9OYS Investigates: new details in deadly high-speed chase
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) – A new report released by Arizona's Department of Public Safety reveals new details about a high-speed car chase on Interstate 10 that killed one man and landed another in jail. Among the new revelations: the chase suspect and the innocent motorist he crashed into both had just swerved to avoid stop-sticks when the fatal crash took place. The report also revealed that the chase suspect, Joel Morando, confessed to DPS that he knew what he was doing was wrong and endangering lives.
On Veterans Day, DPS pulled over 25-year-old Joel Morando for a minor traffic infraction-- following too closely. But the officer's police dog subsequently alerted the officer to possible marijuana in the car trunk. Morando then took off, with officers following him, until he crashed into Ronald Papanikolas's truck, killing the 31-year-old Utah man. After the crash, DPS officers found more than 150 pounds of marijuana in the trunk of Morando's car. Morando was charged with first-degree murder committed during the commission of a felony, among a laundry list of other marijuana-related charges.
On Monday 9 On Your Side obtained nearly 200 pages from DPS detailing the interviews with law enforcement officers involved in the November 11th chase, the autopsy of Papanikolas, as well as interviews with Morando.
The report confirmed how fast DPS officers and Morando were traveling during the 30-mile chase. Accounts from different officers revealed that speeds ranged from 90 to 110 miles per hour, with one officer stating that they had passed 50 to 100 cars during the chase. Furthermore, the report also confirmed that DPS did indeed employ "stop sticks," or tire-deflation devices, three different times during the chase.
But each time, Morando was able to swerve and avoid the stop sticks. According to the report, the fatal wreck happened when Morando changed into the far right lane to avoid that third set of stop sticks. Right after doing so, he slammed into Papanikolas' truck at a high rate of speed. According to the report, the victim had also just swerved to avoid those stop-sticks.
The force of the crash ejected Papanikolas from his vehicle. According to the report, the victim was not wearing a seatbelt at the time. "The seatbelt was retracted with no stretching or deformation indicating it was not in use at the time of the collision," the report stated.
Taken together, the testimony paints a stark picture. Morando was rocketing along trying to avoid capture. Spotting another set of stop-sticks in the road ahead, Morando changes to the far right lane. Papanikolas, traveling much slower, also changes lanes, placing himself directly into the path of Morando's speeding Pontiac. Morando slams into him. Both cars leave the roadway. The crash throws Papanikolas from his truck and kills him.
According to the documents 9 On Your Side obtained, Morando gave police a full confession. He told a DPS detective that he had not worked in six months and was smuggling this load of drugs to support his wife and two sons. His contact promised him $1,000 for a successful delivery to Phoenix.
More to the point, Morando admitted to investigators that he knew his actions were dangerous. The report states, "Morando agreed that fleeing from police at a high speed is reckless. He also agreed that he put the lives of the officers in danger...."
Other interesting details from the report:
-- The DPS officer who stopped Morando was observing traffic as part of "Operation Stonegarden" when he spotted Morando's car. Operation Stonegarden is a federally funded program designed to help secure the U.S. borders by guarding border travel routes.
-- The pursuit traveled about 36 miles down I-10.
-- Morando admitted slamming into Papanikolas' truck after swerving to avoid stop-sticks. He told a detective that the truck had "appeared out of nowhere." The report estimates Morando was traveling in excess of 100 miles an hour when he slammed into the truck.
-- A DPS officer who witnesed the crash stated that Papanikolas had also changed lanes to avoid the stop sticks, thereby placing himself directly into Morando's path.
-- After the crash, Morando ran off through a stand of oleander trees. When Morando disobeyed an order to halt, the arresting officer tasered him. That officer was the same one who had initiated the pursuit.
-- The report indicates that two different detectives questioned Morando after the crash, and on both occasions, officers read Morando his court-ordered Miranda rights before questioning him.
-- Mirando told officers he agreed to smuggle the drugs after running into an old friend at a party the previous Saturday night.
-- The victim's autopsy revealed trace amounts of THC in his system. But Pima County Medical Examiner Bruce Parks told KGUN9 News on Tuesday morning that the small amount found indicates that Papanikolas was not under the influence of pot at the time of the crash.
-- Morando told investigators he had smoked one marijuana cigarette. But a test conducted after the crash indicated that Morando was not impaired by drugs or alcohol.
-- Prior to moonlighting as a drug smuggler, Morando said he received income from side jobs including a stint at a car wash and work as a landscaper.
9OYS's Claire Doan asked DPS spokesman Bart Graves about the report. Graves emphasized that there is no doubt who was responsible for the death of the innocent motorist: Morando. Graves said the report shows that when Morando took off, Morando "knew that fleeing from police at high speeds is reckless and that he put the lives of officers in danger."
Graves told KGUN9 News that the accident report only draws a picture of the events that occurred that day from the perspective of officers and Morando, but does not attempt to make any judgment about the actions of DPS officers. Findings along those lines will be released in a "critical incident report" several weeks from now.
As 9 On Your Side has previously reported, DPS chase policy requires officers to weigh public safety against the nature of the suspected offense, but empowers the officer initiating the chase to use his or her judgment.