Video of high-speed chase under review for possible criminal charges

An off-duty Nashville Police Department reserve officer did not have police powers or permission to use one of its marked cars during a high-speed chase in Bartholomew County, its police chief said.

As part of an investigation, Bartholomew County Sheriff’s detectives are examining dash-camera video of the chase to determine if evidence shows that a criminal offense occurred.

Detectives are also reviewing audio from a 911 cellphone call made by then-reserve officer Leonard Burch as he talked with dispatchers during the chase, when speeds reached 120 mph, and afterward.

The motorcyclist Burch was pursuing –18-year-old Xavier Scrogham of Hope — was found dead in a rural Bartholomew County field about seven minutes after the chase began.

Burch was placed on administrative leave immediately after the incident and resigned from the department three days later on Sept. 1, Nashville Police Chief Ben Seastrom said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers released video from the pursuit Wednesday night, after the department obtained it by using a search warrant served on a company that downloaded the video.

The video shows Burch pursuing a motorcycle — later found to have been driven by Scrogham — starting at U.S. 31 near Lowell Road at about 11:36 p.m. Aug. 29. The video shows the motorcycle in front of Burch’s car at a seemingly normal rate of speed, with Scrogham using a turn signal to move from the left lane into the right lane before rapidly accelerating away from Burch’s marked police car.

The chase began after Burch noticed Scrogham did not have a plate on the motorcycle, Seastrom said, although the audio from the dispatchers contains a statement by Burch saying Scrogham passed him going 120 miles per hour. The video from the dash camera released by the sheriff’s department does not show that, however.

Burch, using lights and sirens, chased Scrogham south along U.S. 31 (National Road) through Columbus, mainly through green lights and then east on Base Road and north on County Road 650E.

The Nashville squad car did not have a radio compatible with Bartholomew County’s radio frequency, so Burch was on a cellphone communicating with 911 dispatchers during the chase, sheriff’s department investigators said. Thursday’s statement from Seastrom said Burch was able to communicate with Brown County dispatchers, however, through its radio system.

At County Road 650E and 25th Street east of Columbus, Burch notified Bartholomew dispatchers by cellphone that he had lost sight of the motorcyclist and suspected that the motorcyclist may have gone on to Sunland Road or turned east on 25th Street.

About the same time, Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Deputy Dane Duke, who was not involved in the chase, saw a single tire track heading off Sunland — near 25th Street and State Road 9 — and found Scrogham dead in a soybean field. The motorcyclist had missed a 90-degree turn on Sunland and struck a telephone pole guide wire, which knocked off his helmet and knocked him off the motorcycle, investigators said.

Myers said at the time of the crash and for several days thereafter, Nashville Police Department administration gave no indication to detectives that there were concerns that Burch acted inappropriately in initiating the pursuit while off-duty in a marked Nashville police car.

It was not until the afternoon of Sept. 2, the fourth day after the chase, that Nashville Chief Seastrom and Assistant Chief Tim True met with Bartholomew County detective Chad Swank to request a criminal investigation into Burch’s actions and delivered new information to Swank, Myers said in a press release.

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“Our office has since learned that the Nashville Police Department had concerns immediately about the appropriateness of officer Burch’s actions but withheld those concerns,” Myers said. “These concerns, not known by our department, would have, and did change the course of our investigation when they came to light.”

Initially, the detectives were asked by the Nashville department to determine whether the Nashville Police Department’s policy would allow Burch to enforce laws as a reserve officer when he was not on active duty and whether Burch had authority to have a marked Nashville vehicle at the time and location of the pursuit — in an adjacent county.

Myers said investigators would have immediately impounded the Nashville car and dash camera as evidence at the accident scene if officers had known what they only learned later from the Nashville department.

Chief’s explanation

In his Thursday statement, Seastrom said he was notified by Brown County dispatchers about the pursuit and, after speaking to Burch briefly, notified True, who then went to the scene.

The day after the accident, the dash camera system in Burch’s car was found to be frozen, Seastrom said, and the Nashville officers were unable to download or preserve the video to the department’s server. Seastrom contacted the manufacturer and updated the town attorney and merit commission attorney about the dash-camera issue. Members of the Nashville Town Council and Police Merit Commission were also notified.

