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Gaston PD runs down wanted Connecticut fugitive after pursuit that spans at least three counties

Gaston, SC 12/16/2021 (Paul Kirby) – Gaston police officers have arrested a fugitive wanted in Connecticut after he and an accomplice tried to stage a high dollar shoplifting spree at a local grocery store. According to Gaston Police Chief Stephen Watkins, the entire incident started at the Food Lion on Hwy 321 south about 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday.

Chief Watkins said that John Henry Westley and Amber Marie Houseman both went into the Food Lion in Gaston where they loaded four shopping carts with alcohol and other high-cost merchandise. In total, the items they tried to steal had a value of over $750. They were attempting to escape with the stolen loot when a Gaston police officer got behind their Ford Focus and activated his warning lights and siren to pull the pair over. Instead of yielding to the officer Westley, who was driving, sped off on Hwy. 321 south toward Cayce initiating the pursuit. Chief Watkins, Sgt. Cliff Hayes, and other available Gaston officers immediately gave chase.

The pursuit continued toward the City of Cayce and officers from that city’s department rushed out toward Gaston to assist in stopping the fleeing vehicle. Before they intercepted, the speeding car got onto I77 north heading toward Cayce, Columbia, and the Congaree River. Cayce officers did get involved at the 12th Street onramp to I77 backing up the Gaston officers that were staying right with the fleeing suspects. When the chase crossed into Richland County, Cayce was given the lead position because their jurisdiction continued. The City of Cayce annexed areas off Bluff Road years ago.

The fleeing driver appeared not to know the area well and in his confusion, he exited onto Bluff Road in Cayce. He drove under the overpass, and reentered I77 heading south back into Lexington County. Once the pursuit crossed back into this jurisdiction, the Cayce officers yielded the lead back to Gaston PD as the fleeing suspect exited I77 onto I26 east toward Charleston.

Chief Watkins had already committed to the exit ramp that would have taken him west and was unable to safely follow the fleeing felon onto I26 east. Gaston PD Sgt. Cliff Hayes was in the second position and stayed right behind the Ford as it continued to press on toward Charleston. Meanwhile, Chief Watkins ran down Hwy 321 south paralleling I26 to be in place should the suspects exit the interstate and again try his luck on the back roads of Lexington County.

Lexington County’s Emergency Communications Center notified Calhoun County and deputies from that jurisdiction began racing to intercept the suspects. At this point, Sgt. Hayes was looking for a safe spot to use a PIT maneuver (Pursuit Intervention Technique) to spin the fleeing car out. The issue with using this maneuver or tire deflation devices at high speeds on an interstate is the likelihood of collateral damage. A PIT maneuver at speeds of 100 plus mph could cause a deadly crash and Stop Sticks indiscriminately flattens the tires of every vehicle that strikes them. The officers kept chasing the car looking for a safe place and opportunity to bring the pursuit to a close.

Eventually, the driver of the Ford realized he wasn’t going to lose the pursuing cruisers on the interstate, so he exited I26 at the 129 mm on Hwy. 21 heading back toward SC Hwy. 6 east of Swansea. At this point, Calhoun County deputies had joined the chase backing up Sgt. Hayes. The fleeing car eventually began to slow as flames started coming from its tailpipe. Sgt. Hayes found the right spot and PITTED the vehicle spinning it out and bring the chase to an end. Both suspects were immediately taken into custody by Sgt. Hayes and the deputies from Calhoun County.

Chief Watkins said Thursday morning that after investigating further, the driver, John Henry Westley, was wanted for a burglary or home invasion in the state of Connecticut. His warrants had full, nationwide extradition which means that after he has faced a judge here, officers from that state will come and take him back to Connecticut in chains to face charges there.

“He told us he was looking at serious time in that state,” Chief Watkins stated Thursday morning. “That’s why he was so determined to lose us and get away.” Watkins went on to explain that the people of Lexington County should not have to deal with lawlessness like we’ve seen in other parts of the country. “Stealing more than $750 worth of merchandise from the Food Lion impacts what all customers pay at the register. If you try that in Gaston, you better be prepared to suffer the consequences of your actions.” Watkins also expressed his appreciation for the other agencies who helped to bring this pursuit to a close. He said that his department has a wonderful working relationship with other jurisdictions and he’s found that officers from surrounding departments are always willing to help in situations like this.

Both John Henry Westley and Amber Marie Houseman were booked into the Lexington County Detention Center. Wesley has been charged with Failure to Stop for Blue Lights, Reckless Driving, Possession of Stolen Property, and Shoplifting under $2,000. Houseman has been charged with Shoplifting under $2,000. Both are expected to face a judge for their first hearing Thursday.

PHOTO CAPTION: Westley, Houseman, and the merchandise recovered from the pair.


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