Washington Evening Journal
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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 2, 2014

Chase begins in Fairfield

By Andy Hallman | Mar 03, 2014
James Pleas Surber Jr.

Fairfield police officers were able to convince a suspect to give himself up to authorities after he led them on a high-speed chase through Jefferson and Wapello counties Saturday morning.

James Pleas Surber Jr., 24, was arrested and charged with eluding law enforcement by vehicle and driving while barred. Surber had an outstanding state warrant for escaping a halfway house. Other charges against him are pending.

The incident began at 6:55 a.m. Saturday when Fairfield police officers attempted to conduct a traffic stop on a vehicle believed to be driven by Surber, who had escaped from a halfway house probation facility in Iowa. Surber walked away from a halfway house a few months ago and several law enforcement agencies were attempting to locate him.

Surber refused to stop his vehicle for the police and led them on a chase through Fairfield, onto Highway 34 and into Ottumwa. According to a press release from Fairfield Police Capt. Dave Thomas, the pursuit became too dangerous in Ottumwa so pursuing officers, deputies and troopers backed off the vehicle. Law enforcement lost contact with Surber’s vehicle and continued to drive through Ottumwa and Wapello County in search of it.

Fairfield police officers were able to reach Surber by cell phone. After a half-hour negotiation, Surber stopped his vehicle and surrendered to law enforcement in Agency. The officers transported Surber to the Jefferson County Correctional Facility.

Thomas said Fairfield police tried to apprehend Surber on the west side of Fairfield as he was headed out of town on West Burlington Avenue. When Surber got on Highway 34, Thomas said he hit speeds of 100 miles per hour. Law enforcement kept pace with Surber until he entered Ottumwa.

Upon entering Ottumwa, Surber blew through controlled intersections without stopping for stop signs or red lights, Thomas said. The captain said this was when the police officer in pursuit decided to call off the high-speed chase in the city to avoid putting the public in danger.

Thomas said the decision to continue a pursuit at high speeds is based upon the danger the suspect poses to the public as well as on the danger of the chase itself. He said Surber had eluded law enforcement once before in a separate incident, although that was on foot.

Later that morning, law enforcement set up a spike strip on a gravel road in Wapello County designed to puncture the tires of Surber’s car. Surber thwarted the officers’ plans when he swerved to miss the spike strip and drove into the ditch and then back onto the road, continuing to elude police.

“From the information I received, the officer at the scene was quite surprised the subject did not wreck his vehicle upon entering the ditch,” Thomas said. “[Surber] maintained control of his vehicle because he drove into a graded ditch, which allowed him to continue.”

Law enforcement had identified friends and acquaintances in the area whom Surber might turn to when he needed help. Law enforcement contacted a woman who knew Surber’s cell phone number, and was willing to call him to convince him to give up the chase. After making the call, the woman handed the phone to law enforcement, who kept Surber on the line for about half an hour and convinced him to surrender.

Thomas said he was pleasantly surprised Surber was willing to talk to law enforcement over the phone because suspects rarely do that. He said a few members of both the Fairfield Police Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office have special training in hostage negotiation, and while this was not quite the same as a hostage situation, it did involve negotiating a peaceful resolution in a stressful environment.

Negotiators cannot promise a suspect a lighter sentence since they have no control over that. Thomas said many suspects simply want to ensure that their loved ones, such as their spouse, will not be charged with a crime as well.

“Once you explain to them it’s just them who will be charged, they’re happy to negotiate,” he said. “You have to be honest with them, because there’s not much wiggle room. The subjects understand they are going to have to face up for the mistakes they made. A lot of times you can promise them small things like being able to call their family before they go to jail.”

Thomas said Surber likely escaped from a halfway house in Ottumwa, because the warrant for his arrest after he escaped was issued in Wapello County. Surber did not have a valid driver’s license, but he was able to obtain a rental car, which he used in Saturday’s pursuit. Thomas said no one has come forward as of this morning to claim the car. The only thing known about it so far is that it is owned by the company Hertz Rent-A-Car. Thomas said police are planning to contact the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles to find out who rented the car to Surber, if he indeed rented it.

Thomas said halfway houses have minimal security and house people on probation who work or go to school during the day, but must report to the halfway house at night, where they are under supervision.       

Agencies that assisted in the investigation and apprehension of Surber included the Fairfield Police Department, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office, the Fairfield Police Dispatch Center, the Iowa Department of Corrections – Probation / Parole Office, the Iowa State Patrol, the Wapello County Sheriff’s Office, the Davis County Sheriff’s Office and the Ottumwa Police Department.

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