CROWN POINT — A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against five officers involved in a high-speed pursuit that cost the life of a 13-year-old Whiting girl earlier this year, U.S. District Court records show.
Gabriella Erica Vasquez filed the lawsuit this month on behalf of her mother, Theresa Paramo, who was severely wounded in the crash, and Julianna Chambers, the teen killed. Vasquez is Chambers' aunt and Paramo's guardian.
Paramo is Chambers' grandmother and adoptive mother and Cecilia Paramo is Chambers' birth mother, according to family and two attorneys in the case.
The lawsuit — filed May 3 in Lake County Superior Court and transferred to federal court on Wednesday — alleges Chambers died and Theresa Paramo was badly injured as a result of the high-speed chase that began over a case of stolen beer.
The officers' decision to initiate the chase and continue through "crowded city streets" of East Chicago and Hammond at 4:30 p.m. on a weekday "is evidence of an utter disregard for public safety," the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit names the cities of East Chicago and Hammond and five police officers from both departments as defendants.
Hammond City Attorney Kristina Kantar said Friday the city does not comment on pending litigation. A spokeswoman with the East Chicago Police Department deferred comment to a city attorney. East Chicago City Attorney Michael Tolbert declined comment.
The deadly pursuit
On Feb. 15, police dispatched East Chicago police Officer James Solorio, one of the defendants, at 4:33 p.m. to the Strack & Van Til grocery store at 4725 Indianapolis Blvd. to investigate a shoplifting incident.
Both Solorio and a second defendant, Officer Eric Godoy, initiated the high-speed chase out of the parking lot in pursuit of suspects Jessica S. Pichon, 27, of Danville, Illinois, and Donnell Howard Jr., 31, of Highland, the lawsuit states.
"Defendants ... were at all times fully aware that initiating and continuing a high-speed chase in the aforesaid areas at approximately 4:40 p.m. on a weekday exposed innocent and unknowing drivers in these areas to an unreasonable risk of harm," the lawsuit states.
At one point during the chase, Howard was driving a 2010 Dodge Durango east on Gostlin Street when he hit the driver's side of a Chevrolet Equinox driven by Theresa Paramo in the intersection at Columbia Avenue, according to police.
A police report states Howard disregarded a red light before the crash just as Theresa Paramo was entering the intersection on a green light on northbound Columbia Avenue, with her granddaughter, Chambers, in the passenger seat.
'Negligent and reckless'
Theresa Paramo had recently picked up Chambers from an orthodontist appointment in Munster and began the drive home to Whiting on northbound Columbia when the crash occurred, court documents show.
"Theresa Paramo had absolutely no warning or notice that Defendants were conducting a high-speed chase of Donnell Howard and Jessica Pichon in the same area at the same time nor did Defendants attempt to provide warning or notice of same," the lawsuit states.
The suit alleges the officers' actions were negligent and reckless, and due to the crash, Paramo has sustained severe and permanent personal injuries, significant medical expenses and is now bed-ridden and disabled.
The 911 audio recording of the pursuit and crash was obtained by The Times through a public records request earlier this year in the wake of East Chicago and Hammond investigating whether their police departments violated policies in continuing the pursuit given the minor nature of the crime and after it reached unsafe speeds in crowded rush-hour traffic.
The 18-minute, 40-second file recorded conversations of 911 dispatchers as well as police chasing the suspects.
About a minute before the crash, someone suggested on the tape terminating the chase if this was only a property crime, and another officer responded it was more serious, since the suspects had nearly injured a police officer.
A man's voice says, "If this is for the stolen beer, we'll terminate." Seconds later, another replies, "Negative central. Advise they also tried to run (unintelligible) over."
'They are both devastated'
After the fatal crash, East Chicago police in a statement described an account of what happened. A police officer became trapped inside a passenger side door while the two suspects were attempting to flee the scene in a vehicle, police said. The officer let go of the door and the driver then sped south onto Indianapolis Boulevard, according to court records.
Pichon told police the couple smoked crack-cocaine earlier in the day and had attempted to steal the beer to get money for more drugs, according to the affidavit. She said she tried to tell Howard to stop the vehicle, but he did not listen, the affidavit states.
Asked earlier this year if he questions the decision made by his officers not to terminate the pursuit sooner, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland said he was waiting on results from the state police investigation before commenting on the judgment call.
“I can tell you it’s under investigation and I am waiting on the results of the investigation. But my heart … goes out to (the family) and they’re in our prayers,” Copeland said. “I am awaiting the investigation that will produce the facts that will give me a reason to never second-guess but truly, we owe the family the truth and nothing but the truth.”
Reached by phone Thursday night, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said he could not comment, having not yet reviewed the lawsuit.
Shortly after the crash, McDermott offered condolences to the family. He questioned the decision to initiate and continue the chase during rush hour at a high rate of speed over a case of beer.
“In the aftermath, you start asking questions like ‘What did these people do? Did they rob a bank? Did they murder somebody?’ No, they stole a case of beer,” McDermott was quoted as saying. “Are you freaking kidding me? This is why we’re driving around, in rush hour, in north Hammond, at a high rate of speed, endangering hundreds of residents?”
McDermott Jr. previously said the city's Pursuit Review Board was investigating the event and awaiting evidence from the E-911 tapes and an Indiana State Police traffic accident reconstruction probe.
At the time, he said no disciplinary action has been taken against the Hammond officers.
"They are both devastated," he said.
Howard and Pichon were later charged with three felony counts and one misdemeanor count of resisting law enforcement on allegations they caused the high-speed police chase.
(Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Cecilia Paramo is Julianna Chambers' birth mother.)