More than four months have passed since a Columbus motorcyclist was fatally injured following a police chase through Bartholomew County.
Xavier Scrogham was 18 and fresh out of high school. But instead of having time to map out his future, as others his age would do, his life was cut short about 10 minutes after an off-duty reserve police officer from another county outside his jurisdiction spotted a late-night motorcyclist cruising on a busy highway without a license plate.
In contrast to the frantic events during the final hour of Aug. 29, answers that they can accept have come at a much slower pace for Xavier Scrogham’s mother, Carleen Scrogham, and his sister, Hannah Scrogham, 16.
Investigators — using video evidence and interviews with witnesses — determined Xavier Scrogham was traveling no more than 70 mph in a 55 mph zone on U.S. 31 just north of the Columbus city limits when he caught the attention of off-duty Nashville Police Department reserve officer Leonard Burch.
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From a stop light at the intersection of Lowell Road, Scrogham accelerated and Burch followed in pursuit, traveling south through the city of Columbus before veering east along county roads into rural portions of eastern Bartholomew County.
Burch’s dashboard video camera shows the officer losing sight of the motorcyclist, then stopping at a dark intersection in rural Bartholomew County.
But after Xavier Scrogham headed north, about a mile and a half from his grandparents’ home, where he had lived since seventh grade, the teenager missed a 90-degree left turn while traveling on Sunland Road, with his helmet striking a pole guy wire, investigators said.
Bartholomew County Coroner Larry Fisher ruled Scrogham died of head and neck trauma just before midnight. His motorcycle, purchased that afternoon in Peru — in Miami County, north of Kokomo — where Xavier Scrogham had found it for sale online, was discovered overturned in a field.
About 10 weeks after the fatal accident, new information about the investigation was made public Nov. 10 when misdemeanor charges were filed against Burch, 25, of Columbus.
The officer, who had resigned his unpaid position with the town of Nashville a few days after the accident, was charged in Bartholomew County with false informing, a Class B misdemeanor, and reckless driving, a less-serious Class C misdemeanor.
Burch is accused of giving a false account of the chase, specifically a statement to Bartholomew County 911 dispatchers that Xavier passed him going 120 mph on U.S. 31 North near Lowell Road, court documents state. Burch also is accused of driving recklessly at a high rate of speed while chasing Scrogham, court records state.
If convicted of those misdemeanor charges, Burch could be sentenced to up to 240 days in jail and fined up to $1,500.
After reviewing statements by witnesses that are included in the Burch charging documents, Carleen and Hannah Scrogham said additional investigation is needed.Specifically, their concerns center around statements made by Xavier Scrogham’s friend, Jacob Mee, who was following in a car before the chase began that night.
Mee told investigators that he and another friend, Cody Miller, had gone with Xavier Scrogham to Peru to buy the 1987 Honda motorcycle that was later involved in the chase. After returning to Columbus about 5:30 p.m., they inflated the motorcycle’s tires and made other repairs to the vehicle, according to the probable-cause affidavit in Burch’s charging documents.
After getting the motorcycle running and test-driving it in the country, Scrogham and Mee took Miller home at about 9:45 p.m., then went back to Scrogham’s house between Hope and Petersville to take care of a chain that had come lose from the motorcycle’s back tire, the affidavit said.
After spending more time working on the motorcycle, Scrogham suggested taking it for a ride in Columbus and Mee agreed to follow him in his Volkswagen, the affidavit states. The motorcycle did not have license plates and had not been registered by Scrogham at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which was closed that day — a Monday.
The friends stopped at McDonald’s in Taylorsville to eat about 10:45 p.m. While at the restaurant, Mee said Scrogham told him that he thought he had seen a police car parked at New Hope Christian Church, the affidavit states.
Mee told sheriff’s department Detective Chad Swank that it was Scrogham’s plan to find a police officer to outrun on his new motorcycle, and he wanted Mee to hold onto his cellphone and then meet him at Huck’s gas station in Hope after Scrogham had outrun the officer, court affidavits state.
