Powell gets 8 years for police chase

Judge lambasts man's extensive criminal history

Posted: Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Victor Powell's attempt to elude Juneau Police on Sept. 25, 2008, which resulted in a spectacular crash through a Vanderbilt intersection guardrail onto the Mendenhall Wetlands, was just his most recent bump down a long road of criminal activity.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire File
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire File

On Monday, Superior Court Judge David George sentenced Powell, 39, to 10 years in prison with two years suspended on felony drunken driving and assault charges resulting from the nearly eight-minute police chase from the Mendenhall Valley to the Twin Lakes area. The chase began just before 6 p.m., after Powell fled from a Tesoro gas station after twice driving over a woman and being shot at by a police officer four times.

"You were going through narrow lanes with construction cones and working equipment all around with pedestrians on the side of the road by a school," George told Powell at sentencing Monday. "Any number of people could have been killed in this case, or seriously injured."

George lambasted Powell's significant criminal history, which spans nearly 25 years and numerous infractions. Powell was convicted of seven felonies and 16 misdemeanors between 1990 and 2008, and that doesn't include some of his juvenile convictions, George said. Powell also had six probation violations, five parole violations and an escape charge during this time, he added.

"Between 1985 and 2007, your record is peppered with offenses that I think reflect your inability to conform yourself with laws, rules and regulations," George said. "And we have instances of substance abuses cases which have put other people at risk."

Powell's sentencing hearing began Monday when his attorney, public defender Eric Hedland, entered two police dashboard videos of the events on Sept. 25, 2008. Police received a call at about 5:51 p.m. that day indicating a man was drinking inside a van in the Mendenhall Valley.

The videos, taken from the vehicles of police officer Chris Gifford and Sgt. Steve Hernandez, each capture a different vantage point of the events that transpired in the back of the Tesoro gas station. Powell would temporarily stop, the officers would approach the van, and then he tried to escape.

The video shows the van backing up while a woman, later identified as Michelle Bennett, falls out of the passenger door and is backed over by the right front tire. Another man, later identified as John Katzeek, is seen fleeing the van from the passenger door. The van then drives forward, running over Bennett again with the front right tire.

Hernandez attempted to block the Powell's exit by ramming the van with his patrol car but it was able to continue in the direction of Gifford, who would shot four shots at the van. None of the bullets struck anybody. Both officers then pursued Powell, leaving Bennett injured at the scene while paramedics were called.

Hedland called law enforcement training expert Howard Webb - who wrote an independent report about the incident - to the witness stand to describe the mistakes made by the Juneau Police Department during the traffic stop and subsequent pursuit.

Webb said on the stand that the incident was one of the worst examples of law enforcement execution that he had ever seen. He cited as mistakes the positioning of the police vehicles, the drawing of a firearm at the beginning of the stop, ramming the van with a patrol vehicle, shooting at a moving vehicle where there were pedestrians around, and leaving an injured victim unattended .

Gifford shooting at the moving van was "at best bad judgment, at worst criminal negligence," Webb said.

In an interview during an internal investigation of the incident played during the hearing Monday, Gifford told Lt. Kris Sell that he felt his actions were justified.

"I feel like I did a very good job," he said.

Gifford told the court that he left Bennett at the scene because an ambulance had been called and he felt that Powell posed a threat to the public so he decided to pursue the van.

"It was a hard decision for me," Gifford said.

Juneau Police Chief Greg Browning said in an interview Monday that an internal investigation resulted in appropriate disciplinary action but added that he could not go into specifics due to personnel privacy issues.

"We used the whole thing as a learning experience and something to make the department that much better," he said. "In my mind, yeah, everything didn't go exactly right."

The department made some changes to its polices, instituted some new training and got some equipment that it previously didn't have that is designed to help stop chases, Browning said.

Powell had made a previous statement saying that during the initial stop he saw a police officer banging on his window with a gun, while later in the same conversation said he didn't know who it was at the window and just saw a gun, Juneau District Attorney Doug Gardner said.

"Mr. Powell made his decision to run from police before Sgt. Hernandez rammed him, before he ran over Ms. Bennett, before officer Gifford fired the shots at him, he had already put the van in reverse," Gardner said. "To say that Victor Powell with the extensive 25 years of virtually unbroken criminal history, more traffic stops than I was able to count ... that he didn't know that those were police officers is remarkable and I would submit just flat out not accurate."

Powell, who was medevaced to Seattle, had a blood alcohol level of .109 more than four hours after the accident, well above the legal limit, Gardner said.

Bennett testified Monday by telephone, saying Powell had forever changed her life by running over him with the van that day. It was not specified in court to what extent her injuries were, but Bennett said she will never be able to play sports or hold the same employment again.

"I hate what you have done to me," Bennett said. "I feel that you do not care about what you did or the effect that it had on me and so many other people and their lives. You have already damaged me for the rest of my life and you remain a danger to the welfare of other people in the community."

Powell expressed remorse Monday and said he is taking responsibility for his actions.

"I am sorry about my actions that took place that day and there was no intention at all of anybody getting hurt," he said.

Gardner had asked for the maximum sentence of 10 years, five years for each felony charge. George gave Powell the option of having two years suspended in order to allow for probation. However, George added that Powell has not been successful at rehabilitation up to this point.

"It's well reflected in here that you're just not successful on probation, you're not successful on parole, you're not successful on conditions of release. It's the way it is. It's just the way it is," George told Powell. "Maybe it's because at 49 or 59 or 69 you'll grow up and be able to control yourself as we expect somebody who is 21, 22 or 25, but it hasn't happened yet."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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