BILLINGS - Late on the evening of Thursday, Dec. 17, Tyler Andersen, a 23-year-old Billings resident, failed to heed a stop sign at the bottom of the Interstate 90 exit ramp at Columbus.
Andersen doesn't dispute that he was guilty of that offense. But in regard to nearly everything else that happened in the next 15 or 20 minutes, Andersen's account is sharply at odds with that of Sgt. Gary Timm, the Columbus police officer who pursued him all the way to a rest area near Park City.
Andersen was ticketed for speeding and reckless driving; he is disputing the charges and is to stand trial in Stillwater County Justice Court on April 15.
Timm, in the incident report he filed, said he was parked under the highway bridge near the stop sign and saw Andersen, eastbound, blow through at an estimated 60 mph before speeding off to the east on I-90. Timm said he pursued Andersen's vehicle, which was going 105 mph when he caught up with it three miles later.
He stayed behind Andersen, or nearly alongside him, without activating his flashing lights or siren, until Andersen pulled over at the rest area. Timm turned on his overhead lights then, spoke with Andersen and ticketed him for speeding and reckless driving, for going through the stop sign at 60 mph. The fines totaled $405.
Andersen tells a much different story. He said he and his girlfriend, Samantha Brown, had a rare day off together and were coming back from a day at Chico Hot Springs when they pulled off at Columbus to get gas. They were in her car, and Brown told Andersen they could make it home on what was in the tank, so he rolled through the stop sign at about 20 mph, in second gear, and got back on the highway, he said.
A mile or two down the road, Andersen said, when he was traveling at about 80 mph, he looked in his rear-view mirror and saw a car "screaming up on our back end." He said he had to take evasive action to avoid being hit by the car, which apparently had its brights on, and then, after first speeding up, Andersen slowed down to let the car pass.
When it stayed on his tail - less than a car length away - Andersen said, he and Brown, not knowing it was a police car, assumed that the driver of a car they had passed near Columbus was experiencing road rage for reasons unknown and was trying to frighten or injure them. He sped up to get away, Andersen said, but he doesn't know how fast he was going.
Only as he neared the rest area did the car get off his tail, Andersen said, and when he pulled into the rest stop he didn't realize it was a police car that had been trailing for him for eight or nine miles. He said he assumed that the driver with road rage had continued down the highway and that a police officer, who happened to be on the highway as well, was going to ticket him for exiting the highway at too high a speed.
Once Andersen realized it had been a police car the whole time, he asked the officer why he hadn't turned on his overhead lights.
"He said he had the junker car for the evening - and this is verbatim - he said, ‘I was afraid you were trying to run for the Yellowstone County border and I didn't put on my lights because I wanted to catch you.' "
In his report, Timm said he didn't activate his lights because he was waiting for a Montana Highway Patrol officer to get there "so both of us could make the traffic stop together."
Andersen said the MHP trooper didn't get to the rest area until seven to 12 minutes after the pursuit ended. Capt. Keith Edgell of the MHP's Billings district said that sounded about right, because his officer was in Laurel when he got a call about the incident.
Samantha's mother, Delilah Brown, the circulation manager at Parmly Billings Library, and father, Ed Brown, a retired truck driver, have looked into the case and think Andersen was the victim of bad police work.
"I don't see how they see any logic or reason in the whole darn thing," Ed Brown said.
Brown said his daughter's car, a 2002 four-cylinder Ford Escort, has a bad U-joint that causes it to vibrate dangerously at speeds above 90 mph, and yet Timm's report claimed Anderson reached a top speed of 112 mph.
Delilah Brown said that none of the times or speeds given in the reports make sense. Columbus is at mile marker 408, and Timm said he caught up with Andersen at mile marker 411, where Andersen was traveling at 105 mph.
Delilah Brown said Timm would have to have been traveling at an almost impossibly high speed to catch up with a car doing 105 mph in three miles, she said.
The family also points to the dispatch log, which was given to them by the county. The log shows that the pursuit was begun at the Columbus exit at 11:11 p.m. and was halted at the rest area at 11:27, 16 minutes later. That is a distance of 10 miles. To get there in 16 minutes, the two vehicles would have been going about 37 mph.
"That means basically they must have stopped for coffee or doughnuts or something," Delilah said.
Columbus Police Chief Bill Pronovost said this week that the department couldn't comment on the case because it was headed for trial. Asked about department policy on using flashing lights during a pursuit, Pronovost directed a reporter to the Montana Highway Patrol.
"I don't know why the chief would be referring you to us," Capt. Edgell said.
Edgell did say that in general terms, there are times when a trooper wouldn't activate his lights, but that would only be while trying to catch up with someone traveling at a high speed. Once they come up with the vehicle, the lights would go on, he said.
If the lights were not turned on at that point, he said, "that wouldn't be normal."
After Andersen pleaded not guilty, the case was set for trial in city court. On March 1, the city attorney moved it to Justice Court, saying both misdemeanor offenses occurred in the county.
Stillwater County Attorney John Petak said he couldn't go into detail about the pending case, but that an officer can choose not to turn on his lights if he "comes in contact with a questionable situation."
Deputy County Attorney Matt Erekson, who is prosecuting the case, said Andersen "never mentioned the concept of road rage" in conversations with him, and he never explained why he was traveling at 100 mph.
Delilah Brown said it was simple. She said Andersen sped up and eventually pulled over at the rest area because he and her daughter didn't know they were being chased by a police officer.
"They pulled over to get away from some idiot with road rage," she said.
Reporter Ed Kemmick can be reached at (406) 657-1293 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.