According to Mee, three to four weeks prior to Scrogham’s death, another motorcycle enthusiast had told Scrogham that he could outrun police on a powerful motorcycle and used the phrase “drop a gear and watch them disappear.”
Mee told police that Scrogham had become obsessed with the idea after that, the affidavit states.
Scrogham’s mother and sister said they don’t believe the concept that he was looking to bait a police officer into chasing him.
For example, Scrogham was not familiar with the motorcycle he had just purchased and would not be inclined to do something as dangerous as that, the two said.
As an example, Carleen Scogham pointed out that Burch’s dash-camera video shows Scrogham following traffic laws, using his turn signals and stopping at the stop light at Lowell Road before the chase began.
Carleen Scogham said her son had been friends with Mee for about three weeks, not long enough for him to know details alleging her son planned to find a police officer to chase him on his motorcycle.
A markedly different scenario to that theory is contained in an Aug. 30 social-media exchange between Mee and Hannah Scrogham, which was shared with The Republic. In that exchange, Mee described a conversation with Xavier Scrogham at the fast-food restaurant that included comments that he might have seen a police officer parked along the way, and that they would have to be careful when they got back on the road. That’s because the vehicle didn’t have proper registration yet, his mother suggested.
That social media exchange of information between the two occurred the day before Mee was interviewed by Swank.
Mee’s family said Mee is not allowed to comment about the case and referred questions from The Republic to the sheriff’s department.
Inconsistencies with stories
In a Nov. 29 interview at The Republic, Carleen and Hannah Scrogham took exception with several allegations in Mee’s statements to Swank, including one that their son and brother would have voluntarily given his cellphone to anyone.“He wouldn’t give his phone to his sister,” his mother said, for example. “You didn’t touch his phone.”
The probable-cause affidavit stated Mee told police he returned the phone to Xavier Scrogham’s family the day after the accident.
When the phone was examined by the Indiana State Police, a selfie photo of Scrogham with another teenager in the background was found on his phone, with the words “Drop the gear and watch them disappear,” followed by “— Xavier,” according to the affidavit.
After it left Scrogham’s possession, however, any number of people could have had an opportunity to alter the phone, including adding the “gear” phrase to one of the photos, his mother and sister said.
They claim the photo referenced in the probable-cause affidavit was posted on the phone after the accident, not before.
Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers said investigators have determined that Scrogham’s family had the phone at 4 a.m. Aug. 30, about four hours after the teen’s death. The phone was then given at an unknown time to Trent McCain, an attorney who represents the Scrogham family, Myers said.
The phone was not turned over to the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department by the Merrillville-based attorney until Sept. 19, after the sheriff’s department requested that he return the evidence. The phone had been sent to a third party to be forensically examined, further complicating and possibly damaging the chain of evidence dealing with the phone, Myers said.
McCain also gave the sheriff’s department what was described as Scrogham’s helmet and a shoe, although there was no explanation as to how these items came to be in the attorney’s custody rather than being turned over to the sheriff’s department after the accident, Myers said.
“The fact is that this case is not closed,” Myers said. “This is an ongoing investigation and on several occasions we have requested the cooperation of the family and we are waiting for them to respond to our requests.”
Myers said detectives have repeatedly attempted to speak with the Scroghams about their concerns, but they have said they wish to communicate through their attorney. They have not responded to detectives’ attempts to obtain information about allegations about the case posted on social media, Myers said.
“On several occasions we have requested the family’s cooperation. If they have something, bring it to us,” Myers said. “But we have to have solid evidence, not theories.”
McCain did not respond to requests by The Republic over three weeks time for an interview about the Scroghams’ concerns and a possible lawsuit against the town of Nashville.
As to how the items were in the attorney’s custody rather than police custody after the accident, Myers said the sheriff’s department was initially investigating a fatal accident, not a crime.
Scrogham’s motorcycle was picked up by a wrecker and taken to a salvage lot, which Myers said was a common procedure after an accident. Photos were taken at the accident scene and the reconstructionist was called to document the scene.
On the night of the accident, there was no evidence a criminal offense had been committed, Myers said. The sheriff’s department was asked to open a criminal investigation by the Nashville Police Department on Sept. 2 to determine the extent and legality of Burch’s involvement in the chase.
