Last month, Steve Stephens, a 37-year-old man who worked with developmentally challenged children, shocked the word when he executed 74-year-old Robert Godwin while broadcasting live video on Facebook. Stephens, who would later tell his mother he committed the heinous crime because he was angry at his girlfriend, would lead law enforcement on a manhunt spanning multiple states over the course of two days that would ultimately culminate in Stephens taking his own life.
Now, nearly a month after the dramatic events of that fateful Tuesday, the Pennsylvania State Police officers credited with bringing Stevens to justice shared their story on Thursday.
Cpl. Aaron Davis and Cpl. Mark Van Horn were the officers tasked with responding to a tip called in by a concerned McDonald’s employee that claimed to recognize Stephens from the news. Hundreds of such tips had flooded into law enforcement agencies across five states in the two days leading up to the call, so the troopers may not have expected to find the white Ford Fusion they were looking for when they arrived, but Davis says he realized he had their man when he spotted Stephens through the rear-view mirror of his car.
“Dispatch was saying there’s a white Ford Fusion with Ohio tags leaving the drive-thru right now,” Davis recalled. “Then, I actually saw the vehicle go by and we were trying to catch up to him.”
Davis, well aware of the brutal killing Stephens had committed two days prior as well as posts Stephens had made on his Facebook profile indicating that he had killed others and intended to kill again, knew he and fellow officers could be in for the fight of their lives.
“We absolutely prepared for that to be a shootout with the way Stephens had acted, the crime he committed, the threats he made to the public,” Davis said. “We were absolutely certain he wasn’t going to go down peacefully.”
Davis followed the car without his lights on and witnessed Stephens commit several traffic violations before deciding to hit the lights and pull the vehicle over. It was at that moment, Davis recalls, that he locked eyes with Stephens through the Fusion’s rear view mirror.
“I knew it was him,” Davis said. “I said, ‘This is it, get ready.’”
Stephens pulled over initially, before promptly setting off again. Stephens didn’t speed as he attempted to evade law enforcement, but began tossing his food out the car window casually, as though he wasn’t troubled by the police officers on his tail.
“It was a little unnerving that he was being so nonchalant about it,” Davis said. “It seemed like he was almost enticing us.”
As they approached a long straight stretch of road, Van Horn, who had joined the pursuit in another squad car, saw his opportunity to employ a maneuver he had never executed in his lengthy 20-year career in law enforcement: the PIT maneuver. A well-executed PIT maneuver (Precision Immobilization Technique) involves coming into contact with the suspect’s car at one of the rear quarter-panels, causing it to spin out of control.
“It was happening so fast,” Van Horn remembered. “It was numbing at first; it went well.”
By the time Stephens’ car came to a stop, several officers from multiple law enforcement agencies were converging around him, but as they approached, they found the driver’s side window blown out. It soon became clear that Stephens had used his firearm to take his own life as the chase came to a close.
“I think it was his intention to die that day, whether by his own hand or ours,” said Van Horn. “I know the (Godwin) family wants closure. We would have liked to apprehend him, but that didn’t happen.”
Van Horn and Davis both said they called their families immediately after the chase’s conclusion, and both officers said what happened to Stephen’s victim, Robert Godwin, and his family weighed heavily on their minds.
“I try to remind myself of the human side of this and it’s my job, but I still have feelings, too,” Van Horn said. “And my heart goes out to those folks.”
State Patrol officers Aaron Davis and Mark Van Horn may never know how many lives they saved with their actions on that fateful day, but one thing is for certain, the world is a safer place thanks to their decisive action and professional conduct.
“As bad as it was, this guy was stopped,” Van Horn said. “It was a feeling of relief in some ways.”
Image courtesy of CNN