Witness in Soltani case describes high-speed chase as ‘something you’d see in L.A. County’
Rep. Tony Soltani speaks against a bill on Wednesday, May 16, 2012. (Alexander Cohn/ Monitor staff)
Four people took the stand yesterday to describe the fear and confusion they felt as they became witnesses to a high-speed car chase near the Epsom traffic circle last spring.
They took the stand in the third day of a trial against Tony Soltani, who is accused of inserting himself into a police chase and causing several cars to swerve off the road when he entered oncoming traffic.
Tammy Knutsen of Gilmanton said she feared for the safety of herself and her daughter, who was in the car with her, when she saw two cars and a police cruiser come up behind her pickup truck at a fast pace. She swerved off the road.
“I felt like I was in danger. I wasn’t sure where the car was going to go. . . . I pulled over to compose myself, because I was pretty upset; my daughter was in the car with me,” she said.
“We thought it was something you’d see in L.A. County, a high-speed chase,” said Steve Auger of Epsom, who was a passenger in a car with two friends when the chase passed them on Route 4.
Soltani, a lawyer who is representing himself in court, faces a felony charge of reckless conduct and a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. At the time of the incident in April, he was a Republican state representative and Epsom’s town counsel.
Soltani claims he was trying to help the officer orchestrate a rolling roadblock to stop the suspect, who fled from a traffic stop, but that the officer failed to follow through.
Order of the vehicles
During cross-examinations of the witnesses, Soltani tried to diminish their credibility by questioning repeatedly whether they accurately remembered in what order they saw the cars: whether the dark Dodge Neon, which he was driving, was directly behind a speeding silver Mercedes or whether the cruiser was between them.
None of the witnesses saw the entire chase, which started on Route 4 east of the traffic circle and continued south on Route 28. All four, however, said they saw multiple cars swerve into the shoulder of the northbound lane to avoid Soltani’s Neon, which was heading south in the wrong lane.
After admitting under lengthy cross-examination that her memories of some parts of the incident were not clear, Knutsen described what she remembered.
“I know that on that day, as I was driving down the road, there was a white car that passed me at a really high rate of speed, a black car that passed me at a really high rate of speed, and the two of them were driving down the road side by side at one point, with the black car on the left, and vehicles on the other side of the road were pulled over,” she said.
Husband and wife Richard and Tracy Davison of Chichester were driving with Auger that night. They submitted a joint statement to the police last month in which they said the Neon was chasing the Mercedes, with the police cruiser third. In court, both said that statement was incorrect, that the cruiser was between the two cars.
Soltani also repeatedly pointed to depositions the couple gave in his law office last month, in which they gave different statements from their testimonies yesterday, or contradicted each other.
He also repeatedly asked each witness about the timing of their interactions with the Epsom Police Department.
In his opening statements Monday, Soltani suggested his arrest was retaliation by the Epsom police for a complaint filed hours earlier, and remarks he made to the chief that the department should be investigated by outsiders.
Jason Dennis, an attorney assisting Soltani, spent significant time asking Auger which officers he spoke to and when. Auger repeatedly said he didn’t remember and isn’t familiar with any officers in town.
Dennis also implied that Auger has malicious reasons for testifying against Soltani. Auger worked as a firefighter in Epsom until 1998, when he was terminated. Dennis began to ask him whether he was unhappy with Soltani because of Soltani’s role as town counsel at the time, but Assistant Hillsborough County Attorney Michael Valentine objected.
The fifth witness of the day was Trooper Ron Taylor of the New Hampshire State Police. Normally assigned to northern Merrimack County, Taylor was patrolling the Epsom area the night of the chase.
He arrived after the chase was over, when Soltani was in the back seat of the Epsom police cruiser in handcuffs. Soltani appeared upset and was yelling and gesturing for Taylor to approach and speak with him, Taylor said.
When he opened the door, Soltani asked him repeatedly to “call Bobby Quinn (and) tell him Tony Soltani is having trouble with the police again,” and asked, “Do you know who I am?” Taylor testified.
Taylor said he told Soltani that he wouldn’t call Col. Robert Quinn, the director of the state police, and “I told him if he had any issues with the officers, he should address them through the chief of the Epsom police. . . . He was looking at me disappointedly, and said, ‘That’s okay, I won’t hold it against you.’ ”
Soltani tried to connect Taylor’s report to the Epsom police department, asking whether he had read any of their reports of the incident before writing his own. Taylor said he had not.
Before trial began yesterday, Valentine asked Judge Richard McNamara to see whether any of the jurors had watched television coverage of the case that aired Tuesday night.
In an interview with WMUR, Soltani said he painstakingly cross-examined Epsom police Officer James Kear, the officer involved in the chase, because Kear was “being less than truthful” in his testimony and “has a very selective memory.”
Valentine said the statements violated the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys, a statement McNamara shrugged off.
“I have no opinion on that matter, but I do want to ensure any verdict reached is based on evidence and testimony from this courtroom,” he said.
All of the jurors indicated they had not seen the news segment.
Valentine rested his case at the end of the day; the trial is scheduled to resume today at 9:30 a.m.
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)