No one who lives in Philadelphia can deny that kids on dirt bikes and ATVs are a pervasive problem in the city, with their loud, noisy engines and their operators weaving in and out of traffic and performing dangerous stunts on the streets.
Yes, they are illegal to operate on the streets of Philadelphia and yes, the Philadelphia Police Department has a policy of not pursuing the operators of the vehicles — it’s just too dangerous. But the recent death of a teen who was killed while driving a dirt bike on city streets seems to have raised more questions than answers for the family of the victim.
Jermaine Alexander, 14, was riding a friend’s dirt bike, a Honda CR500, in the city’s Frankford section on March 13. At the intersection of the 3700 block of Frankford Avenue and the 2000 block of Butler Street, Alexander, who was operating the vehicle at a high rate of speed, was heading southbound down Frankford Avenue. As he did, he slammed into a southbound 2005 Kia Sportage, driven by Mitchell Butler, who, according to the official accident reports, was turning right, to head eastbound onto Butler Street. The collision was horrendous — the bike was split in two and Alexander’s body was thrown into the air. He landed onto the windshield of the Sportage and was pronounced dead by responding medics.
Those are the basic facts and are not in dispute.
What is in dispute is what precipitated the fatal crash. Was Alexander just being a reckless dirt bike rider, or was he being chased by someone? At least four different witnesses said he was being pursued by a blue minivan and possibly by police officers. That allegation was denied by the Philadelphia Police Department in other reports — but the incident remains under investigation. Initially, police thought the accident was a hit and run and that the driver of the blue minivan left the scene, but that hasn’t yet been confirmed. Alexander’s mother, Sarina Howard Witherspoon, and her attorney, Scott Portner, of the firm of Freedman and Lorry, P.C., have a lot of questions.
“At first, police said they were going to look for the blue minivan, but later said there was no minivan. I don’t know, I’m going by what the police said,” Witherspoon said. She acknowledged that she knew dirt bikes are illegal. She also confirmed that at one time Alexander owned two of them — one that was given to him that was broken and then repaired, and one she purchased for him with the stipulation that he only ride in different parks and a wide area near Philadelphia International Airport.
“He was only supposed to ride off the streets,” she said. “The police took the first bike. I constantly told him they were dangerous, but after he left my eyesight, once he was around the corner, older guys who knew he could ride, would lend him their bikes. On January 21 the cops hit him while he was riding. A police car hit the back tire and he fell. They ran his name and found he had no record, so they gave him traffic tickets. After that I told him not to get on any bikes but I know he did; I caught him doing it and would make him get off. This isn’t about money — money isn’t going to bring my son back. I want to know what really happened, and was someone chasing my son? The police say they don’t chase the dirt bikes — but they do.”
Witherspoon said that on March 13, Alexander had gotten an early dismissal from Hardin Middle School, and she wanted to know if he was going out. He told her that he was going to wash his clothes and clean his room.
“My husband Derek was home, and told Jermaine not to go out and get on a bike. Jermaine said he wouldn’t, that he was going to clean his room,” Witherspoon said. “He left the house around 2:30 p.m. It was told to me that he was on a bike near a couple of schools; it was somewhere around the schools that the chase began.”
According to what witnesses told Witherspoon, Alexander and his friend Eric Carter were riding together when they were pursued — allegedly by police. Alexander and Carter split up, and Carter was waiting for Alexander a few blocks away.
“Eric did confirm for me that police were chasing Jermaine,” Portner said. “Both of them were being chased until they split up. We don’t know if it was an unmarked police van or not, one thing we’re sure of is that Jermaine was being chased.”
“A neighbor knocked on the door and told my husband that Jermaine had been in an accident,” Witherspoon said. “He went upstairs and put on his shoes and got some money because he figured he was going to the hospital. He called me and told me Jermaine was in an accident. The first thing I said was, ‘That’s it, he’s staying in the house — he was on a bike.’ Then my husband called me back to tell me Jermaine was dead.”
Witherspoon said she went to Internal Affairs to file a complaint, and she was told they couldn’t pursue an investigation until after the Accident Investigation Department concluded their inquiries. A video that was given to Witherspoon’s daughter and turned over to Portner shows the impact of the dirt bike into the Sportage, and voices were recorded on the video saying, “Here he comes” — a few seconds before impact.
“It’s not crystal clear, but you can see two white hands in the video, the dashboard and the window,” Portner said. “At first I thought it came from, like a local person — but it was weird that whoever it was knew Jermaine was coming around. At first, we didn’t hear the voices because the computer we watched it on didn’t have speakers. My paralegal has earphones and she heard it and we played it again. You can hear the voices. Were these cops? We don’t know. We also have testimony from other kids that a few days before the fatal accident Jermaine was on a bike and was hit, allegedly by undercover cops.”
Witherspoon said she doesn’t know where the tape came from — someone, possibly the boy who loaned the dirt bike to Jermaine, gave it to her daughter. A second tape that hasn’t been seen either by Witherspoon or Portner but has been seen by investigators with A.I.D. allegedly did depict the blue van.
“We have a lot of questions about this case,” Portner said. “Who was chasing Jermaine and why? The police are investigating this, and A.I.D. is still working on it. Should the district attorney investigate or even the U.S. Attorney’s office? We want some answers. There was a chase the Sunday before the fatal accident. If they’re telling her yes, there was a blue van, then why not show her [the tape]. Is this a dummy video? There have to be answers, either from the DA’s office, or an independent investigation, or the U.S. Attorney’s office. We need something independent here. They’re investigating, but how do we know it’s a neutral party? Wouldn’t the U.S. Attorney’s office be a better place to review the evidence that’s being looked through, to make certain that evidence is preserved? That’s my issue: Who is watching over who?”
Officially, the Philadelphia Police Department follows a policy of not chasing the nimble, speedy vehicles that are popular with teens and young men because it is so dangerous. Dirt bikes and four-wheeled ATVs are illegal to operate on the streets of Philadelphia, but that doesn’t stop the young men from driving them. When the weather starts to break, the whine of the high-pitched engines is heard all over the city — their operators weave in and out of traffic at a fast rate of speed, popping wheelies and performing other dangerous maneuvers.
“This is an open investigation, so I’m limited in what I can say,” said Lt. Ray Evers, spokesman for the Philadelphia Police Department. “We don’t know exactly how fast the victim was going — fast enough that when he hit, it was with enough force the bike was broken almost in half. There were skid marks almost four car lengths long and initial indications are that there were no marked cars but as I said, this is an open investigation.”
Portner said that copies of the police logs will reveal who was on patrol in the vicinity on the day Alexander was killed. The neighborhood kids informed him that the number of the marked police car in the vicinity that day was 2416, but they also saw a gold unmarked car. And Witherspoon said she heard on the news that there was a blue unmarked van that did a drug bust in Tacony before the fatal accident.
“I do know he was on a bike that Sunday before he got hit,” Witherspoon said, holding back tears. “I was with a girlfriend and we saw him. Jermaine called me a few minutes later and said ‘Hi, you tried to catch me. You knew you wouldn’t catch me because this bike is too fast. I told him again to please stay off the bike. But that Tuesday, someone was after Jermaine.”
When the investigations are finally completed and all of the particulars are known, one fact will scream as loudly as a revved up engine — dirt bikes are too dangerous to ride on the streets.
That fact is not in dispute.