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Driver Lifestyles

And The Chase Is On...

By Jeff Jensen
Posted Aug 18th 2002 8:00AM

everything1126a.jpgBruce and Georgia Varnham were just enjoying a typical layover in the Northeast. This expediting couple from Portland, IN, parked their six-wheeler outside a theater in the Milldale, CT area and caught one of the movies playing that afternoon.

Georgia says, "We checked on the truck (a 2000 FL 80) when we left the theater; after all, you never know when a straight truck might be ticketed or even towed in some of those parking lots. Well, the truck was fine, so we headed off to the restaurant across the street." "We came out of the restaurant around a half-hour later and that's when we discovered that the truck was missing."

What followed the disappearance of their truck was a scenario worthy of "Wildest Police Videos." The Varnhams are contracted to C & S Transportation of Indianapolis, IN, a leasing company who provides trucks and drivers to Express-1 of Buchanan, MI.

After alerting the local police and C & S, Georgia Varnham then placed a call to Express-1, who contacted the satellite provider. They were able to provide the police with the GPS location off of the satellite system and, according to Georgia; this was the main reason the police were able to find the truck.

The truck break-in, which occurred around 3:00 pm, was accomplished by smashing through a vent window. The suspect discovered an extra set of keys in the cab and he was off and running. Literally.

The chase began after the suspect fled a state trooper signaling for him to pull over and a 5:10 p.m. report to Torrington, CT police that a truck had sideswiped a parked vehicle and kept going.

A computer check of the truck's Indiana license plate provided by a witness identified it as the Varnham's. State and local patrol units were notified and caught up with the large white box truck after it smashed into two more parked cars.

Torrington police blocked Route 8 traffic from Exit 43 to Exit 46 as state police pursued the northbound truck. The fleeing driver got off at Exit 43, struck and damaged a Subaru by forcing it into a utility pole, and headed north on Winsted Road and then east on Route 44 back toward Route 8.

At one point, the driver tried to avoid a set of "stop sticks", but the two right rear tires were punctured by the tire deflation device placed along Route 8 by police. Even with the flat duals, the suspect continued on his path of destruction.

A half dozen Connecticut State and Winsted, CT police were in pursuit as he headed south on Route 8, then crossed the highway to head south in the northbound lane. The fleeing driver attempted to ram passenger and police cars along the way, state police Sgt. J. Paul Vance said.

The truck thief's final attempt to shake his pursuers ended in a quiet neighborhood in Winsted. He zigzagged through numerous residential streets before he snapped a utility pole, and collided with two more cars.

Trooper One, the state police helicopter that had joined the chase, watched as the suspect missed a turn on one of the suburban streets, and crashed. The thief fled into the nearby Mad River, where he was apprehended by a Winsted Police Officer and two State Troopers, ending this 45-minute pursuit. The driver was described as a stocky white male with a shaved head and Fu Manchu-style moustache.

"I was doing the dishes and listening to all of this on my scanner," said John Fratini, a local resident. "When they got close, I went outside to see if I could catch a glimpse. Boy, did I."

"That helicopter came just over my house and police came screaming by," Fratini said. "It was quite a show."

"He (the fleeing driver) jumped out of the truck while it was still rolling," said another eyewitness. "Then he took off toward the river. It was like a TV show."

The suspect declined to identify himself to police, who took him to Troop B in Canaan, CT. Police matched his fingerprints with FBI files to determine his identity and discover outstanding warrants.

The investigation determined the suspect's identity as James Whitbeck, 36, of Waterbury, CT. Court documents paint the picture of a man well known to law enforcement.

Whitbeck has a criminal record of 14 arrests over the past 10 years and is wanted by Waterbury, CT and Southington, CT police on charges of larceny and failure to appear. He has been convicted of robbery, larceny and burglary and failing to appear in court, having served several brief jail terms.

The charges added to the list stemming from this latest incident include attempted assault on a police officer, engaging police in pursuit, first-degree reckless endangerment, evading responsibility and reckless driving.

"But for luck, no one ended up dead," Assistant State's Attorney Jonathan Knight told the judge at Whitbeck's arraignment. "He (Whitbeck) had no regard for the risk he posed to the community at large."

Whitbeck, who had lived with his mother in Plymouth, CT and worked as a welder, was unemployed when he moved to Waterbury three months ago, public defender Paul Summers said as he argued for a $10,000 bond.

Judge Marylouise Black disagreed, increasing Whitbeck's bond from $75,000 to $200,000 as he cited his recklessness and a probability that he would flee. Whitbeck scowled but said nothing as he stood beside Summers.

Waterbury, CT police Sgt. Edward Pekrul confirmed Whitbeck is wanted for third-degree larceny but declined to elaborate until Whitbeck is arraigned on the charge. His case was transferred to Litchfield Superior Court where the district's most serious cases are heard.

Well, that takes care of the suspect, now what about the Varnhams?

Georgia Varnham says, "What A Day! And it turned out to be What A Week!"

As the accompanying photos (which were taken shortly after the chase) show, the damage to the Varnham's cargo box was rather extensive. At the time of this writing, there is no final dollar figure on the damage.

Georgia tells us that fortunately, the majority of damage was confined to the cargo box. The box was crushed when Whitbeck snapped a utility pole, causing a transformer to fall on the box. The rest of the truck escaped with only minor nicks and scratches.

"The police were very nice and helpful," says Georgia, " the local police from Milldale came over twice while we were waiting and gave us updates, then gave us a ride to the site where the thief crashed it."

"We found that Whitbeck had rifled through the cab. He took Bruce's wallet, but didn't take anything out of my purse."

Georgia was told that the suspect had just finished a stretch in jail and that drug intoxication was a possible reason for the theft of the truck.

At first, thought was given to simply pulling the cargo box off the truck and driving it back to Indianapolis with a bare frame, but after a week spent waiting on insurance and police paperwork, the couple was ready to head back home.

Georgia says, "We were lucky to find a woman who was heading west, so we caught a ride with her. C & S already had another truck waiting for us back in Indy, so we didn't have to experience any more downtime."

"Bruce and I have been in expediting just about a year now and we both like the adventure of this business."

"But, maybe not this much."

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