Highway Patrol - Trooper George Dee Rees
Darkness is a friend to most thieves. It is their greatest defense against detection. When the general public goes to sleep, criminals go to work. A felon’s greatest fear is detection, particularly detection by "the cops."
"Hurry up with that screw driver," barked the thief.
"Keep your shirt on. I know what I’m doing," answered his partner.
Edwin Paul Merkel Jr., age 19, had been on the run since his release from juvenile detention at Stockton, California, eighteen months earlier. He had an extensive history of burglary, theft, and substance abuse. It was the early morning of July 1, 1960. Merkel feared that if he was caught again, he would go to prison. Merkel was joined by Jimmy James Babb, age 20, a drifter also from Stockton. They had been hopping freight trains, thumbing rides and stealing cars in several western states. They worked mostly at night, burglarizing small businesses for petty cash, cigarettes, and beer.
They had already downed several beers when they came upon Hadfield Auto Sales, a used car lot located at 3727 Riverdale Road, Riverdale, Utah. Once inside, the two young thugs went to work. They located a cash box and the key box containing the keys to all the vehicles parked on the lot. "I like that 58 Ford," announced Merkel. "When you get that damn box open, find the key for it." With a snap the lid popped open, and Babb scrambled to find the tag marked 58 Ford. Merkel had already located a dealer plate. "Give me the screw driver," ordered Merkel. "I’ll go put this plate on that car. You bring the key." By the time Merkel had the plate mounted, Jimmy Babb came with a handful of keys. "I can’t tell which one it is so I brought all of ‘em," said Babb. For the next ten minutes the pair tried key after key in the door of the 58 Ford. "I hope to hell no cop drives by," stammered Merkel. Then with a shout, "I got it. I got it." Jumping into the passenger seat Babb stated, "What will I do with these other keys." "Throw the damn things out the window," barked Merkel. Merkel fired up the engine, dropped the cruise-a-matic in gear, and punched the accelerator. The V-8 engine roared; and with squealing tires the pair of thieves were off into the night.
The following evening, July 2, 1960, just after midnight, they stopped for gas at a Riverdale filling station. "I’ll keep the engine running," stated Merkel. "You pump the gas." As Babb stepped from the stolen vehicle, Merkel added, "Make certain it’s premium, I don’t want any of that cheap stuff." As soon as Babb topped off the tank, he jumped into the Ford and the thieves were again swallowed by the darkness.
Trooper Mark Birch #47, was patrolling US 91 in Roy, Utah, when dispatch broadcast the gas skip from the Riverdale filling station. The suspect vehicle was a gold and white late model Ford with a Utah dealer plate. Trooper Birch immediately remembered a broadcast the night before. He scrambled for his log book. Yes, there it was; 1958 Ford, gold and white with Utah dealer plate - stolen from Hadfield Auto.
Trooper Birch pulled to the edge of the roadway and parked. Casting his patrol vehicle headlights across the roadway, Trooper Birch used his greatest asset - light. Within minutes a 1958 Ford crossed the headlights of Mark’s cruiser. Mark quickly glanced at the plate, it was a Utah dealer plate.
Trooper Birch dropped his 1959 Ford in gear and pealed out in pursuit. The thieves also saw the Utah Highway Patrol cruiser and the chase was on. Accelerating to well over 80 mph, Trooper Birch grabbed the radio. "Ogden, 47, I am in pursuit of that reported gas skip. The plate is Utah dealer DLR 1090." "10-4, 47," responded the dispatcher. "Ogden, 47, I also checked my log. I believe this vehicle was stolen from Hadfield Auto yesterday," stated Birch. "Car 47, that’s 10-4, the vehicle is listed at 9-20," replied dispatch. "We’re southbound on US 91 at Sunset; the vehicle is traveling in excess of 80 mph, I’ve got a Roy police officer as backup. We’re going to try and box them in," shouted Birch.
The blare of the sirens required Trooper Birch to speak loudly into the microphone of the 40 watt low-band radio. Troopers had to key the microphone for a full second to allow the tubes to warm up prior to broadcasting. Roy Police Officer Ken Russell joined Trooper Birch; and with lights flashing and sirens wailing, the two officers moved into a boxing maneuver. Suddenly, the suspect vehicle swerved violently towards the two patrol cars.
"Ogden, 47, the suspect just tried to ram us. We will not be able to use a boxing technique," yelled Birch into the police microphone. "Ogden, 47, the suspect has just accelerated to over 110 mph. Get me some roadblocks. This guy’s going to kill someone."
Ogden Highway Patrol advised Davis County Sheriff’s Office and Salt Lake Highway Patrol. Within minutes, a roadblock was hastily set up by a Clearfield police officer and a Layton police officer. The suspect vehicle blew through the roadblock at well over 100 mph. The suspect then accelerated to 115 mph.
