The man no longer had a drivers license when he slid behind the wheel of his silver BMW, though he didnt understand that he shouldnt be driving.
At 80, he had Alzheimers disease and had been drinking that day. At 6-foot-4 and 214 pounds, he was too much for his wife of 54 years to restrain. Plus, she had just returned from the hospital that morning, and was asleep at their home in Gig Harbor when her husband found the keys.
When she woke and realized the car was gone, she called police.
He doesnt know anything anymore, and I cant control him, she recalled Friday. He puts on his old military uniform and sits in the garage. I cant put him in a home if he doesnt want to go. When I saw the car was gone, my god ...
By the time I called police, they already knew where he was.
It was New Years Day, not quite 2 p.m., when the man drove onto an off-ramp in Tacoma and headed the wrong way on State Route 16 toward the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Eastbound drivers were calling the State Patrol, reporting a vehicle moving straight at them in the fast lane.
The State Patrol put out an all-cars bulletin. The man was about to cross the new bridge, traveling against traffic.
Officer ‘almost bought it’
Pierce County Sheriffs Deputy Jacob Kreis was on SR 16 driving east in Gig Harbor, en route to a car wash to clean his squad car. Thats when dispatch told him there was a vehicle coming his way head on.
All I had time to do was turn on my radar and look ahead, Kreis said. I saw his lights as he came over a little hill, and he was doing 65 mph. I was doing 60-65 mph and we were in the same lane.
It was a game of chicken all the way, and I swerved. He didnt. I almost bought it. If I hadnt swerved, Id have been munched.
Kreis got off the freeway and slid back on the road heading west. By that time, the man in the BMW was miles ahead on the other side of the median.
I heard (Gig Harbor Police Officer) Joe Hicks on the radio, Kreis said. Hicks said he was going to try to get ahead of him. a personal near miss
Marilyn Clapper was on SR 16 driving east from her home on the Key Peninsula, headed to the Gig Harbor Safeway for some shopping. She moved into the fast lane.
When she saw the lights of the BMW ahead, coming directly toward her, she realized there was another car to her immediate right. She had nowhere to go.
I had some real flashbacks when I saw him coming, she recalled. It was like a movie, and for the first time I knew exactly what my son had seen and felt ...
Her son, Jim, was 24 years old when he was killed by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 5 on New Years Day 1980. The driver in that case was drunk. Spurred by her familys tragedy, Clapper helped found the Washington state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.
Now, like her son on that day exactly 33 years earlier, she faced an oncoming car.
I pulled as far to the right as I could and the BMW got on the shoulder to my left and I think our fenders kissed, Marilyn said. I was so shaken I missed my exit. Ive been seeing it in my mind for weeks.
The man kept driving.
Chase intensifies, then ends
Hicks was flying, his cruiser topping out at 125 mph.
The Gig Harbor cop was on SR 16 westbound and managed to get ahead of the man in the BMW, who was traveling the same direction but on the wrong side of the median.
Hicks, lights flashing and siren on, made a U-turn and got in the fast lane driving eastbound, head-on toward the man. Stopping him was the first priority. There was no time to throw down spike strips, and blowing out four tires on a BMW doing 65 mph didnt seem the best option.
A little after 2 p.m., the 29-year-old Hicks stopped his patrol car in the far left lane and braced himself.
I had about 5-6 seconds when I saw him coming and I hoped hed stop, Hicks said. You do wonder how much damage it could do if he hits you head on, but its part of the job.
The man passed Hicks on the narrow shoulder to his left, never once looking at the policeman.
Hicks turned around his squad car and did the only thing he thought he could to end the chase: He followed the BMW, both cars going the wrong way.
The video camera on his dashboard told the story. As Hicks sped west after the BMW, cars were scattered and stopped on both sides of the eastbound lanes. A semi-trailer truck was skidding, its driver having slammed on the brakes to avoid a head-on collision.
Hicks sped up. Meanwhile, Deputy Kreis closed the gap but still was a mile behind, driving the right way with westbound traffic.
Hicks could see the BMW weaving ahead of him.
He was changing lanes, avoiding oncoming cars. I passed him, got in front of him and forced him to slow down and finally stop, Hicks said. The deputy (Kreis) pulled up behind him and blocked him in.
The dashboard camera then shows a brief exchange: As Hicks orders the man to give him his keys, the man is heard saying what should have been obvious all along.
I was driving the wrong way, he said. State Patrol trooper Ryan Durbin arrived and found the driver handcuffed, leaning against the trunk of a patrol car. The man couldnt recall what road hed driven on but said he was headed to the bank.
Durbins report said the man could not support himself while standing. A sobriety test at 2:14 p.m showed his blood-alcohol level was at .10, above the legal limit of .08.
Miraculously, the man had driven at high speed, in the wrong direction, from somewhere east of the Narrows bridges (authorities dont know where) all the way to the Kitsap County line, without hitting another vehicle.
The man has been charged with drunken driving.
Marilyn Clapper said she will be there for his hearing and any other court dates. She said she still sees the car coming toward her.
Officer Hicks received a commendation for his action that day. Deputy Kreis was mentioned in the same award.
The man remains at home with his wife. She says she has hidden the keys and the BMW. Five days before his arrest, hed crashed another car and totaled it.
He doesnt know what he did, she said Friday, her voice breaking. Hes not there anymore. Ive made sure he has no access to alcohol theres none in the house but the Alzheimers is getting worse each day.
Every day its something new. I dont know what to do with him.
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638