ANCHORAGE - The 19-year-old driver who crashed into an Anchorage Police Department patrol car Monday had a history of vehicle thefts and attempts to elude police.
Robert M. Esper and two teen-age girls riding with him in a Chevrolet Blazer died in the 4 a.m. crash that also killed Anchorage Police Officer Justin Wollam, 28.
Police spotted Esper driving erratically a half hour earlier but he ignored officers' warning lights and sirens and would not stop. Police monitored the vehicle as it made its way around Anchorage and attempted to deflate its tires with spike strips. At one intersection, three teens inside the Blazer jumped out of the vehicle.
Traveling at speeds estimated at 80-85 mph, Esper crossed the median, on the Glenn Highway, drove against traffic and collided head-on with the patrol car driven by Wollam. The officer was on his way in from Eagle River to lay down spike strips and keep the Blazer from entering an Anchorage neighborhood.
Makayla Lewis, 16, also died in the crash, as did a 14-year-old girl whose identity has not been released. A third passenger, Savanah Fielding, 15, was thrown from the Blazer. She suffered a skull fracture and a broken ankle and remains hospitalized in critical condition.
A state administrative juvenile probation officer told the Anchorage Daily News that Esper had previous run-ins with the law.
"It appears that in this case we just didn't find the right combination of interventions and opportunities," said Robert Buttcane. "I don't know what the system might have done differently. It's just that sometimes it doesn't take."
In December 1998, Esper was accused of possessing marijuana at school and was placed on informal probation. Two months later, he was accused of stealing a vehicle. The state deferred formal action and referred Esper's case to Youth Court, where youths are prosecutors, defendants and judges. Records indicate he also was referred for drug and alcohol treatment, Buttcane said.
In August 1999, Esper was accused of stealing another vehicle. Juvenile authorities opted to take the matter and the earlier stolen vehicle case to trial. But before they could, Esper got into more serious trouble.
In October 1999, Anchorage police arrested him on charges of eluding a police officer and theft of a third vehicle. Around the same time, he also was charged with attempted burglary and third-degree assault after driving into someone's leg, according to Buttcane. He was detained at McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage.
On Jan. 31, 2000, after he was convicted in the juvenile system of three counts of vehicle theft and failing to stop for an officer, he was ordered to stay at McLaughlin for long-term treatment.
In March, just before his 19th birthday, Esper was released.
Days later, on March 10, he was arrested on charges of vehicle theft, drunken driving and driving with a suspended license. Military police found Esper parked and either passed out or asleep, court records show.
On June 22, a judge sentenced Esper to three years of probation in exchange for a guilty plea on charges of drunken driving and vehicle theft, according to District Attorney Susan Parks. A charge of driving with a suspended license was dropped, Parks said.
Robert Esper, who went by Bobby, grew up a nice kid who played hockey, according to Anchorage politician Ray Metcalfe, who has known Bobby's father, bus driver Robert F. Esper, for about 20 years.
Bobby's life was never easy, according to Metcalfe. The boy's parents divorced when he was little. He lived with his mother until he was about 7, when she died of cancer, Metcalfe said.
Many adults tried to persuade Bobby to get his life together and straighten out, he said.
"First thing I know, he's a 4-year-old kid, and then he's an 18-year-old in trouble," he said.