"We’ve got a maniac here and he’s going to kill somebody unless he’s stopped," shouted Birch. Trooper Birch had just completed his ninth year with the Utah Highway Patrol. He knew Utah law allowed the use of deadly force on a fleeing felon. He also knew the negative publicity whenever a police officer killed a juvenile fleeing in a stolen vehicle. He had told himself that he would never fire upon a fleeing stolen car, but this was different. This fleeing felon, this maniac, was going to kill an innocent party, unless he did something and did it soon.
Trooper Birch hesitated and then drew his Smith and Wesson, model 27 .357 magnum revolver. He transferred the weapon to his left hand. Trooper Birch knew US 91 like the back of his hand. He knew that at Shephard’s Lane the road was straight with no homes. He just prayed there would be no traffic. Approaching Shephard’s Lane and seeing no traffic, Trooper Birch leaned out the window and fired two rounds. The shots sounded little more than a cap pistol. With adrenaline rushing, sirens blaring, and speeds in excess of 100 mph, an officer’s perceptions are distorted. The road soon came to several curves and farm houses and Trooper Birch holstered his duty weapon.
Trooper Herbert Volmar #107, had been listening to the chase and had set up a roadblock at Lagoon Lane and US 89. Trooper Dee Rees #46 and Trooper Roger Gilmore #116 established a roadblock at State Street and US 91 in Farmington. Another roadblock was located at Pages Lane and US 91 by Bountiful City Police Officers Leo Munk and Gordon Roxburg.
Roadblock is actually a misnomer. Due to several court rulings, police were required to leave the suspect an "avenue of escape." Roadblocks were established with one or two police vehicles parked diagonally across the roadway with an area large enough to drive thru, should the criminal decide to "blow the roadblock."
As Trooper Rees and Trooper Gilmore stood with shotguns at port-arms, Trooper Volmar radioed Ogden that he was set up at Lagoon Lane and US 89. Apparently Trooper Rees misunderstood this transmission and thought that Trooper Volmar had stated the suspects had blown his roadblock. This would mean the suspects had turned North on US 89 rather than proceeding South on US 91.
Trooper Rees yelled something to Trooper Gilmore; however, Gilmore could not understand what Rees said. Trooper Rees then jumped into his patrol car and headed north on the east side of the southbound portion of the divided highway.
As the stolen vehicle approached the intersection of US 91 and 89, the suspect drove around two slower moving vehicles and skidded through the merge intersection at over 100 mph. Trooper Birch saw the vehicle slide sideways and then he saw a cloud of dust. He thought the stolen vehicle had rolled. When Trooper Birch skidded to a stop, he saw that the stolen vehicle had struck another vehicle head-on. Looking closer, Trooper Birch saw the beehive emblem of the Utah Highway Patrol on the driver’s door. Trooper Rees had been northbound approximately 200 feet south of the merge when the stolen vehicle slid across the painted merge area and impacted Trooper Rees’ cruiser head-on. The force knocked Trooper Rees’ patrol car backwards over 80 feet.
Trooper Rees was pinned in his vehicle, as were Merkel and Babb in the stolen vehicle. Officers were able to pry open the driver’s door on Rees’ 59 Ford two-door sedan. Trooper Rees was alive and in great pain. The Patrol had recently installed seatbelts in all patrol cars. Trooper Rees had left the roadblock with Trooper Gilmore in such haste that he had failed to fasten his seatbelt. He had sustained fractures to both legs and both arms. His chest was crushed, his jaw was broken and he had massive head injuries. Trooper George Dee Rees, age 41, died at the scene while officers were placing traction splints on his broken legs.
An unknown semi-truck driver and a wrecker driven by Perry Stewart, hooked onto opposite ends of the stolen vehicle, stretching the frame, in order to gain access to the pair of car thieves. A Layton physician administered drugs and oxygen to Merkel. Babb was dead at the scene. Merkel was transported to St. Mark’s Hospital by the South Davis ambulance. He was pronounced "dead on arrival" by the emergency room physician.
Sergeant Ray Evans #33 responded to the scene and Lieutenant John C. Seddon #34 was notified. This tragedy came just nine hours after Assistant Superintendent John D. Rogers told newspaper reporters that all patrol officers and 29 weighmen would be on the road watching for violators during the July 4th holiday weekend. Crackdowns during holidays were common practice to reduce accidents, injuries, and fatalities.
Funeral services for Trooper George Dee Rees, Bountiful, Utah, were conducted Tuesday, July 5, 1960, at the Bountiful 17th Ward chapel. Trooper Rees was buried with full military honors provided by the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars at the Bountiful Memorial Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Maree, and a son, Michael, age 15.