A police pursuit that ended in a deadly, chassis-shredding wrong-way crash on Interstate 95 early Wednesday began when the supervising officer on Opa-locka’s graveyard shift saw a motorist make an improper right turn, according to the police report.
It was at the corner of Northwest 22nd Avenue and 144th Street, a little before 1 a.m.
Cpl. Sergio Perez activated his siren and lights, the report said. The suspect, driving a Chevy Suburban SUV, hit the gas. The SUV entered I-95 at the Golden Glades interchange, heading north in the northbound lanes. It exited at Ives Dairy Road (203rd Street), with the officer still in pursuit. At Ives Dairy, the SUV went west, then doubled back onto I-95, but this time heading north in the southbound lanes.
Perez did not pursue, the report indicated.
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Just north of Ives Dairy, the SUV slammed into a minivan going the proper direction — south. All four occupants of the minivan were killed.
The driver of the SUV, identified as Paolo LaFrance, 24, was taken to Memorial Regional Hospital in Broward County, where he was undergoing surgery after suffering two broken legs.
LaFrance has a long record for mostly petty crimes, including marijuana possession, driving with a suspended license and trespassing. After the crash, he was charged with fleeing and eluding police, and the state attorney’s office was looking into charges of vehicular homicide.
Cpl. Perez was placed on administrative leave.
The accident happened well outside the Opa-locka city limits.
A driver behind the minivan said he saw the crash unfold.
“First there was fire and then smoke, you couldn’t see a thing. Then, out of the smoke came the blue [SUV]. It flew into the air and spun around before coming to a stop,” said Jeff Kopelman, a North Miami Beach resident who was driving behind the minivan.
“Five seconds earlier, we were the ones who would have gotten killed,” said Kopelman, traveling with his wife.
Police said a gun was tossed from the SUV.
Kopelman said while he did not see any police officers chasing the SUV, police cruisers responded to the scene almost immediately.
“It makes sense that it was a pursuit by the police because they were there right after, but I give the police credit I didn’t see them chasing him,” Kopelman said.
Opa-locka spokesman David Chiverton told reporters at the scene that officers stopped pursuing the Suburban before the SUV got onto I-95 at Ives Dairy.
“Our officers were not behind him at that time,” he said.
Kopelman, the eyewitness, works for a group of Jewish funeral homes. He said he handles the delicate process of preparing bodies for burials regularly, but he never thought he would witness death.
“When I saw it on the news this morning that four people died it really shook me up,” he said Wednesday.Investigators removed two bodies from the minivan and towed the vehicle to the medical examiner’s office with the other two bodies tangled in the wreckage.
Through rush hour, investigators were on the highway as road cleanup began. Pieces of the minivan were scattered across the road. The Suburban’s engine popped from the SUV on impact and flew about 25 feet into a middle lane.
All southbound lanes were shut down between Hallandale Beach and Ives Dairy Road for about eight hours.