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The Texans Kept Circling

by Paul Bass | Aug 12, 2011 1:32 pm

(27) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Cop of the Week

Paul Bass Photo 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.

“Nope.”

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.”

Radar

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
Bitang
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

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Comments

posted by: R on August 12, 2011  2:04pm

The Van Wilgen story is a great example of why the NHPD should actively pursue traffic enforcement - for suspicious behavior, speeding, running red lights and cell/text use. It’s a way to nab criminals like this. Good work, officer! The 1 thing that disturbs me though, is this: it sounds like she almost let them get away several times. It’s almost as if it was just fate that was working with her to keep running back into them. I wish she’d been more pro-active and gotten them sooner. Better late than never.

posted by: shockedYetGlad on August 12, 2011  2:37pm

Extreme exception to the rule here in NH.
(first van pic , she’s looking at you kid,your in her crosshairs)

posted by: Threefifths on August 12, 2011  5:16pm

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.”

Where is the probable cause at to ask him for his license and registration.

posted by: Lifer on August 12, 2011  5:35pm

LOVE the mother-son angle.

posted by: MrsB83 on August 12, 2011  5:39pm

In response to R’s comment about wishing she was more proactive:  I think she used good judgment. Police officers have to make choices, and it isn’t reasonable to ask them to police everything!  Folks would start complaining if the police chased after everything they saw.

posted by: Car54 on August 12, 2011  7:34pm

No names released of the ....s = incident never happened

posted by: Curious on August 12, 2011  8:09pm

What?

A security guard stopped traffic to let some Yalies cross the street, so she gave up on the pursuit?  Isn’t she a police officer?  Why didn’t she turn on the lights and siren and go through?  She seemed to have enough suspicion…

posted by: Edward_H on August 12, 2011  8:54pm

” She arrested the driver for interfering “

Is there something missing here? What was the driver “interfering” with? What was the justification for this charge?

posted by: streever on August 13, 2011  12:01am

Right on R! Traffic enforcement is the way to go, and VanWilgen sounds like an awesome cop.

posted by: 1509 on August 13, 2011  11:20am

Great job Steph! Well-deserved! Excellent officer and fto and a great person!

posted by: JMS on August 13, 2011  3:31pm

This is the biggest waste of a story.  She stopped two guys who were wanted on warrants from another state.  If that was the case you would have an officer of the week everyday.

posted by: Thomas on August 13, 2011  3:34pm

“The TEXANS” Kept Circling! Is that profiling? What have been a real hoot if The Independent would have headlined if was “The New MEXICANS Kept Circling! Just a thought

posted by: Ex-NHPD on August 13, 2011  8:27pm

Nice job Steph.  MV Stops are the ultimate Wild Cards-you never know what you’ll get beyond the original violation.

Stay safe.

posted by: K on August 14, 2011  1:29pm

@Threefifths
Probable cause means the officer has reason to believe that a traffic violation has occurred or that a crime has been or is about to be committed.  Cops can initiate a traffic stop if they see a suspicious vehicle.  “Suspicious” in this situation was someone driving in circles and giving the officer a “look”.  In this case the officer gave the driver the benefit of the doubt several times before acting on her suspicions. 
It seems like a pretty balanced approach to the idea of probable cause, which is in many cases subjective.

posted by: Threefifths on August 14, 2011  5:21pm

@K
  In this case the officer gave the driver the benefit of the doubt several times before acting on her suspicions. 
It seems like a pretty balanced approach to the idea of probable cause, which is in many cases subjective.

Not according to the United States Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio.

A police officer is not allowed to rely solely on a “gut feeling” as a basis for stopping someone. The United States Supreme Court has said exactly that; a law enforcement officer cannot rely solely on a gut feeling, or mere suspicion. A police officer is not allowed to do what you and I do every day. In order to be justified in stopping a vehicle, and detaining the person in that vehicle, he must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion. What articulable means, is that he has to be able to tell the judge, with articulable language, what specific facts gave him the suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. For example, he could say, the vehicle was speeding, or the plate’s tags were expired, or the car changed lanes without using its blinker, or the car was swerving dangerously, etc. etc. But if the officer fails to articulate specific facts, or if the specific facts he articulates would not lead a reasonable police officer to believe that criminal activity has occurred, or is about to occur, then he has not articulated grounds for stopping someone.

Another Lawsuit for the city.

posted by: K on August 14, 2011  10:44pm

@Threefifths
Driving in a circle, turning to avoid the cop, and giving the cop strange looks would probably convince other reasonable officers that criminal activity has probably occurred, or is about to occur.  Seems like she could, with articulable language, express those specific facts.  The facts that lead to suspicion do not have to be examples of criminal activity like the ones you suggested.

posted by: .02 cents on August 15, 2011  12:53am

threefifths u stated “Where is the probable cause at to ask him for his license and registration.”

then u state ” In order to be justified in stopping a vehicle, and detaining the person in that vehicle, he must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion.”

So does she need probable cause or reasonable/ articulable suspicion?

