Monday, November 24, 2014

Officer tried to free man from flames

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 5/9/2014

WILLIAMSBURG — Law enforcement officials called a federal Homeland Security officer’s actions heroic.

While the hero might remain unsung, autopsy results cleared the officer of any missteps in his bid to free a 48-year-old Urbandale, Iowa, man from a burning 2007 Lexus sport utility vehicle Wednesday morning on I-35 near Williamsburg. Two .40-caliber rounds fired from the officer’s handgun to try and shatter a window on the flaming SUV did not strike the driver he was trying to rescue.

WILLIAMSBURG — Law enforcement officials called a federal Homeland Security officer’s actions heroic.

While the hero might remain unsung, autopsy results cleared the officer of any missteps in his bid to free a 48-year-old Urbandale, Iowa, man from a burning 2007 Lexus sport utility vehicle Wednesday morning on I-35 near Williamsburg. Two .40-caliber rounds fired from the officer’s handgun to try and shatter a window on the flaming SUV did not strike the driver he was trying to rescue.

Despite the officer’s actions, authorities said, Michael Robert Mcauliffe refused to exit the vehicle and died in the fire, preliminary autopsy results from Frontier Forensics indicated Friday afternoon. Mcauliffe was the lone occupant.

The Lexus SUV driven by Mcauliffe was traveling southbound about 10:45 a.m. Wednesday on I-35 when it crossed the median, went into the northbound lanes and into the east ditch at milepost 169, one mile south of the Williamsbug exit, according to a Kansas Highway Patrol report. The Lexus continued across the ditch and through a field, striking a tree and damaging the front of the vehicle. The Lexus, at times driving forward, then backward in the field, got stuck on another tree and a barbed wire fence, the highway patrol said.

Two elderly witnesses stopped to render aid, approaching the vehicle. The driver was attempting to free the vehicle, rocking it back and forth, the highway patrol said. Witnesses flagged down a marked patrol vehicle from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the highway patrol said.

The Homeland Security officer approached the Lexus SUV, with the driver continuing his attempts to free the vehicle, the highway patrol said. The officer made repeated requests for the driver to exit the vehicle.

The officer attempted to open the door, but it was locked, the patrol said. He then made an unsuccessful attempt to break the window. Eventually the vehicle caught fire, at which point the Homeland Security officer fired two shots from his handgun, attempting to get into the vehicle to rescue the driver. The attempt failed to shatter the window, and the officer was unable to gain access to the driver, the highway patrol said. Two .40-caliber casings were recovered at the crash scene, the highway patrol said. A .40-caliber pistol is the standard weapon used by some federal Homeland Security officers, according to news reports.

A truck driver also had stopped at the scene and made an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the fire, the highway patrol said.

Mcauliffe, who did not exit the vehicle, died at the scene as a result of the fire, according to the highway patrol. Autopsy results released by the Kansas Highway Patrol Friday afternoon confirmed the patrol’s preliminary investigation.

“The autopsy showed the man driving the car was not injured when his vehicle struck the tree in the field,” state Trooper Don Hughes, public information officer for Troop B in Topeka, said. “He didn’t have injuries from the crash, there were no holes in him whatsoever [from the bullets]. He died from the fire, from asphyxiation from the smoke.”

The Homeland Security officer was transported to a hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, which he suffered during his attempts to rescue the driver, according to the highway patrol report.

The Kansas Highway Patrol and the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office declined to identity the Homeland Security officer. Jeff Richards, Franklin County sheriff, confirmed Friday the officer, who works for the division of Federal Protective Service, was treated for smoke inhalation at Ransom Memorial Hospital, 1301 S. Main St., Ottawa, and released Wednesday.

Hughes called the Homeland Security officer’s actions heroic. The trooper also commended the two elderly witnesses and the truck driver who tried to render assistance at the scene.

“If the elderly witnesses wouldn’t have stopped, the vehicle might not have been seen [in the trees and grass],” Hughes said. “We’re also grateful to the truck driver who stopped to give assistance.

“We still need good people like that,” Hughes said of the witnesses, the truck driver and the Homeland Security officer who put his own life at risk trying to free the man.

Mcauliffe was identified through papers found in the vehicle and additional calls to confirm his identify, Hughes said. The Lexus had a Texas license plate, according to the highway patrol report, which also indicated the Urbandale, Iowa, police department notified Mcauliffe’s next of kin of his death. The highway patrol released Mcauliffe’s identity about 5:15 p.m. Thursday.

Law enforcement officials were not speculating Friday why Mcauliffe refused to exit the vehicle. Trooper Hughes and Sheriff Richards declined to discuss Mcauliffe’s background Friday. The Kansas Highway Patrol continues to investigate the crash, Hughes said.

Arrest reports from two county sheriff’s offices in Iowa and the Iowa Department of Corrections, however, indicate Michael Robert Mcauliffe, 48, Urbandale, had a recent criminal history. Mcauliffe was arrested by the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office Feb. 25 on a simple assault charge and a probation violation, according to multiple news accounts. Urbandale is located in Dallas County. Mcauliffe also was arrested March 8 in adjacent Warren County by authorities on a warrant for failure to appear in court, according to news accounts. The Iowa Department of Corrections website indicated Mcauliffe was on supervised probation on a misdemeanor charge. The probation was set to expire March 7, according to the corrections department. One online arrest report also indicated a Sugarland, Texas, address for Mcauliffe.

In a March 27 report in the Smithville Herald, Smithville, Mo., Michael R. Mcauliffe was arrested by Smithville police officers on suspicion of “driving while intoxicated, driving while suspended/revoked, failure to produce proof of insurance, and open container in vehicle (alcoholic beverage).” The Herald could not confirm at press time if this was the same Michael Robert Mcauliffe from Urbandale. Smithville is about a 2-hour and 45-minute drive south of Urbandale on I-35, according to Google Maps.

The highway patrol has not received the results of chemical tests taken during the autopsy to determine if Mcauliffe might have been impaired by alcohol or drugs in Wednesday’s crash, Hughes said Friday afternoon.

The Kansas Highway Patrol crash team took over the investigation from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. The Williamsburg, Pomona and Lincoln-Ottawa-Harrison fire departments, along with Franklin County Emergency Medical Services, also responded to the fire.

Both northbound lanes of I-35 were closed for a brief time Wednesday morning before the left-hand lane was reopened to traffic.

Managing Editor Tommy Felts and Staff Writer Clinton Dick contributed to this report.

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