By Michael Kloppenburg
For the Star-Gazette
A jury sided with the Brown County Sheriff’s Department and Deputy John Zimmerman in a lawsuit over their involvement in a high-speed chase that ended in a fatal crash in Beardstown on Jan. 22, 2012. The crash took the life of 19-yr.-old Brianna Baker of LaPrairie and injured another person.
Baker’s lawsuit alleged that Zimmerman and the sheriff’s department were reckless in their pursuit of a vehicle driven by Jacob D. Hendricks, 20, of Mt. Sterling. The chase began after Hendricks’ vehicle was reported doing doughnuts on private property in Versailles at about 3 a.m. Zimmerman responded and while interviewing the caller, Hendricks drove back by the property and the caller pointed the vehicle out to Zimmerman. When Zimmerman attempted to stop the vehicle, Hendricks responded by fleeing at more than 100 mph. It was said at his Cass County sentencing hearing that he did so to avoid losing his license for a second DUI as he was under the influence of alcohol and drugs at the time. Hendricks had a previous DUI in 2009.
The chase, which covered 25 miles in 15 minutes, went through parts of four counties, eventually came to Beardstown on Rte. 67. Baker and another passenger pleaded with Hendricks to stop the vehicle so they could get out. Hendricks reported response was to tell them to “shut up” and turn up the radio to drown out their voices.
Hendricks was unable to negotiate the curve where Grand Avenue feeds into 8th St. by the Beard School Apartments and struck a utility pole. Baker was killed instantly. Hendricks was sentenced to five years in prison following guilty pleas to charges of reckless homicide, aggravated reckless driving, driving under the influence, fleeing and eluding a peace officer, and involuntary manslaughter.
At a three-day trial presided over by Judge Alesia A. McMillen, the jury heard testimony from Zimmerman, Hendricks, and Brown County Sheriff Jerry Kempf. The jury decided after about 30 minutes of deliberation that the sheriff’s department and Deputy Zimmerman were not liable for Baker’s death. A civil suit against Hendricks was settled in March 2012 for $225,000.