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Vanaski: Pursuit pits police cowboys, cabbie in city streets

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

The night a police chase into the South Side ended with a crash and a police officer standing on the hood of Bodie Essiet's cab, his life flashed before his eyes.

“I was thinking about my children,” Essiet said.

More than a year after the police pursuit of Donald Burris Jr., the cabbie is bothered by one question: Should the officers have fired so close to bystanders? Officers fired at least 10 shots that night on East Carson Street, which hosts a popular bar and restaurant scene. They found neither drugs nor weapons in the Burris car.

The incident began Jan. 13, 2013, when Burris ran a red light in Homestead and borough police began a pursuit. The chase ended when Burris and his mother, Lena Davenport, 50, were shot and wounded by police, many of whom were moonlighting in those nightspots.

Davenport filed a federal civil lawsuit against the officers, Homestead and Pittsburgh over her injuries. Her son is awaiting trial for aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and other charges related to the pursuit.

Davenport's attorney, J. Kerrington Lewis, showed me the video retrieved from the dashboard camera in the cab. Lewis believes the video shows that officers didn't have to shoot at Burris' car because they were not in danger. Burris struck at least two vehicles in the chase before crashing into Essiet's cab. That's when Officer Thomas Gorecki fired two shots into the vehicle, apparently missing Burris and his mother.

None of the officers involved in the incident would comment because of the pending litigation. Neither would District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office nor city Solicitor Lourdes Sánchez-Ridge's office. At the time, police officials and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said the officers were trying to protect the public.

The video shows the chaos that frightened Essiet. At 1:43 a.m., he's stopped at East Carson and 14th Street, talking to his dispatcher about a fare. Then he apparently hears gunfire.

“Is that people shooting? Somebody shooting?” Essiet shouts.

Seconds later, the video shows Burris' 1997 Buick LeSabre coming at him on East Carson. Homestead police later estimated the car's speed at 35 to 45 mph.

The camera captures Gorecki running into the street, looking toward Burris' car and crossing in front of Essiet's cab. At the same time, Burris' car hits another car before continuing on East Carson. Gorecki then steps up to the LeSabre and fires twice into it as it careens into the cab.

The pursuit ends with Gorecki standing on the cab's hood and pointing his weapon as other officers surround Burris' car.

The camera in Essiet's cab is two-way, so the video shows an angle of the frantic cabbie trying to protect himself.

“Lord be with me! Please forgive me!” he repeats.

Today Essiet is still concerned about how police handled the chase.

“Why are you chasing (the car) in a heavily populated area? How could that situation have been taken care of without putting all those people in danger?”

Lewis, who worked on the Jordan Miles case, agreed.

“It's stuff you see that the cowboys do. It's beyond the pale,” Lewis said.

Nafari Vanaski is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-856-7400, ext. 8669, nvanaski@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NafariTrib.

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