Deadly consequences: Reserve officer facing pair of misdemeanor counts following fatal crash

Witness: Teen planned to outrun police

An 18-year-old Hope motorcyclist was looking for a police car to outrun before he died in an accident in rural Bartholomew County, according to witness statements included in a probable-cause affidavit.

The information came out of an investigation that led to two misdemeanor criminal charges being filed Thursday against former reserve Nashville police officer Leonard J. Burch. While off duty, Burch initiated a late-night, high-speed pursuit of the motorcyclist, Xavier Scrogham, whose body was found near a field off Sunland Road after the Aug. 29 chase.

Burch, 25, who lives on Pearl Street in Columbus, is accused of false informing, a Class B misdemeanor, and reckless driving, a Class C misdemeanor. The Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department investigation included witness testimony that conflicted with a portion of Burch’s account of the pursuit, court documents state.

A Class B misdemeanor is punishable by 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. A Class C misdemeanor is punishable by 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.

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The probable-cause affidavit filed in Bartholomew Superior Court 2 accuses Burch of pursuing Scrogham recklessly at a high rate of speed through Columbus and part of rural Bartholomew County. The affidavit also accuses Burch of making a false statement to a 911 dispatcher that Scrogham’s motorcycle had passed Burch’s police car going 120 mph before Burch began his pursuit at about 11:36 p.m. in the southbound lanes of U.S. 31 near Lowell Road.

Investigators concluded that Scrogham was going no faster than 70 mph in the 55 mph speed zone when the motorcycle first caught Burch’s attention, according to court records.

A summons will be issued and mailed notifying Burch to appear in Superior Court 2, Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash said.

Scrogham’s aunt, Anne Johnson-Bey of Indianapolis, said Thursday the family had no comment about the charges.

Deputies learned from one of Scrogham’s friends, Jacob Mee, that the two had gone to Peru, Indiana, earlier in the day on Aug. 29 to buy the 1987 Honda motorcycle that later would be involved in the pursuit.

Mee told investigators that the two made some repairs to the motorcycle and Scrogham decided to take it for a ride in Columbus, with Mee following him in a Volkswagen car, the affidavit states.

Mee described the sports bike as a “crotch rocket,” a slang term also used by Burch when describing the motorcycle to 911 dispatchers, the affidavit states. “Crotch rocket” commonly describes a high-speed, high-performance motorcycle characterized by an aerodynamic body shape, which requires the driver to lean forward on the bike, the affidavit states.

The two friends stopped at McDonald’s in Taylorsville to eat around 10:45 p.m., and Scrogham gave Mee his cellphone and said he thought he saw a police car sitting at New Hope Christian Church, 1404 W. County Road 400N, the affidavit states.

“It was Xavier’s plan to find a cop to outrun on his new motorcycle, and he wanted Jacob to hold onto his cell phone and then meet him at Huck’s gas station in Hope after Xavier had outrun the cop car,” the affidavit states.

Mee told officers that about a month before the incident, another motorcycle enthusiast had told Scrogham that he could outrun the police on a powerful enough motorcycle and used the phrase “drop a gear and watch them disappear,” the affidavit states.

Mee said Scrogham was obsessed with the idea of outrunning a police car, the affidavit states. “And then, before he started his motorcycle, he said, his last words was that. ‘Drop a gear and watch them disappear,'” Mee told investigators.

Investigators also talked to Cody Miller, another friend who was with Scrogham and Mee until about 9:30 p.m. Aug. 29. Miller told investigators that Scrogham said “drop a gear and watch me disappear” all the time and was trying to outrun any police officer who tried to pull him over, the affidavit states.

“He (Miller) said that Xavier’s logic was that, if you are on a motorcycle, ‘you can just weave in and out of places and … they can’t hit you because it can result in fatal injury, and stuff like that so, therefore, unless you stop, they can’t stop you,” Miller told investigators. “So his (Scrogham’s) theory was just keep going,” the affidavit states.

Scrogham’s parents, Kalvyn Johnson-Bey and Carleen Scrogham, retained Merrillville attorney Trent McCain to represent them, and McCain filed a tort claim notice on the town of Nashville, a prerequisite for a lawsuit. McCain said Thursday he had not known about the new information or the charges.

