TAMPA - Keith Williamson died Wednesday within minutes of crashing his motorcycle on the Courtney Campbell Causeway around 10:30pm.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP), a Clearwater Police officer clocked the avid biker and his friends going 127 miles per hour just before entering the bridge heading east.
"The officer attempted to overtake the vehicle," explained Sgt. Steve Gaskins.
However, Gaskins says, the officer almost immediately decided to call off any pursuit because of the dangerous speed, only following and flashing his lights for a "very short time frame."
Seconds later, Williamson crashed into an FHP cruiser, then slammed into a barrier wall, ejecting off the bike.
Crews raced his female passenger, Williamson's girlfriend, Jenna Scott, 24, to St. Joseph's Hospital. Williamson died on the scene. He was 26.
Clearwater Police (CPD) deny a chase, claiming they only followed Williamson and his friends long enough to attempt a traffic stop.
Williamson's friends disagree. Miguel, who asked only to be identified by his first name, admits the group of three friends were speeding.
He also admits they fled the officer when caught, with Miguel topping out at 204mph.
"It was unbelievable how fast this guy's car was," Miguel said. "He knew what he had, and he used his car for what he wanted to do."
Miguel says they never lost the officer, who chased them for at least six miles, until Williamson finally collided with the FHP cruiser.
"It was horrible," he said. "There are no other words but horrible. We've been riding these streets for a lot of years and it was pretty graphic."
Mark Blanchard also witnessed what he calls a chase while driving westbound, going home from the Straz Center.
"It was a very dangerous situation. I'm surprised they were doing it," Blanchard said. "That was my first thought because they could close off either end of the bridge and catch them. To be that close was a very dangerous situation."
If true, the decision runs counter to CPD policy, which only allows officers to engage a high-speed pursuit if chasing a dangerous felon. It is a policy change many departments have made recently for safety reasons.
"Those were the old days, the cowboy days. Now, police are much more responsible in their implementation of pursuits," explained USF Criminology Professor Lori Fridell. "Pursuits can be very dangerous. They can produce physical harm to individuals that can be serious physical harm, or it can be death."
Clearwater PD spokesperson Elizabeth Daily-Watts did not have information about the officer's top speed, or exactly how long he pursued the motorcycles, or where exactly he finally stopped.
Blanchard thought it was pretty fast. "If they (the motorcyclists) had slowed down just a little bit, they would've been run over by the police car," Blanchard said.
FHP admits it was only seconds before Williamson crashed, but won't speculate as to whether that pursuit caused the incident.
"The man was traveling at three times the speed limit. He could have slowed down," Sgt. Gaskins said. "So, what could've happened whether the officer was there or not, I can't say."
Miguel says the officer didn't stop until Williamson crashed.
When he and the others came back to the scene, Miguel said, law enforcement told he and his friends to move away from the scene. They were not ticketed for speeding, or given any citation.
He admits they were wrong to speed, but says his friend didn't deserve to die. "He wasn't a troublemaker," Miguel said. "He's one of those people this never should've happened to."
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