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Police: Possible meth operation led to Fayette County chase, standoff

| Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, 11:08 a.m.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Jessica Phillips, 28, of West Virginia, is led into Fayette County Prison after being arraigned at Fayette County Booking Center in Uniontown after she was charged in connection with fleeing police and holding up in a home in North Union Township on Friday, September 27, 2013.

The propane tanks, drain cleaner containers and plastic tubing tipped off a ranger with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to a possible methamphetamine manufacturing operation late Friday morning.

When Ranger Kip Hursh spoke with Donald Ray Brown, 53, and Jessica Lynn Phillips, 28, in a secluded area of Dunbar Township along the Youghiogheny River, they told him they were homeless and had been there since Tuesday. They had been camping near the Yough River Trail, part of the Greater Allegheny Passage.

Both denied having weapons.

When Hursh began to inspect a Ford pickup and a black utility trailer, “a call came over his radio that the state police were en route to the scene,” and the pair fled, according to an affidavit of probable cause.

That set in motion a chase where a state trooper escaped death from five blasts from a shotgun, the suspects crashed their truck into a North Union home, and Brown broke into another home nearby, where he ended his life, according to police.

The suspects allegedly led troopers on a chase south into North Union, firing shots out of a rear sliding window on the pickup before the truck crashed into a home on North Gallatin Avenue. Police allege the suspects broke into a home on Center Avenue, where police tried to reach Brown for about nine hours until they found his body about 9 p.m. on Friday.

Phillips, who surrendered shortly after the crash, is being held in the Fayette County Prison on $1 million bail.

Police said Brown was found dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Coroner Phillip Reilly said on Saturday that his office is planning to have Dr. Cyril Wecht, the well-known forensic pathologist based in Pittsburgh, perform an autopsy sometime during the weekend.

No troopers were injured.

Police said the pair, from Buckhannon, W.Va., were approached in Dunbar Township about 11:45 a.m.

After they fled, Trooper Nathan Swink caught up with Brown and Phillips as the truck headed along Route 119 South in the center of Connellsville.

According to the affidavit, Swink pursued them on West Crawford Avenue, where shots were fired at him near Sherwoods Bar. Swink continued the chase through Dunbar Township and onto Bute Road in North Union.

At the intersection of Bute and Oliver roads, two more troopers attempting to block the road were nearly struck when the pickup's driver refused to stop, according to the affidavit. Police have not identified which of the two was driving.

Police said the pickup crashed into a home at 500 N. Gallatin Ave. in North Union, causing “serious damage to the residence.” The homeowner could not be reached on Saturday.

Brown and Phillips fled into a neighboring home. As police surrounded the home, Phillips surrendered. Roads nearby were blocked off by police and firefighters during the fruitless negotiations with Brown.

No sign of life ever came from the house as troopers beseeched him over a megaphone to come out. There was no response as they used flash-gun powder, a robot, a message from Phillips and other entreaties.

Three area schools were placed on lockdown, as was PennDOT's District 12 headquarters. Police escorted the children out of their school buildings as parents arrived.

Seized from the Ford pickup were a Western Field 12-gauge shotgun and a Federal Arms .308-caliber assault rifle, according to the affidavit.

Phillips is charged with attempted homicide, conspiracy, escape, prohibited offensive weapon, resisting arrest, burglary, criminal mischief, fleeing or attempting to elude police, four counts of aggravated assault and three counts of reckless endangerment. Police had obtained an arrest warrant for Brown on the same charges, online court records show.

Brown had pleaded guilty in January 2012 to a charge of driving under the influence in Sullivan County in north-central Pennsylvania. He was sentenced to six months on probation.

Phillips's preliminary hearing is scheduled for Wednesday before District Judge Wendy Dennis in Uniontown. Phillips does not have an attorney listed in online court records.

Tribune-Review staff writer Kari Andren contributed. Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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