According to a Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department investigation, Burch said he was driving south on U.S. 31 near the Interstate 65 area when he heard a motorcycle accelerate. He saw Scrogham’s motorcycle and began following it, and when they reached the U.S. 31/Lowell Road intersection on the northern edge of Columbus, the traffic light was red and both vehicles stopped.

Burch told deputies the motorcycle driver later identified as Scrogham turned his head and observed the marked police car, the probable-cause affidavit states. Scrogham then took off at a high rate of speed and Burch said he turned on his light and sirens when the two were near U.S. 31 and Washington Street, with speeds reaching 90 mph.

Burch was talking to 911 dispatchers on his cellphone as the Nashville police car did not have a radio compatible with Bartholomew County’s system. The pursuit continued on U.S. 31 east of Columbus where Burch lost sight of the motorcycle on County Road 650E, about a half mile from 25th Street, the affidavit states.

Scrogham’s motorcycle was later found in a field off Sunland Road by a Bartholomew County Sheriff’s deputy who was not involved in the chase, the affidavit states. According to his statement, Scrogham entered a 90-degree left turn on his motorcycle but went straight instead — off the east side of the road.

There were no skid marks on the pavement or grass indicating Scrogham tried to stop, deputies reported. Scrogham went about 26 feet off a grassy area before his helmet hit a telephone pole guide wire, knocking the helmet off, deputies said. Scrogham was thrown from the motorcycle and died. His motorcycle was found another 140 feet into a soybean field, where it overturned, deputies said.

The Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department had requested dash-camera video of the pursuit while investigating the incident and released it to the media Sept. 14. The video was reviewed along with the recording of Burch’s 911 call to dispatchers, the affidavit states.

Department’s chase policy

Investigators determined that Nashville Police Department does not authorize its reserve officers to have police powers while off duty, although Burch told them he wasn’t aware of that policy, the affidavit stated. Nashville police also said earlier that Burch did not have permission to use a marked car while off duty in another county.

In the 911 call, Burch tells dispatchers, “I’m on Central Avenue. A motorcycle just passed me at 120 miles an hour, and I’m actually in pursuit of the vehicle,” the affidavit states. Burch then corrects the information about his location saying he was southbound on U.S. 31 approaching Central. During the call, Burch continues to update dispatchers saying speeds are 100 to 120 miles per hour, the affidavit states.

Investigators determined that the motorcycle and Burch’s police car disregard a red light at U.S. 31 and Beam Road and again at U.S. 31 and 17th Street, both at high rates of speed, the affidavit states. While the pursuit continues eastbound on Base Road, there are times that Burch’s vehicle appears to go into the air, losing contact with the road due to the speed and contour of the roadway, investigators wrote in the affidavit.

At a stop sign on Base Road, Burch approached the intersection at a high rate of speed but doesn’t appear to have time to react until heavily applying the brakes and skidding into the middle of the intersection, and then accelerating, the affidavit states.

While state law authorizes police officers in pursuit of a violator to proceed past a red light or stop sign, it is allowed only after slowing down as necessary for safe operation, the affidavit states. State law also only allows officers to exceed maximum speed limits if the person driving does not endanger life or property.

“According to Burch himself, he was pursuing a ‘crotch rocket’ motorcycle at speeds of 100 to 120 mph through the city of Columbus with only one hand on the steering wheel, because he was using his other hand to hold a cell phone with which he was speaking to the 911 dispatcher,” investigators wrote in the affidavit. Based on investigator calculations, Burch was driving at close to three times the posted maximum speed limit as he ran the red lights without slowing down, the affidavit states.

In keeping with Scrogham’s plan, Mee had gone to Huck’s in Hope to wait for his friend, and waited there about 30 to 45 minutes on Aug. 29 before going to Scrogham’s house near Clifty Creek Golf Course and waiting another 30 to 45 minutes for his friend to return.

A Hope police officer arrived and told Mee there would be really bad news for Scrogham’s family, the affidavit states.

Scrogham’s phone was returned to his family the next day, and investigators turned it over to the Indiana State Police.

Among the images is a selfie of Scrogham with another young man in the background.

Superimposed in white over the picture are the words, “Drop the gear and watch them disappear” followed by “–Xavier,” the affidavit states.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.