...

posted by: Threefifths on August 15, 2011  8:48am

posted by: K on August 14, 2011 10:44pm
@Threefifths
Driving in a circle, turning to avoid the cop, and giving the cop strange looks would probably convince other reasonable officers that criminal activity has probably occurred, or is about to occur.  Seems like she could, with articulable language, express those specific facts.  The facts that lead to suspicion do not have to be examples of criminal activity like the ones you suggested.

posted by: .02 cents on August 15, 2011 12:53am
threefifths u stated “Where is the probable cause at to ask him for his license and registration.”

then u state ” In order to be justified in stopping a vehicle, and detaining the person in that vehicle, he must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion.”

So does she need probable cause or reasonable/ articulable suspicion?

Both you need to read United States Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio

A police officer is not allowed to rely solely on a “gut feeling” as a basis for stopping someone. The United States Supreme Court has said exactly that; a law enforcement officer cannot rely solely on a gut feeling, or mere suspicion. A police officer is not allowed to do what you and I do every day. In order to be justified in stopping a vehicle, and detaining the person in that vehicle, he must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion.

Her words 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.”

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.”

If a person is lost that is not a reason to ask them for license and registration. Norm Pattis and the ACLU would have a field day with this.

posted by: .02 cents on August 15, 2011  11:50am

threefifths, ..

My previous comment was actually edited and so it looked more like a question. But it wasn’t. There is no law, and u can quote all the court cases you want, that says an officer need probable cause and reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle. And yeah her case will hold up in court despite what you think. She would need rreasonablesuspicion to make the stop, probable cause to make the arrest. Two completely different standards of law .

posted by: Threefifths on August 15, 2011  3:38pm

posted by: .02 cents on August 15, 2011 11:50am
threefifths, ..

My previous comment was actually edited and so it looked more like a question. But it wasn’t. There is no law, and u can quote all the court cases you want, that says an officer need probable cause and reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle. And yeah her case will hold up in court despite what you think. She would need rreasonablesuspicion to make the stop, probable cause to make the arrest. Two completely different standards of law

So you saying a officer can walk up to a person and if the officer thinks reasonable suspicion the can stop that person.This state doesn’t have Stop and identify statutes Like other states.

http://www.statemaster.com/graph/cri_sto_and_ide_sta_sta_wit_quo_and_ide_sta-stop-identify-statutes-states-quot

By the way how can you say There is no law, and u can quote all the court cases you want, that says an officer need probable cause and reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle.What planet are you on.There are laws on the books that tell you when a police officer can stop you in your car or on the streets.

posted by: Craig M. on August 15, 2011  10:00pm

Way to go Steph!!!!!

posted by: anon on August 15, 2011  10:03pm

threefifths please give it up

posted by: Edward_H on August 15, 2011  11:50pm

Never thought I would write this but… I agree with Threefifths. I think this traffic stop stinks to high Heaven. Stopping someone because they gave you “that look”? I would probably have “that look” too if I was driving down in Texas. Christ, I probably have “that look” when driving in a here in CT if am unfamiliar with the town.

What I really don’t understand is the charge of interfering, at least from the information given in the article there is no reason for this charge. The guy looked lost, pulled over and never refused to give I.D. at least from what the article says. I don’t see how any honest cop could justify an interfering charge.

Sec. 53a-167a. Interfering with an officer: Class A misdemeanor. (a) A person is guilty of interfering with an officer when such person obstructs, resists, hinders or endangers any peace officer or firefighter in the performance of such peace officer’s or firefighter’s duties.

http://www.cga.ct.gov/2005/pub/Chap952.htm#Sec53a-167a.htm

No information in the article substantiates this charge.

To the NHI, maybe you should rethink this whole “Cop of the Week” series? After all one of the cops featured also violated the Constitutional rights of one of your own reporters and unashamedly promised to do so again if the same situation presented itself.

Even Bitang has been accused of planting guns in order to get treats! (just kidding)

posted by: Edward_H on August 16, 2011  12:42am

In addendum to my previous comment, I am not saying all cops are dishonest when charging someone with interfering, nor am I saying this particular police officer is dishonest or corrupt. I am simply stating that I do not believe the story as described in the article warrants a charge of interfering on the driver of the car as described in the Connecticut statutes.

posted by: Threefifths on August 16, 2011  7:24am

posted by: anon on August 15, 2011 10:03pm
threefifths please give it up
Not when I am right.Prove it to me under the law that there was probable cause to ask them for license and registration based on them being lost.

posted by: Really 3/5th on August 16, 2011  4:29pm

@Threefifths
ofc vanwilgen has worked the Dixwell area for many years. the purpose of community policing is to know your community and who belong and who may be up to no good. the mere act of repeatedly seeing someone on your beat,and then you see them sitting in a parking lot.  you approach them, they say they are lost but they don’t ask the police for directions after seeing the officer several times. the parking lot was not a public lot and if they were not visiting the establishment “UPS” then they were trespassing. reasonable and articulable suspicion= what is reasonable to a prudent person presented with the same facts and circumstances, could that person come to the same conclusion or belief as officer vanwilgen. ...

posted by: Threefifths on August 16, 2011  7:44pm

@Really 3/5th
Again can anyone show me that if I tell a police officer I am lost that gives them probable cause to ask to see my license and registration.Also was the ups lot closed.If not did the workers call the police to remove them.Last I agree with Edward-H how can you charge him with a interfering charge.I Hope she stops me.I will be geting paid.

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