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Cutting to the Chase

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IT STARTED AS A BRUTAL MURDER ON A lonely stretch of California highway and ended more than four hours later—after a 300-mile car chase—being televised live as a riveting showdown between the killer and police. The bizarre chain of events began at about 10 on the morning of Jan. 3, when Darren Stroh, 22, an unemployed electrician from Grants Pass, Oreg., who had a history of drug problems, picked up a hitchhiker, Michael Graham, 31, near Los Banos, Calif., about 70 miles southeast of San Francisco. Stroh was heading south in his 1978 Toyota Corona to visit his brother in San Diego. But soon after picking up Graham, the car broke down. David Baker, 26, a boat and auto-body repairman from Castle Rock, Wash., pulled up and offered him a jump start. Then, as Graham looked on, Stroh calmly walked up to Baker, shot him dead and sped off in Baker’s Nissan Sentra.

Within five minutes, police from the Merced County Sheriff’s Department were alerted. One hundred and forty-four miles south of the murder scene, units of the California Highway Patrol began the chase. Officers pursued Stroh at speeds sometimes up to 100 m.p.h. A little over three hours into the chase, a TV news helicopter in Los Angles began broadcasting live coverage of the pursuit. By the end, about an hour later, three television choppers had become involved, recording the dramatic pictures that were later shown on network and local news all over the country. Correspondents Lyndon Stambler and Doris Bacon interviewed some of the key participants and witnesses.

Merced County Sheriffs Lt. Bill Blake, 41, was one of the first officers to reach the scene of David Baker’s murder. He interviewed Michael Graham:

“Graham said he had met Stroh near a BP gas station and Stroh had offered him a ride. He got in with the suspect. Inside the car he saw a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun. They traveled about three miles, and the car broke down. Stroh went to hang the HELP sign up. David Baker pulled in, turned his Nissan Sentra nose-to-nose with Stroh’s car and tried to give the guy a jump start. Stroh’s car started but sputtered and died twice. Stroh walked up to Baker and shot him twice. He pulled the body out and laid it on the shoulder. He walked back to the Corona, where Graham was sitting in the passenger seat. Stroh says, ‘Hey, do you want to go with me?’ Graham said no. Stroh then grabbed a box of ammunition and got into Baker’s car and accelerated southbound.”

About 50 miles south of the murder scene, before police spotted him, Stroh was involved in an accident with several other cars. In the confusion, Stroh stole a Volkswagen Cabriolet convertible and continued his flight. California Highway Patrol officer Mark Ehly, 32, was on duty near the Grapevine, a twisted mountain route, when he got the radio call and began pursuing Stroh at about 1:30 P.M.:

“He was using all four lanes. Most of the time we just stayed in the fast lane. Other than his high speed, he wasn’t driving erratically. He wasn’t really cutting people off. There were a couple of close calls, but I’ve seen a lot worse at slower speed.”

After half an hour of hot pursuit, Stroh raced through the streets of Los Angeles, weaving in and out of traffic before heading down the Long Beach Freeway. The CHP tried to ram the Cabriolet, at which point Stroh fired his shotgun twice through the back window. Police then set up roadblocks to try to stop him. Robert Tur, 31, was flying a helicopter for KCOP-TV and KNX-AM news radio. He learned of the chase by listening to police-band radio and looked for a red Cabriolet trailed by several police cars:

“We were the first one of the news stations to go live. At one point the driver actually waved at the helicopters. It didn’t seem like he was in a panic. It seemed like he was almost enjoying the pursuit. The CHP started ramming the Cabriolet from the rear. They were trying to get it to fishtail out of control and come to a stop. They weren’t able to do that. Stroh took his shotgun and fired at least two shots out the rear window. The officers backed off. You could hear the officers screaming over the radio, ‘He’s shooting at us!’ On Channel 13 we aired it live, interrupting Matlock. We did our first report, and then they went back to normal programming. There were 200 phone calls to the station saying put the pursuit back on, which we did.”

Finally, about 3 P.M., Stroh ran out of gas and began coasting down an off-ramp near the town of Westminster, 22.8 miles south of L.A. As he came to a halt, surrounded by patrol cars, he was ordered to surrender. Three CHP officers, guns drawn and in a crouch, were approaching the car to take him in, when he apparently pointed his shotgun at one of them. Joseph Delio, 33, shop manager at an auto accessories manufacturing firm in Huntington Beach, had heard news bulletins about the chase while driving in his van. Crossing an overpass in Westminster, he had recognized Stroh’s car from the descriptions and stopped to watch:

“I was about 120 feet away. I could see the guy. He was sitting with his head back against the headrest, very slowly kind of moving his head from side to side, like he was going to make up his mind what he was going to do. He looked pretty calm at that point. He wasn’t making sharp and fast movements like he was nervous or anything. This went on for about three minutes. The police gave him plenty of time before they came up on the car, repeatedly yelling at him through the bullhorn to get his hands up where they could see them. Maybe two seconds before the officer on the passenger side pulled the trigger, they made a last demand for him to put his hands up. But again, nothing. The first shot broke the glass, and the succeeding shots obviously hit the target. I counted seven shots. It happened very fast.”

Tur: “I think he wanted to die. The man snapped and was taking his last joyride, that’s what we were feeling. It looked like he was out there to commit suicide and was going to have law enforcement pull the trigger for him.”