Tone for a death set with another

By Laurie Roberts

Republic columnist

Nov. 9, 2002

There were somber faces and solemn vows all around Chandler on Thursday after one of the city's finest was arrested for killing a woman who had tried to finagle a muscle relaxant out of a drugstore pharmacy.

"There simply was no justification for the actions of the officer," intoned Chandler Mayor Boyd Dunn. "The death of Dawn Rae Nelson was simply not necessary."

He's right, of course.

Had Chandler police not circled the squad cars two years ago, it's possible that Dawn Rae Nelson might be alive today.

By now you know the appalling story of her death. How Officer Dan Lovelace was called to a Walgreen's drive-through after Nelson tried to use a fake prescription. How she was shot through the heart as her 14-month-old son watched.

How police promptly announced that Dawn Rae Nelson had attacked Lovelace, possibly because that's what the officer told them.

Lovelace told investigators he had to shoot because she was trying to run him over with her car. "I hear a engine revving, voom, and I was like I can't get out of the way, and it's like I'm dead you know."

There is just one problem. Three witnesses say Lovelace was running after the car, not in front of it. And the bullet came from behind.

If only Chandler had listened to witnesses long ago and taken action rather than taking cover. It was just after 1 a.m. on March 13, 2000, when Lovelace spotted what he believed was a stolen truck and began following it.

At speeds of up to 100 mph.

The truck blew through a stop sign and two red lights before broadsiding a Camaro at a third red light. The innocent driver, Bradley Downing III, died instantly, and just about as quickly, the city proceeded to snatch at every red flag in sight and bury the suckers.

The resulting press release was titled "Suspects in Stolen Truck Cause Traffic Collision and Kill Innocent Motorist." Nowhere did it mention that Lovelace was in pursuit, possibly because Lovelace told them he wasn't.

This, even though the cars were still spinning and toppling as he barreled through the intersection, sparks and debris showering his car.

This, even though two witnesses tried to tell police that night they'd seen Lovelace a car length or so behind the fast-moving truck just before the collision. But it was to no avail. Police wouldn't even take their statements. They'd already announced that Lovelace was at least 200 yards back and had nothing to do with the collision.

After the police version of the story was printed, the witnesses went public. "We could hear the noise; we could hear them pass us by, two swoosh-swooshes, real quick; you could hear it go fast," said Lauritz Taylor, one of the witnesses.

Lt. Thomas Blaine, the city's pursuit expert, concluded that Lovelace didn't declare a pursuit, didn't broadcast the fact that he was going 100 mph, didn't use his lights and siren as required and didn't follow a supervisor's order. That order: "Don't push it; let's get you some help."

Despite that, an internal investigation exonerated Lovelace. His only mistake, the report said, was that he didn't run his siren. For that, he got the minimum punishment, a letter of admonishment.

The driver of the stolen truck went to prison for manslaughter, and the city eventually handed over $1.4 million to Downing's mother for its role in her son's death. Downing's father has refused a similar settlement, opting instead to wait for an apology and some changes in the way the police do things.

Not surprisingly, he's still waiting.

As is another family, now.

Reach Roberts at or (602) 444-8635.

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