Teen disputes police account of fatal crash

Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A teen-ager who exited 19-year-old Robert Esper's vehicle shortly before he crashed into an Anchorage Police patrol car July 9 disputes the police version of events preceding the fatal crash.

Ashley Shetters, 15, and two other teens exited a Chevrolet Blazer driven by Robert Esper, 19, shortly before it crashed into a patrol car driven by Justin Wollam, 33, on the Glenn Highway.

Wollam, Esper, and two passengers in the Blazer, Makayla Lewis, 16, and Heidi Weilbacher, 14, died in the crash. Savanah Fielding, 15, was thrown from the Blazer and critically injured.

Contrary to what police have reported, Shetters said, two officers chased Esper before he lost them and ended up at a dead end in a trailer park.

Shetters said the incident began with a gathering of friends at a trailer owned by a woman who had hired Kari Lacey, 15, to clean the home.

Lacey invited various underage youth to the gathering. Ronald Frank, 30, and Michael Hunter, 31, have been charged with buying alcohol for the group.

As the gathering wound down about 3 a.m., Esper was the only one left with a vehicle. He volunteered to take Weilbacher home and other youths to the home of Shetters to spend the night.

Police said they suspect Esper was intoxicated when he left the gathering but Shetters said he was not drunk. Toxicology results have not been released.

A police officer spotted Esper driving erratically and activated her overhead lights. Esper kept driving.

At a July 16 news conference, Detective Bob Butcher said per department policy the officer ''almost immediately backed off and let the vehicle continue on its way.''

Shetters, however, said the officer pursued and Esper managed to lose her.

''There was a chase,'' she said. ''You can ask anyone who was in the car.''

Several minutes later, a second officer spotted Esper's Blazer. The second officer also attempted to stop Esper, and again Esper continued speeding away. Butcher said that officer backed off as well.

Shetters said the second officer also gave chase and Esper pulled into the Dimond Estates trailer park, temporarily losing the officer and ending up at a dead end. Shetters and two other teens got out.

''I had no idea why he was driving crazy,'' she said. ''Probably just to lose cops.''

While fleeing police, Esper took a shot of liquor, Ashley said.

''The first chase, we were like it was pretty cool 'cause, you know, we've never been in a high-speed chase,'' she said. ''And then the second time I got kind of scared, so I got out of the car. ... 'Let me out, I'm walking.' That's what I said.''

Travis Barrett, 19, also got out of the back seat. Ryan Nichols, 18, left the front seat. Weilbacher remained in the front seat and Lewis and Fielding in the rear. Shetters said she encouraged them to get out as well.

They initially said, ''No, he can just take us home,'' Shetters said, but she persisted and they appeared ready to leave the Blazer when two officers approached on foot and hollered at Esper not to drive away. He ignored their command.

Shetters said she's angry that police showed up at the trailer park.

''If the cops didn't show up in that trailer park,'' she said, ''they would all get out and we would have walked and no one would be dead.''

Her mother, Michelle Underwood, who left her children home for the weekend to drive a friend to Fairbanks for a funeral, also questions how police handled the situation.

''They knew the license plate number, they knew who was the driver, they knew what color the Blazer was,'' Underwood said. ''He would have got those kids home safely. Instead they had to chase him three times. So, yeah, I'm a little ticked off. I thank God that Ashley survived, that she got out of the car. It could have been her.''

Police at the trailer park took Shetters and Barrett into custody. Esper took off in the Blazer and within the hour drove north in the southbound lane of the Glenn Highway, crashing head-on into Officer Wollam.

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