Seastrom and True told Bartholomew County Chief Deputy Chris Lane later that day — Aug. 30 — that Burch did not have permission to take the Nashville police car the previous night night. Lane was also told of the dash-camera failure, Seastrom said.

After speaking with Brown County Prosecutor Ted Adams and Deputy Prosecutor Jim Roberts, along with the town and merit commission attorneys, it was recommended the department notify an outside agency and request an investigation, Seastrom said. On Sept. 1, the dash camera was shipped to a repair facility to preserve the evidence if possible, Seastrom said. Burch notified True that he was resigning that day.

On Sept. 2, Seastrom and True contacted Swank after going to the scene of the accident. At that meeting, Seastrom said he told Swank that Burch as a reserve officer did not have police powers while off duty and he did not have permission to take the car from the police department the night of the pursuit. Swank was told about the dash camera being sent to the repair facility and a search warrant to obtain a copy of the in-car video was issued Monday, Seastrom said.

“This is a common practice to preserve evidence in an investigation,” Seastrom said.

The company, located in Maine, was able to provide a video from the dash camera recording to Bartholomew County Sheriff’s detectives.

“During the investigation, Assistant Chief Tim True and I, along with other officers employed by the Nashville Police Department, spoke with Detective Swank numerous times providing any information he felt he needed to conduct an impartial investigation,” Seastrom said.

Burch, who lives in Columbus, has been interviewed by detectives, said Capt. Chris Roberts, commander of the detective bureau. Roberts said the investigation is expected to be completed by the middle of next week and turned over to the Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash to determine whether charges should be filed.

Burch, 25, had been hired as a Nashville reserve officer in April and was one of five reserve officers serving as volunteers for the department.

What’s on video

The video is in two segments, the first one lasting 9 minutes and 39 seconds. After a 4 minute and 35 second gap, when Burch’s flashing lights may have been turned off, it resumes and lasts another 25 minutes and 26 seconds. About six minutes into the video, after Burch slowed when approaching a stop sign, it appears that Burch lost visual contact with Scrogham.

The video shows Burch, after losing sight of Scrogham’s motorcycle, stopping at County Road 650E and 250N in eastern Bartholomew County and seeking directions from dispatchers. Music from the officer’s car can be heard on the video as he waits at the intersection. About two minutes later, other police officers in marked cars, including a Hope Police Department squad car, pull in front of Burch’s car and he follows them to the accident site.

The dash camera shows Burch — wearing a T-shirt, shorts and athletic shoes — getting out of the police car and walking toward the accident scene, and later returning to the car and then walking back to the scene with emergency medical personnel.

Burch did go to the area where Scrogham’s body was found after the accident, Myers said.

Sheriff’s department investigators called an accident reconstructionist, Sgt. Kris Weisner, to the accident scene, and Burch was given an alcohol breath test, which came back negative, Myers said. True, the Nashville assistant chief, also went to the accident scene and spoke with detectives that night and in the early morning hours of Aug. 30, detectives said.

Myers declined to provide more details about the Burch interview or the focus of the investigation as it continues.

“The thing is, the family (of Scrogham) deserves some answers. They have questions,” he said. “There are a lot of inconsistencies here, and that’s why we released the video.”

The Scrogham family has retained Merrillville attorney Trent McCain to represent them. McCain said Thursday the family is waiting for the results of the sheriff’s department investigation before determining the family’s legal options of filing a lawsuit against the town of Nashville and Burch.

“To hold the Town of Nashville liable, we must show that Burch was acting in the ‘course of his employment.’ Knowing this and in anticipation of a lawsuit, Nashville is disavowing Leonard Burch and throwing him under the proverbial bus,” McCain said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Anne Johnson-Bey, Indianapolis, Scrogham’s aunt, has been designated the spokeswoman for the family, but was unavailable for comment before The Republic’s deadline.

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Bartholomew County Sheriff’s detectives plan to complete the investigation into a high-speed chase initiated by Leonard Burch, a reserve off-duty Nashville Police Department officer, by the middle of next week and submit their findings to the Bartholomew County Prosecutor’s Office.