Sgt. Thomas Smith stands beside his cruiser, which was heavily damaged after it was rammed by an SUV. John Thompson photo.
ELIZABETHTON — A Carter County sheriff's deputy narrowly escaped death Friday morning when his cruiser was rammed by a 1994 Ford Explorer.
Shortly before the 5:15 a.m. accident, Carter County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Thomas Smith positioned his cruiser at the intersection of Dry Creek and Gap Creek roads to block the vehicle being driven by Robert Edward Lee Butler Jr., 37, 1939 Powder Branch Road, after Butler had attempted to ram another cruiser and had refused to stop for blue lights.
Smith had placed the cruiser at an angle to block one lane and was out of his car attempting to deploy a tire-puncturing device, known as a spike strip, as the Explorer approached.
Unfortunately, the recoil string on the spike strip had unwound while in the cruiser’s trunk. As a result, the nylon string got tangled in Smith’s holster as he was deploying the strip. If Smith moved out of the way, he would take the strip with him, allowing the Explorer a clear path through the hasty roadblock.
As the Explorer barreled toward him, Smith struggled with the thick rope, trying to unsnarl or break it. Darkness and having little time made the task more difficult.
“As I was attempting to untangle the string I saw Mr. Butler’s vehicle round the curve on Dry Creek Road,” Smith said in a written statement for the Tennessee Highway Patrol. “I tried unsuccessfully to get the string untangled from my holster as Mr. Butler was approaching fast. I heard Mr. Butler’s engine increase in revolutions per minute as he approached my location, and I could see that he was veering into the southbound lane that I was standing in.
“By some miracle, I was able to break the string and jump clear of the path of Mr. Butler’s vehicle prior to it striking me. If I had not jumped clear of Mr. Butler’s vehicle he would have struck me, causing serious bodily injury or death. I believe this was a deliberate and intentional act by Mr. Butler because I had my emergency lights illuminated as well as my headlights.”
Smith estimated the Explorer was traveling in excess of 60 mph when it struck the spike strip and then plowed into the cruiser’s driver’s side.
The crash spun the cruiser around 180 degrees, moved it backward about 40 feet, and ripped off the driver’s side door. A section of the Explorer’s fender was ripped off and punched through Smith’s windshield and penetrated deep into the driver’s compartment.
Butler’s vehicle continued going straight and crashed over a bank, landing on its passenger side in a creek.
Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Greg Marlowe investigated the wreck and said Butler suffered lacerations to his head, but he did not appear to have any other serious injuries.
The incident began when deputies were called to Butler’s residence on a welfare check because he was allegedly attempting suicide. When officers got to the residence they said no one answered their knocks at the front and rear doors. They found a gasoline engine had been running in the garage, and the officers suspected there was a strong concentration of carbon monoxide, but no vehicle was found.
Deputies searched the neighborhood, and Deputy Richard Barnett discovered the Explorer traveling on Toll Branch Road. When Barnett began following it, he said the driver drove in the middle of the road at about 15 mph. The vehicle finally stopped, still in the middle of the road.
Barnett said Butler then placed the Explorer in reverse and tried to ram his car. Barnett took evasive action by driving in reverse for about fourth-tenths of a mile and avoided being struck by the Explorer, which was going about 25 mph to 30 mph.
When the vehicles reached the intersection of Toll Branch and Dry Creek roads, the Explorer turned onto Dry Creek heading for Smith’s position, and the other officers terminated their pursuit.
Initial toxicology reports indicated Butler had not been drinking, but there were high levels of carbon monoxide in his body.
Marlowe said he will charge Butler with attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and evading arrest. The sheriff’s department is expected to place additional charges.