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Police shoot at driver, mother during wild car ride on South Side

| Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, 11:48 a.m.
Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper will plead guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges on Oct. 18, according to a judge’s order issued on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper will plead guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges on Oct. 18, according to a judge’s order issued on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013.

Pittsburgh police shot a motorist who fled Homestead authorities, raced into the South Side and turned a bustling bar scene into a violent game of bumper cars early Sunday, city officials said.

Five officers on off-duty details opened fire at several points as the sedan traveled west and struck parked cars on both sides of East Carson Street, police Chief Nate Harper said. He said the driver, 37, and the sole passenger, identified as the man's mother, suffered gunshot wounds just before 2 a.m. and remained in serious condition Sunday.

It was not clear how many shots the officers fired, and police did not release the names or exact injuries of the driver and passenger. Investigators were piecing together what happened in at least five blocks of Carson Street, before the car stopped in the 1300 block after ramming a vehicle in traffic, Harper said.

Hundreds of people crowded the sidewalks and nightspots of the popular party area. Many posted videos on social media websites.

Harper said an initial search of the car, the driver and the passenger uncovered no drugs or weapons, although the driver was listed on warrants stemming from traffic violations in Georgia. One bystander said she might have been grazed by a bullet but did not seek medical attention. Harper said police were trying to verify that report.

He praised the officers for “a fantastic job.”

“The officers felt not only that (they) were in danger but also that people on the street” were threatened, the chief said.

He said the car nearly hit officers, who heard on emergency radios about the threat as the car charged toward the nightspot area.

“If they (didn't) take action getting people off the street, back on the sidewalks and trying to get them back as far as they possibly could,” more people could have been hurt or even killed, Harper said.

The six- to eight-minute ordeal began with an attempted traffic stop about 1:40 a.m. on Eighth Avenue in Homestead, according to police reports. The driver “just wouldn't stop” when police tried to pull him over after a red-light violation, Homestead police Chief Jeffrey DeSimone said.

He said two Homestead officers pursued the car, probably a full-size Buick, as it continued toward the Pittsburgh city limits. They backed off for safety reasons as the car approached the South Side, DeSimone said.

“The timing was such that the bars and places were starting to let out,” he said.

Carson Street was packed, busy with partiers enjoying the unseasonably warm weather, neighborhood regulars said. They said the car could have struck dozens of people had it veered onto a sidewalk.

Harper said emergency responders twice halted the pursuit when a sergeant realized “he was traveling at a high rate of speed (toward) a heavily populated area” and hoped slowing down could force the suspect to ease up or bail out.

That didn't happen, and the lead-footed suspect soon began smashing into parked cars on East Carson Street, Harper said. He said at least five were hit.

Officers started firing on the suspect vehicle after the first crash, Harper said. He said those officers would be placed on paid administrative leave — a standard procedure — while the investigation continues.

The office of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is looking into the matter, as well. Zappala spokesman Mike Manko said Sunday it was too early to comment.

Whether police were justified in firing their guns hinges on “whether this driver was creating an imminent threat to people on sidewalks and in the area,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina.

If the motorist drove “in such a way that he was threatening the lives of innocent people, then any kind of force is necessary to stop that threat,” Alpert said.

Police also tried to stop the driver by spreading spikes across Carson Street near 24th Street. Harper said the man steered around those.

Nearby bar customers found themselves shuffled away from the establishments' front entrances as police warned business operators. Maureen Gardiner, 22, of Mt. Washington said she was at Tad's on East Carson, 1109 E. Carson St., when police ran by on foot and asked a bouncer to keep everyone indoors.

“I was kind of happy that they pushed us to the back,” Gardiner said. “If I had been outside, I would have been a lot more scared.”

Harper said more police arrived on the scene after the pursuit to control a gathering crowd. Many didn't “realize they were in an evidence scene,” he said.

He said some revelers became unruly as officers tried moving them to safety earlier, when the suspect vehicle approached. But he knew of no arrests from those confrontations.

At the Smiling Moose bar, 1306 E. Carson St., owner Mike “Scarfo” Scarlatelli said the city ought to deploy more officers to the neighborhood. The congested area is the worst spot for a police pursuit, he said.

“It just adds fuel to the fire. Throws gas on the fire,” Scarlatelli said.

Chris Otto, 24, of Baldwin, said the incident didn't surprise him.

“I kind of expect it down here,” said Otto, who works at a Carson Street business. “Crazy things happen every Friday, Saturday night. You have a bunch of drunk people — and especially with this warm weather.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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