 100 mph. A fatal decision was made when the daughters called 911 again to report the sighting, but the family ignored a command from authorities to stop chasing the other driver. Ultimately, Ellington reportedly steered off the road and later ran over and killed Larsen while trying to escape after being partially blocked by the Larsens’ vehicle.

The courts will decide whether Ellington is completely to blame for Larsen’s death – or whether the split-second decision by Larsen’s husband, Joel, to fire a .44-caliber handgun at the fleeing Ellington was a factor. The surviving Larsens, meanwhile, are sentenced to the awful fate of spending their lives reliving the horrible sequence of events that led to Vonette Larsen’s death.

Every motorist can learn important lessons from this family catastrophe: Only police are qualified to pursue vehicles at high speeds. Road rage, indeed, can kill, but it’s often avoidable. No misconduct by another driver is worth putting you or your loved ones at risk. Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger provided sage advice for anyone who may be tempted to take the law into his or her own hands: “Don’t get caught up in the reaction. Contact the police and let us deal with it.”

Words to live by.

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