Dashcam footage from a May 9 high-speed pursuit was released Friday, and it shows Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson in a harrowing challenge with an allegedly impaired and suicidal 19-year-old man from Lake Oswego.
The riveting 30-minute video captures the sheriff accelerating and overtaking Zenler Allen Clairmont, swerving as he reached speeds of 90 mph. In the video, Clairmont repeatedly drives toward oncoming traffic, running vehicles off the road as Nelson insists over the police radio: “We’ve got to stop him.”
But none of these details were included in law enforcement’s original news release.
The release doesn’t mention the sheriff’s name, or that Nelson may have violated his office’s pursuit policies.
The pursuit ended when Clairmont struck a Bend Police patrol car, injuring the officer and his police dog, according to Bend Police.
The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office did not return calls for comment.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said his office is not investigating possible misconduct by the sheriff, such as the crimes of reckless driving or reckless endangering.
He called Nelson’s decision to pursue Clairmont at high speeds a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.”
“Try to put yourself in the sheriff’s shoes,” Hummel said Friday. “If you don’t chase, that guy is a risk to the public. If you try to stop him, people could get hurt that way, too.”
Clairmont is free on bail awaiting trial on 14 criminal charges, including fleeing police, third-degree assault and second-degree animal abuse. The former honors student has no prior criminal record.
His attorney, Whitney Boise, declined to comment Friday.
The chase started about 2:20 p.m. May 9, when a relative of Clairmont’s called local authorities to say the teenager was impaired, suicidal and driving a 2010 black Jeep Wrangler north of Bend, according to documents filed in Deschutes County Circuit Court.
Nelson happened to be returning from Redmond on U.S. Highway 97 driving his unmarked Dodge Charger, the sheriff’s office has said.
Nelson spotted the black Jeep and at about milepost 130, activated his light bar and attempted to stop Clairmont, who sped away instead, court documents state.
Nelson radioed dispatch to say the suspect wasn’t yielding and was heading south toward Bend.
At about milepost 133, Oregon State Police trooper Caleb Ratliff saw Clairmont fleeing Nelson and turned to join the pursuit, the video shows.
As they approached the shopping centers on the north side of Bend, Clairmont turned right on Cooley Road, where speeds reached 70 mph.
“The subject is having a little trouble maintaining his lane,” said a voice on the radio.
Before crossing U.S. Highway 20, a voice is heard on the radio that raised the stakes even higher: “They’re advising the subject might have stopped and purchased a gun at some point.”
Clairmont turned north on OB Riley Road, which runs parallel to Highway 20, followed closely by Nelson and Ratliff.
Ratliff asked a dispatcher to connect him with a supervisor so he could ask for guidance.
“I don’t think we have one on,” the dispatcher said.
Hold music can be heard in the background.
Ratliff was traveling about 75 mph, racing toward Tumalo, when he was connected with a supervisor.
“It’s just county and me,” Ratliff told the supervisor. “So I don’t have any other units. If I back off, he’d be gone.”
Just south of Tumalo, Clairmont avoided a set of spike strips, as did Nelson and Ratliff.
Then, they rounded a right turn and Nelson pulled alongside the Jeep, attempting to edge it off the road. The vehicle only kicks up dust from the shoulder.
The chase speed picked up as they hit Highway 20 and started heading back to Bend.
Nelson then overtook the Jeep and blocked both lanes. As they rounded an uphill left turn, the Jeep cut inside to the oncoming lane, nearly striking a deputy head-on in the process.
“This is not good. Stop,” Ratliff can be heard shouting.
Immediately afterward, Nelson said: “We’ve got to stop him.”
Other officers in marked vehicles joined the pursuit at Robal Road and Highway 20.
As the chase neared Bend, Nelson hit a set of spike strips. The Jeep did not.
“OK, I just got the spikes,” Nelson said. “I’m going to back off just a little bit. He’s coming up on Empire, and I’m out.”
The pursuit was discontinued as it entered Bend, and Ratliff backed off.
Inside Robberson Collision Center at 2770 NE Second St., customers and employees saw law enforcement racing around outside and went out for a better look, according to manager Ben Nolan.
At the end of a nearby cul-de-sac was a driveway closed with a locked, chain-link fence.
The Jeep headed straight for it, Nolan said.
Nolan provided The Bulletin with footage of the Jeep crashing through the gate and nearly head-on into a Bend Police vehicle driven by officer Robert Pennock, who appeared to be attempting to block the gate.
The impact moved Pennock’s cruiser back about 20 feet, Nolan estimated.
“(Clairmont) certainly could have gone around him and didn’t,” Nolan said.
Officers swarmed the Jeep and arrested the now-compliant Clairmont, who was uninjured, authorities have said.
Pennock and his police dog, Ladybug, who was injured, are back at work, according to Bend Police.
Nelson may have violated several of his office’s pursuit policies:
• According to the policy, which Nelson approved in 2016, a secondary unit should assume control of communications once they join a pursuit. Nelson can be heard on the police radio in the dashcam footage after the point Trooper Ratliff joined the pursuit.
• Per department policy, “Deputies operating unmarked vehicles may engage in pursuits only when the fleeing vehicle represents an immediate and direct threat to life. When a marked unit becomes available to assume the pursuit, the unmarked vehicle shall withdraw from the pursuit.”
• When pursuing a fleeing suspect, deputies should not attempt to overtake or pass the suspect, according to policy. “This places the deputy in a highly vulnerable position.”
Pursuing deputies are to keep a safe distance from the suspect and merely attempt to keep the suspect vehicle in sight until the suspect voluntarily stops or a decision is made to use “other means” to stop the suspect.
In another departure from common law enforcement practice, Nelson’s name was not included in OSP’s original news release about the incident.
Instead, he is referred to as the “deputy” who initiated the pursuit. OSP also referred to him that way in two court documents related to Clairmont’s arrest.
In most jurisdictions in Oregon, a deputy is a person deputized by a sheriff, according to Eriks Gabliks, director of the state agency that certifies police officers — the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.
“The Sheriff is the Sheriff and is never called a Deputy just like a Police Chief is never called an officer but it does happen,” Gabliks wrote to The Bulletin.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org