ST. HELENS, Ore. – Police arrested two suspected Florida gang members after a rampage through Columbia County that ended in a high-speed chase, crash and manhunt Saturday night, putting an entire community on edge.
It all started when someone called 911 early in the evening to report a reckless driver on Highway 30 near St. Helens. Deputies spotted the SUV and gave chase, but the driver sped up, changed directions multiple times, and barreled toward town, according to a post on the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.
The vehicle, a Toyota Highlander, was reportedly stolen in Florida. Police believe the suspects were associated with a theft ring called the “Felony Lane Gang,” which originated in Florida and is named after members who cash stolen checks in the far lane or “felony lane” of bank drive-thrus, according to several newspaper reports.
In St. Helens, police set up spike strips as the vehicle neared the populated area, but the driver swerved and missed the spikes. Authorities decided to hang back rather than dangerously chase after the SUV, which flew through the city at over 100 mph.
A Columbia City police officer then eyed the fast-moving Highlander heading west on Pittsburgh Road. The suspects were throwing items out of the car as they drove out of sight, the post reads. Deputies later gathered the items and connected them with recent crimes in the area.
Multiple agencies had joined the chase when a Rainier officer spotted the vehicle on Apiary Road traveling at the same perilous speed.
About a half-mile down the road, the suspect crashed the vehicle over a steep embankment. An Oregon State Trooper was the first to arrive and found two suspects trying to get away on foot near the wrecked vehicle. The trooper took down one suspect as the other ran off into the woods, the post says.
The suspect was taken to the hospital where he remains with serious injuries from the crash.
Police and deputies surrounded the wooded area and called for a K-9 to help track the other suspect down. Around that same time, Duane Bernard (pictured) heard the crash and received an automated public emergency phone message about the suspect on the loose.
Then he spotted someone on his property.
“He said ‘I need some help. Can you help me?’” Bernard said. “I said ‘just a minute. I’m in the middle of something else. I’ll be right out.’ Well, I had a handgun in my pocket.”
That's when the suspect started running.
“He was running down the driveway over the rail fences. (He) crossed the garden and I hollered at him to stop,” Bernard said. “He didn’t stop. I fired up in the air overhead.”
Deputies and police then scoured the area, looking in shops, barns, and houses for nearly four hours without finding the suspect.
On Sunday morning, an off-duty reserve deputy spotted a suspicious person matching the suspect’s description in Rainier and called 911.
Michele Whitecotton was working at a Rainier coffee stand when the suspect turned up in the morning.
“He kind of scared me because he banged on the window really loud and he seemed like he was in a hurry and trying to make a phone call or something,” she said.
Whitecotton wouldn’t give up her cell phone and minutes later police showed up and placed the man under arrest.
Police called Bernard, so he came down to the coffee stand and identified the man.
The suspect was not cooperating with deputies, and his identity was still being determined. He was booked in the Columbia County Jail.
Detectives were working to piece the investigation together and busy identifying victims of crimes associated with the suspects.
Deputies said it was clear the suspects came to Columbia County to victimize the community.