The accident investigation by the sheriff’s department said Xavier Scrogham was traveling eastbound on Sunland Road, which has several sharp turns, before entering a 90-degree left turn. Scrogham instead continued straight on his motorcycle, leaving the roadway.Examination of the roadway did not reveal any evasive markings, the sheriff’s department said. In fact, there was no indication of Scrogham attempting to stop prior to or after leaving the roadway, investigators said.
That doesn’t add up for his mother and sister.
They said their son and brother had been riding dirt bikes, four-wheelers and motorcycles since he was about 8 years old, and knew the area where the accident occurred “like the back of his hand.”
Scrogham, who lived with his grandparents, James and Nadine Johnson-Bey, was within a mile and a half of home when the crash occurred.
“He wouldn’t have missed that turn unless he was being chased,” his mother said.
But Burch had lost track of Scrogham at least a half-mile before the crash site, said investigators who studied the dash camera footage from Burch’s car.
While investigators said Scrogham’s motorcycle careened about 140 feet into a soybean field after hitting a pole guy wire, Carleen Scrogham said no soybean field debris was found on the motorcycle after the crash. A photo she supplied, however, shows the back of the motorcycle with extensive damage. They suggested that the damage could have been caused when another vehicle struck the motorcycle before it left the road.
Carleen and Hannah Scrogham also want to know why there is a 4½-minute gap in Burch’s dash-camera video, which had to be sent to the manufacturer to be downloaded after the unit froze up and the video file was described as corrupt by Nashville police.
After viewing Burch’s dash-camera video, Carleen Scrogham acknowledged that her son sped off from the stoplight at U.S. 31 and Lowell Road, when the chase ensued.
Since she wasn’t there, however, Scrogham said she can only speculate why her son did that.
“Maybe it was because of something that had happened earlier with the Nashville officer,” she said.
“I believe my son was scared. He had never been in trouble before,” she said. “I don’t believe he was looking for a police chase.”
Carleen and Hannah Scrogham said they need more answers about what happened because there are too many questions that aren’t answered to their satisfaction in the police investigation.
After reviewing all the material in police documents, Carleen Scrogham listed seven things she would like from police or others:
Release of all dash-camera video footage, including a 4½-minute gap between the two recordings.
Further investigation into Mee’s statements to police, including his whereabouts the night of the chase, based on contradictions the Scroghams claim exist between police accounts and text messages Hannah Scrogham received from Mee and posted on her Facebook page.
An explanation why her son’s helmet was found in the ditch near the accident scene.
An explanation why there was no soybean field debris on the motorcycle when it was impounded.
An explanation whether skid marks were found on Sunland Road from the accident. The sheriff’s department initial news release said there were no skid marks.
An explanation why the motorcycle was turned off with the keys missing when it was picked up from the impound lot.
An explanation as to why her son’s time of death is listed as 11:30 p.m. Aug. 29 on the death certificate, when investigators have said the chase started at about 11:36 p.m. Aug. 29.
“Somebody knows and they have a chance to make it right,” his mother said.
While video evidence indicates that her son did attempt to flee from police, Carleen Scrogram said, “He didn’t deserve to lose his life.”
Myers said the sheriff’s department has sent all evidence it has to Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash — and if the family is questioning that evidence, they need to talk to him. The department continues to track allegations being made in social media postings about the case, but much of it has been shown to be rumors and supposition, not evidence, Myers said.
It is important to allow the criminal justice system to complete its work on the Burch case, Myers said, and for that reason the department will not be releasing information about the case to the media while it is still pending in court.
Myers said he is surprised the family continues to contend the case is closed at the same time detectives are reaching out to the family for information and help by phone and email, but not receiving cooperation from them as far as providing the information to detectives.
“The case has not been closed,” Myers said of the investigation of what happened between Xavier Scrogham and Burch that night. “We know they have questions and they want answers. And we are doing everything we can to provide the answers. But the judicial system is set up to work a certain way for a reason. And I am not going to jeopardize this case.”