Two members of the Lake County Sheriff's Department Aviation Unit received commendations after they helped catch two suspects after a wild chase last month in which a man carjacked an Indiana Toll Road maintenance truck in Porter County and tried to run over Indiana state troopers before he was shot by police in the thigh and arrested.
Lake County sheriff's deputy Jamie Hicks, the department's crew chief mechanic, and pilot David Eichelberger were honored by the department for their role in an early September chase that ended with the arrests of three Dolton men police allege to have stolen from several vehicles in Valparaiso.
Armari Lomax, 19, was arrested on felony counts of auto theft and resisting law enforcement. Kobe Watson, 22, and Chaz Murray, who was shot after allegedly stealing a toll road maintenance truck and trying to drive into the maintenance worker and police, were arrested on preliminary charges of resisting law enforcement, according to jail records.
Police said the trio drove to Valparaiso in a stolen vehicle, were suspected in thefts totaling as much as $45,000 and tried to strike a police car head-on during a pursuit.
Hicks and Eichelberger overheard the chase on the radio, and then were called out to assist by the Indiana State Police.
"By the time we were airborne, the three suspects had ditched the car and ran off the Indiana Toll Road to 200W in Porter County," said Hicks, who was the flight officer that night. "We got on scene. They already had one suspect in custody before we got there. Two were still at large."
Officers on the ground set up a perimeter as the helicopter searched the area by the Indiana Toll Road, which includes homes in subdivisions, farm fields and woods. One suspect ran into the forest while the other ran along the toll road and tried to break into vehicles. He tried getting into one semitrailer, but the driver fought him off, according to police.
The suspect eventually got into the maintenance truck and then tried to back into police officers, who had cornered him on both sides, Hicks said.
"I was able to let the ground guys know where he was," Hicks said. "At that point they drew their weapons. I was able to hopefully assist in preventing a crossfire just because the suspect was going back and forth, trying to hit them and get away."
The suspect got pinned in by semitrailers that would not let him pass, so he got out of the vehicle, ran off on foot and jumped off the toll road bridge over the viaduct to the ground about 10 feet below, police said.
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He was hiding in the tall grass, but the helicopter detected his heat signature and was able to direct officers to exactly where he was, Eichelberger said.
"We could see him under the bridge where they couldn't," Hicks said. "They had him in custody in minutes."
Eichelberger and Hicks then flew over to help the officers who tracked down the other suspect who ran into the woods. They stayed until he was cuffed and in the police car.
"It was exciting for me," Hicks said. "That was my first major call as a flight officer. The training just kicked in."
In addition to helping with chases, the Aviation Unit, an eight-member unit based out of the Griffith/Merrillville Airport that's on call 24/7, helps track down missing people, including children with autism, elderly people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, or those presumed dead. The helicopter can help make chases safer by keeping eyes on the fleeing car from overhead so the police cars can slow down, Hicks said.
"We can let them know about traffic and intersections ahead to prevent accidents," he said. "The pressure's off the bad guy to get away so they can slow down. The ground guys can then set up roadblocks or whatever tactics they use."
A higher perspective gives police a good vantage point and tactical advantage during such pursuits, Eichelberger said.
"The minute I get 100 feet in the air, I can see north of Chicago on Lake Shore Drive," he said. "The telephone lines are 75 feet tall. Just above that, with my naked eye, I can see north of the city, I can see all the way to Michigan City, see the lake curve up into Michigan into the sandy bluffs. The minute I lift off, I can see the whole Indiana shoreline and the Wheatfield power plant, which is 30 miles away. I can get you pretty close to the target."