Further details emerging on fatal collision
TAHLEQUAH (AP) – An investigation is continuing into the Jan. 26 collision that killed a Park Hill woman and left the other driver, an accused shoplifter, in critical condition.
Malinda Phillips, 36, was killed when her 2017 Buick Encore reportedly was struck by a 2001 Ford F350 driven by Cherokee Nation citizen Aram Barak Catron, 35, of Colcord. Phillips was eastbound on West Choctaw Street when Catron allegedly ran a stop sign while traveling northbound on West Avenue. Catron was suspected of shoplifting at Walmart.
Stressing that the investigation is still underway, Tahlequah Police Chief Nate King said indications are that the Cherokee Nation Marshal tailing Catron was not traveling at great speed. King added the marshal has not yet been formally interviewed for the probe.
“We’re not sure of the exact distance yet, but the marshal was not behind the suspect with lights and sirens for more than a mile,” King said. “And what we are getting now is that Catron was so far ahead that the marshal could not see the collision.”
The marshal reportedly was assisting when, after receiving a bulletin about the shoplifting incident, he saw a truck matching the description of Catron’s. King said authorities believe they know the general sequence of events, though the investigation could result in changes.
“Catron had been fleeing since he left Walmart,” King said. “The marshal happens on him during routine patrol. When trying to ascertain whether this was the truck, there is a near-collision. The marshal tries to make a traffic stop. The truck doesn’t stop. Again, it was no more than a mile to where (the collision) occurred.”
King thought some of the media reports in the immediate aftermath of the collision were not flattering for law enforcement, and because the word “pursuit” was used in initial reports, readers or viewers were drawing conclusions that the chase was at excessive speeds.
Stories by area media sources called the law enforcement action a “pursuit” or “chase,” but none characterized it as occurring at a high rate of speed.
However, the debris field around the vehicles suggested Catron himself was driving at extremely hazardous speed when he crashed. The collision was with such force that the engine block from Phillips’ vehicle was lying in a front yard across the street from the point of impact, and the cab of Catron’s truck was peeled off the chassis. A nearby telephone pole was snapped at its base.
Roughly 15 minutes after the collision, King sent a text to notify a reporter at the Tahlequah Daily Press, as well as a contact with a Tulsa media outlet, of the incident.
“Fatality pursuit crash in Tahlequah. Don’t have a lot of details: Cherokee Nation Marshals pursuing a shoplifting suspect,” King wrote.
King never mentioned high speeds. He did pinpoint the location of the crash on Choctaw, saying a “citizen” was dead at the scene and the suspect was in critical condition.
King said Jan. 29 he sent the texts in an attempt to alert the media, and thus the public, of the crash. He described the scene as “horrendous.”
The investigation of the collision is being handled by the Tahlequah Police Department, led by Lt. Steven Arnall.
King said if Catron is the driver who struck Phillips’ vehicle, it is Catron who bears ultimate responsibility – and investigators believe the collision occurred in conjunction with the suspect’s failure to stop for a stop sign, and attempting to elude a law enforcement officer.
“It depends on how the investigation turns out, but there is the possibility that this could lead to a murder charge,” King said. “We will see where the investigation goes and request what charges we think are necessary, and the (district attorney) will have the final say in that.”
According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Catron has a criminal history. He has felony convictions in Delaware County, dating to December 2010. He has convictions for aggravated DUI, possession of marijuana, DUI resulting in personal injury, carrying a firearm while under the influence, felony leaving the scene of an accident involving injury, felony eluding or attempting to elude a police officer, and speeding.
Catron also has on his record two misdemeanor public intoxication offenses in 2003 and 2004 in Delaware County. In November, he faced a complaint of theft of utilities in Delaware County and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. Records indicate he was held for one day in December to process the warrant, and he was due to return on Feb. 9 to continue community sentencing.