WOONSOCKET – It went from a motor vehicle chase to a foot chase – down the steep, rocky banks of the Blackstone River. And by the time it was over, two police officers were injured, one seriously, and two suspects were in custody, including one man who leaped into the frigid river in a short-lived attempt to escape.
Veteran Patrolman Irwin Harris was treated at Rhode Island Hospital for a back injury he suffered when he fell down 50 feet of a ledge-laden riverbank in pursuit of one of the suspects, said police spokesman Detective Lt. Eugene Jalette. Harris was unable to walk after the spill, and the terrain was so difficult to navigate that rescue crews thought they might have to float him down river on a skiff to a flatter stretch of shoreline, in order to get him to an ambulance.
“They actually put a boat in the water,” said Jalette.
In an operation that lasted nearly an hour, the paramedics ended up strapping Harris to a gurney and lugging him up the hillside by cable. The rescue men “made sure he was belted in good and tight and they pulled the stretcher up the rocky embankment,” Jalette said.
Rookie Officer Matthew Durham opened a gash in his hand on a fence as he rushed to Harris' aid, Jalette said. Doctors at the Providence hospital closed the wound with stitches, enabling Durham to return to light duty Friday, but Harris remains listed as injured on duty. It's uncertain when he'll be well enough to return to work, Jalette said.
The episode started at around 12:30 p.m. Thursday when Lt. Adam Remick began tailing a vehicle that he thought was connected to a man reported to have escaped from home confinement recently. When Remick activated his siren and overhead lights, the 1980s-era Chevy Malibu sped up, triggering a brief high speed chase that began on Logee Street and snaked through the Front Street area.
Remick chased the Chevy to the bottom of Pine Street, which dead-ends at the edge of one of the steepest embankments along the Blackstone in the city. Jalette estimates the drop at about 200 feet in some spots.
At the crest of the embankment, two men got out of the car and began running.
One group of police officers went after the passenger, another after the driver, Francisco Dias, 22, who scrambled to a swath of land close to the river. Jalette said Officers John Raymond and Michael Flood already had Dias cornered – Raymond had a gun trained on him – when Harris tumbled down the hillside as he hurried to assist them. Jalette said Harris was motivated by a palpable sense of urgency because it was apparent at that time that Dias was still thinking about making a run for it.
“He's still looking at his options at this point,” Jalette said. “He's thinking, 'Can I jump in the river? Can I make it down this embankment?”
Joel Arroyo – the other person who fled the car – had already made up his mind. Arroyo, 22, also of Woonsocket, leaped into the river when he made it to the bottom of the embankment, according to Jalette.
An eyewitness to the unfolding drama, Jalette said Arroyo tried to swim across the river, but he quickly began struggling in the numbingly cold, swift-moving waters of the Blackstone.
“It didn't look like he was going to make it,” said Jalette. “He went maybe 20 yards. There was a little cove he managed to get back to. I think he realized the water was a little too cold and the current was a little too strong.”
Arroyo was later treated for hypothermia at Landmark Medical Center before he was released to the police.
Neither man turned out to be the escapee from home confinement police thought might be in the car. Police are still looking for him.
Dias, it turned out, was wanted on two District Court bench warrants for failure to appear for hearings related to the misdemeanor crime of operating on a suspended license. Police also charged him with reckless driving, obstructing police and a new count of driving on a suspended license.
Arroyo had no active warrants, but police charged him with obstructing. Jalette said Arroyo was later released on personal recognizance but Dias remains held at the ACI pending further action in District Court.
Jalette praised all of the officers involved in the capture of the two men, including Patrolman Patrick Cahill and Jesse Nunnemacher. “They all did a good job,” he said.