Stephanija VanWilgen was thinking about getting to work, not about stopping dangerous drivers behind the wheel, when she pulled up beside two Texans in a beat-up station wagon.
It was last Saturday morning, a little after 7 a.m. VanWilgen had just left morning line-up. She pulled into one of the left-turn lanes at the light by Starbucks on Church Street.
She noticed the 1989 Pontiac pull up beside her in the other left-turn lane. She was on her way to begin her shift at the Dixwell substation, where she has made a reputation for making some of the city’s most lucrative motor-vehicle stops, both during her regular shift and on special after-hour assignments around New Haven.
She saw a driver with a black headband in the Pontiac wagon. She saw a front-seat passenger. They saw her too.
“Both of them looked at me,” she recalled. “They gave me that look. They had that deer in the headlights look.”
The light turned green. VanWilgen turned left onto Chapel. So did the Texans.
The Texans immediately turned left onto Temple. VanWilgen decided not to follow them. She did look at their plates. That’s how she knew they were Texans—or at least their car was registered in Texas.
Two blocks later VanWilgen stopped at the light by the Starbucks at Chapel and High. Whom should she see pulling up to the intersection on High Street ... but the Texans.
The driver turned left onto Chapel.
“Why’d they do that for?” she wondered.
She proceeded a block to York Street and turned right on her way to Dixwell. The Texans had turned up York before her. She caught up with them at Elm and York—where “again they gave me that same look.”
The driver proceeded to turn right onto Elm. That made no sense—unless he was driving in circles to elude her. So instead of turning left to the substation, VanWilgen turned right to follow the Texans.
It wasn’t a chase. They were driving maybe 10, 15 miles per hour, she calculated.
She followed them right onto College Street. Midway through the block a security guard emerged from Yale’s Phelps Gate to stop traffic so some kids could cross to the Green. The Pontiac slipped through right before him; VanWilgen was stuck. She figured she had lost the car.
Oh well, VanWilgen figured; maybe, despite the suspicious look, they were just some lost out-of-towners. “He’s gone,” she figured. “Let him go.”
So she circled again back to York, and this time turned left onto Broadway. She stopped at Educated Burgher to order a coffee with milk and sugar.
She walked out, cup in hand, to see a station wagon headed down Broadway. Yep. That station wagon.
“What’s up with these guys trying to avoid me?” she wondered.
She found out soon. She returned to her cruiser, followed the Pontiac up the block, found the driver parked at the UPS store lot down the block.
She got out of the car and approached the driver.
“What’s the matter. You lost?” she asked him.
“Yeah. Yeah, we’re lost.”
“Let me see your license and registration. I’ll check you out. You’ll be on your way.”
“I don’t have a license,” the driver responded.
“You drove here from Texas and you don’t have a license? And nobody stopped you?” she asked.
He did have a Texas identification card. She entered the ID number into her mobile data terminal in her cruiser. “All of a sudden this red is popping up. Wanted! Weapons!”
VanWilgen called for back-up. She arrested the driver for interfering and held both men in custody. It turned out the passenger was a fugitive wanted by the Massachusetts cops on felony pimping-related charges. The driver had an outstanding New Jersey warrant for weapons offenses.
It took until 2:30 p.m. to complete research and paperwork on the incident. She discovered pending charges as well as convictions connected to the two men going back years, from burglaries and petty larcenies to kidnapping and assault.
The men were originally from Buffalo. They had no cash or credit cards on them at the time of the arrest.
“This dude had stuff from all over the country,” she said. “Thank God I got these guys out of the city. Whatever they were going to do, they were going to do that.”
VanWilgen has amassed lots of tales like that since 1995. That’s when she decided to become a cop. Growing up in Guilford in a Ukranian-American family (VanWilgen is her married name), she wanted to become a gym teacher. Instead she became a Howard Johnson’s rest stop manager. Then, after taking a break to stay at home with her son in his preschool years, she joined the Branford police department as a civilian employee. She was working as the dockmaster at Stony Creek when colleagues encouraged her to respond to then-New Haven Police Chief Nick Pastore’s call for more female officer recruits.
Since then VanWilgen has taken a special interest in working checkpoint jobs, nabbing drunk drivers or people talking on cell phone or failing to buckle up behind the wheel.
Until this year she worked the midnight shift, much of that time alongside another Dixwell cop with a department-leading record of drunk-driving arrests, Rob Levy. Like Levy, VanWilgen has won awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for her work (in 2008 and 2009).
“Steph is really good at spotting patterns of travel [such as] the way the vehicle turns,” observed Levy, who has taken a break from the motor vehicle game during a stint in the department’s robbery unit. “She just has a knack for being able to see that vehicle that’s stopping to long, stopping at a green light. She picks it up.”
“It’s luck,” VanWilgen claimed in an interview Thursday. She said she has a special interest in stopping dangerous drivers. “A lot of people get killed by drunk drivers. I know cops in this department who get hurt by drunk drivers.”
(She also knows one officer who nearly lost her life in an unfortunate 2008 crash with another officer on the way to a 911 call. VanWilgen has been friends with the officer, Diane Gonzalez, since the two were in the same academy class. The crash killed the other officer, Sgt. Dario Aponte. It left Gonzalez permanently, severely disabled. VanWilgen requested Gonzalez’ cruiser, #63, and keeps her photo on the visor.)
A key point of motor vehicle stops is to prevent people from getting hurt, of course. The stops serve a second purpose: Finding people up to other forms of mayhem, some of it quite dangerous. VanWilgen said she’s often surprised what she’ll find on a seemingly routine stop. Like the one that took place the very next day after the Texan encounter.
Call Cheech & Chong
This one took place near noon on Saturday. VanWilgen and another Dixwell cop with whom she works often, Ben Hines, decided to station themselves at Ashmun and Henry streets.
Drivers have been blowing through the stop sign there—despite a flashing red light to catch their attention.
“People don’t see either one,” she noted. “They’re always going through the stop sign. I don’t know what it is with these people.”
Hines was writing up one such stop-sign runner when VanWilgen, standing on the corner in full view, watched another man drive his car right through the intersection without slowing down. She waved him over.
He stopped. She approached the driver’s door. He rolled down the window. A cloud of smoke greeted her.
“It was like someone exhaled a joint in my face,” she recalled.
“To deter me from the smell,” she figured, “he says, ‘I got shot last week. You want to see?’”
The man lifted his shirt and pointed to a band-aid on his chest.
Not particularly impressed, but suspicions aroused, VanWilgen took his license, returned to her cruiser to run it. Nothing came back. She consulted with Officer Hines. They decided to ask the man to come out of the car and to pat him down. He said he’d been shot; maybe he had a gun, VanWilgen figured. (The man had indeed been shot, and not just the past week.)
They didn’t find a gun. They did find lots of loose bills in his pockets. “Twenties, fives, singles, all crunched up.”
They called for a police dog. Xander arrived. “He hit hard on that car,” scratching below the console on the passenger’s side of the front seat.
Inside, police found 60 packets of marijuana. Turned out the driver, who’s 28, wasn’t just smoking. He ended up being charged with four drug-related offenses. And failure to obey a stop sign. VanWilgen, meanwhile, racked up one more traffic stop that turned out to reveal more than a traffic violation.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Lloyd Barrett
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Paul Bicki
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Bertram Etienne
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Juan Ingles
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Chris Perrone
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Holly Wasilewski
• Alan Wenk
• Michael Wuchek