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Man Convicted Of Murder After Police Chase Left Two Kentucky Teens Dead

Sharon Combs and her husband Tim Combs
Jacob Ryan
Sharon Combs, with her husband Tim Combs, holds a picture of her late son Jacob.

A jury in Hardin County this week convicted a man of two counts of murder and recommended he serve life in prison for his role in a crash last year that killed two teenagers.

Shawn Welsh was being chased by three police agencies in October 2018 when he sped a stolen Chevrolet pick-up truck through a red light and collided with a Honda Accord being driven by Jacob Barber.

Barber, 18, and Katarina Peeters, 17, were killed in the crash. Two other teenage passengers in the car were seriously injured, but survived.

“We got justice for our kids,” said Barber’s mother, Sharon Combs, after the verdict. She attended each day of the six-day trial, and testified.

“I knew it was going to rip my heart out,” she said. “But I got to tell the jury about Jacob and what a great kid he was.”

KyCIR examined the pursuit in a report last year and found discrepancies in the police narrative about the circumstances of the pursuit. And policing experts criticized law enforcement for keeping with the chase until its deadly end.
(Read: " After Deadly Pursuit, A Kentucky Family Asks Why. But Sheriff Isn’t Investigating")

The teens had just left a school-sponsored Halloween event and were headed for ice cream, Combs said. The crash occurred at the intersection of US-31 and Battle Training Rd. in Radcliff, when their path crossed the police chase of Welsh’s truck.

The jury deliberated for less than an hour on Monday before returning the guilty verdicts, according to a report from the Elizabethtown News-Enterprise. Tuesday’s deliberations lasted nearly three hours, according to the newspaper. In all, the jury recommended four life sentences -- one for each murder charge and two for additional assault charges.

The jury also recommend Welsh, 37, serve 43 additional years in prison for receiving stolen property, fleeing police, and drug possession.

Formal sentencing is set for December 10.

Adam Sanders, Welsh’s attorney, said an appeal is likely.

At trial, Combs tried to avoid looking at Welsh. Doing so, she said, was difficult.

He read a statement, apologizing to the victims and their families. Combs said it was “too little, too late.”

“He made his choices,” she said. “Right now, I have no forgiveness for him.”

Combs and the families of the three other teens involved in the crash filed individual lawsuits within the past two months against Welsh and the agencies that pursued him, including the Meade County Sheriff, Radcliff Police Department, and Vine Grove Police Department.

They each argue that the officers “owed a duty to the public to use care and refrain from reckless, willful, or wanton conduct when initiating and/or continuing a pursuit,” according to online court records.

But the officers failed to do so, the families argue, because they did not stop the chase “when it became clear that the risks created by initiating and continuing the pursuit outweighed the need for immediate apprehension of [Welsh].”

The chase began around 8 p.m. on October 20, 2018. Meade County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Casey saw Welsh turn off the highway down a dead-end road just north of Flaherty, Ky., and followed to investigate.

He pulled his cruiser onto the gravel road, and as he approached the truck, Welsh sped away.

The chase wound down rural roads and through neighborhoods, covering more than 20 miles in about 17 minutes. At times, speeds topped 100 mph, and Radcliff and Vine Grove police joined in.

Officers were still giving chase when the truck collided with the car, killing Barber and Peeters. It was only then that police realized Welsh was driving a stolen truck and in possession of methamphetamine.

According to Meade County Sheriff Department policy, pursuits “shall be for a violent felony offense, or use of force likely to cause death or serious physical injury, or threatened use of such force.”

Casey wrote in his arrest report that, as he approached the truck on the dead-end road, Welsh accelerated towards him, “causing this officer to swerve off the roadway to avoid a head-on collision.” The deputy never mentioned that to dispatchers in audio obtained from the pursuit.

But then-Meade County Sheriff William Kerrick, in an interview last year with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, said that act was “like pointing a gun” at the deputy.

Kerrick, who lost his re-election bid during the 2018 Republican primary, defended Casey’s decision to initiate the pursuit and stick with it until it’s fatal end.

But experts questioned the chase.

Tom Gleason, who works for PursuitSAFETY, a national group that advocates for pursuit policy reform, told KyCIR last year that pursuits are high-stress, and risk factors are heightened when high speed chases travel through intersections, railroad tracks and tight rural roads.

Gleason said the chase should have been called off.

Walter Signorelli, an adjunct professor and lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said in an interview last year that even if Welsh did attempt to ram the truck into Casey, it didn’t necessitate a high-speed chase.

Combs now wants to advocate for changing how police conduct pursuits in Kentucky. She wants limits for when chases can happen and for how long they last. They’re too dangerous, she said, and too deadly.

“No other parent should have to go through this,” she said. “I just want to stop it from happening again.”

Contact Jacob Ryan at (502) 814.6559 or jryan@kycir.org.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.