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Fatal chase

From left are Donnell Howard Jr. and Jessica Pichon.

CROWN POINT — Two people were charged Friday with reckless homicide, among other offenses, in the two-vehicle crash Wednesday in Hammond that killed a 13-year-old Whiting girl and injured her grandmother. 

Donnell Howard Jr., 31, of Highland, and Jessica S. Pichon, 27, of Danville, Illinois, also were charged in Lake Criminal Court with three felony counts and one misdemeanor count of resisting law enforcement on allegations they caused the high-speed police chase that killed the girl after stealing a case of beer from an East Chicago grocery store. 

Virgilene Austin, Howard's mother, said Friday she wanted to offer her condolences to the family of the teen, Julianna Chambers, and her grandmother, Theresa Paramo.

"I really want them to know how sorry I am," Austin said. "I don't condone my son in any way."

She said she has repeatedly spoken to her son and his girlfriend, Pichon, about straightening out their lives, but police could have stopped the chase and obtained an arrest warrant.

"I don't believe that little girl had to lose her life because they were tired of dealing with Donnell and Jessica," Austin said.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said Thursday he thinks mistakes were made. He, too, offered condolences to Chambers' and Paramo's family.

An East Chicago police officer was dispatched at 4:33 p.m. Wednesday to Strack and Van Til, 4725 Indianapolis Blvd., in East Chicago, after receiving reports of an attempt to shoplift, according to a probable cause affidavit. 

The officer spotted a woman exiting the store with a case of beer and ordered her to stop, but she instead jumped into an SUV and ordered its driver to flee, the affidavit states. 

The officer attempted to remove the woman from the vehicle's passenger side, but instead became trapped behind the passenger door as the driver reversed the vehicle, according to the affidavit. The officer had to hold on to the door to evade being struck and possibly pinned between the Durango and another car. The officer let go of the door and the driver then sped south onto Indianapolis Boulevard, according to the affidavit.

The officer and a second patrolman began a pursuit as the vehicle first turned south on Magoun Avenue and then west onto 150th Street, the affidavit states. 

The vehicle zigged and zagged west toward Hammond until it reversed course on Michigan Street and headed back east toward Calumet Avenue, the affidavit states. It eventually crashed head-on into a silver-colored SUV at Columbia Avenue and Gostlin Street in Hammond. 

Chambers, the 13-year-old passenger of the silver-colored SUV, was transported to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Paramo was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois in critical condition. As of Friday night, Paramo remained in critical condition, according to a hospital spokeswoman. 

Howard and Pichon were arrested as they attempted to flee the scene on foot, the affidavit states. 

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. 

Austin, Howard's mother, said her son and Pichon are homeless and have had multiple contacts with police in East Chicago and Hammond over the years.

Lake County court records show Howard has faced at least four misdemeanor charges, including several counts of conversion, domestic battery and invasion of privacy, since 2013 in East Chicago and Hammond. Pichon also has been charged with at least four similar misdemeanors in both communities during the same time period. 

Austin said Howard should be held responsible for his actions, but she questioned why police needed to continue chasing him. They were familiar with Howard and Pichon, Austin reasoned, and simply could have found them later.

"Her life was worth more than any case of beer," Austin said.

While she understood Howard may have hit an officer with his vehicle, by the time he crashed into Paramo's car police should have known no officers actually were down.

"They're not hardened criminals," Austin said. "They're petty thieves."

The Times has submitted a public records request with the Lake County E-911 Center for recordings made during the pursuit.

Asked by reporters Friday if he questions the decision made by his Police Department not to terminate the pursuit sooner, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland said he’s 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.”

Copeland's comments came during a media availability session following Gov. Eric Holcomb’s visit to the city to discuss the city’s lead contamination crisis.

Times Staff writer Lauren Cross contributed to this report. 

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Public Safety Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.

Lake County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Steve covers Lake County courts and social justice issues for The Times. The UW-Milwaukee graduate joined The Times in 2016 after reporting on criminal justice in New Mexico and Wisconsin.