Anchorage police plan internal review following fatal crash

Posted: Wednesday, July 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Anchorage police are conducting an internal review in the aftermath of a Monday crash that killed a police officer and three teen-agers to see if any policies or training methods merit revision, a department spokesman said Tuesday.

Police also released the name of the third teen-ager who died, Heidi Weilbacher, 14. Her family wasn't ready to talk about her.

''Great kid. That's all I can tell you. Such a loss,'' said a man at the family home, who said he was her stepfather but declined to give his name.

Police could not release Weilbacher's name until they contacted her father, an employee of an air express company, who was out of town, said Anchorage police spokesman Ron McGee.

The crash occurred when Robert M. Esper, 19, drove a Chevrolet Blazer across the median on the Glenn Highway around 4 a.m. Monday. Police had been tracking Esper for a half hour as a suspected drunken driver.

The Blazer, hitting speeds of 85 mph, collided head-on with a patrol car, killing officer Justin T. Wollam, two teen-age passengers in the Blazer, and Esper. A fourth teen-ager in the Blazer, Savanah Fielding, 15, was in critical condition immediately after the crash. She remained hospitalized Tuesday. Her mother asked hospital officials not to release information about her condition.

Mikayla Lewis, 16, the other teen-ager killed, was in the legal custody of the state Division of Family and Youth Services at the time of her death, said director Theresa Tanoury. Lewis was a chronic runaway, Tanoury said. She had been staying at a downtown shelter, but had run away in April, Tanoury said.

''It is hard to detain kids who run. You pick them up and put them someplace, they run again,'' Tanoury said.

Investigators are still trying to piece together what happened in the little more than 30 minutes between the time an officer spotted the Blazer full of young people and the deadly crash.

Police are still seeking clues about the white car or van spotted in the instant before the crash by witnesses traveling near Wollam's patrol car. Investigators speculate that Esper swerved to his left to avoid hitting it and then hit the patrol car.

Anchorage Police Chief Walt Monegan wants to examine the department's pursuit policy ''to determine if there is any procedure we need to review, any policy we need to review to ensure safety in the future,'' McGee said.

The department says officers did not actively pursue the Blazer, which was registered in the name of Esper's father. Instead they followed from a distance and put down spike strips to force Esper to stop.

Before the crash, Travis Barrett and two other teens fled the Blazer at a trailer park. Barrett, with three old warrants, was taken into custody.

Arraigned Tuesday in Anchorage District Court on a new charge of resisting arrest, Barrett turned his head to hide his tears from television cameras. He pleaded not guilty. Barrett also is charged with failing to show up for a trial in Kenai on theft and forgery charges.

Esper, who was convicted in the juvenile system of three counts of vehicle theft, spent more than a year at McLaughlin Youth Center.

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