FARMINGTON – The man suspected of robbing the Super 8 Motel in Farmington Wednesday is facing several charges in St. Francois County.
On Thursday afternoon, St. Francois County Prosecuting Attorney Wendy Wexler Horn charged 49-year-old Walter O’Neal Jr. of St. Louis with first-degree robbery, tampering with a motor vehicle, resisting arrest and two counts of second-degree murder.
According to police reports, O’Neal entered the Super 8 Motel in Maple Valley at about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday and demanded money. A call from a motel worker to police dispatchers revealed the man displayed a small handgun, possibly a .38-caliber revolver.
Within less than a minute, an officer spotted the van in the Maple Valley area. The license plate was called in and it was discovered the van was reported stolen from the St. Louis area. O’Neal spotted the approaching officer and began to speed away traveling south on Maple Valley Drive.
Patrolman Lindell Barton pursued the vehicle down Maple Valley Drive. Following Barton in the pursuit was Corporal Byron Ratliff. Both officers had activated their lights and sirens.
Highway patrol reports indicate 26-year-old Monica Clark-Heit was driving a 1997 Oldsmobile Achieva south on Maple Valley Drive when the pursuit passed. She apparently pulled to the right side of the roadway to let the van and first pursuing officer pass.
From what investigators could tell, Clark-Heit pulled back across Maple Valley Drive and began to turn left onto Hazel Street just northeast of Pang Apartments. She reportedly pulled into the path of Ratliff’s police car.
The impact of the police car with Clark-Heit’s car pushed both vehicles south on Maple Valley Drive and off the left side of the roadway into the driveway entrance of the Pang apartment complex.
Clark-Heit’s car overturned, ejecting Moutray and 5-year-old Rodney Clark. The driver’s grandmother, Janice Moutray, 67, of Farmington, was crushed beneath the car and later pronounced dead at the scene. Clark-Heit was partially ejected out the rear window of the car. She was declared dead a short time later.
Injured were Clark-Heit’s two children, 5-year-old Rodney Clark and Lakoda Clark, who is believed to be 3 years old. Both children are in “serious but improving condition” at the children’s hospital in St. Louis.
Ratliff suffered minor injuries – contusions and abrasions from the impact and deployment of air bags in the patrol car. Although obviously shaken, he was able to administer aid to the other victims until additional officers and emergency personnel could arrive. He was later treated and released from a local hospital.
At about the same time the fatal accident occurred, the suspect crashed into shrubbery near Dr. Fitz’s office. The suspect was not injured and he was taken into custody. He is being held on $750,000 bond in the St. Francois County Jail. He will likely be arraigned on the charges on Tuesday.
Horn said she could not comment on O’Neal’s criminal history.
City Administrator Greg Beavers said Ratliff, a 10-year-veteran of the department, followed proper protocol for a vehicle pursuit.
He said officers are authorized to pursue fleeing vehicles if they believe a felony has been committed and there is a possibility the suspect could harm someone.
Horn said the information she has received from investigations is Ratliff was pursuing the robbery suspect.
“He had activated his lights and sirens and was in the immediate area,” she said.
Horn said it is believed Ratliff was right behind the first patrol car.
Beavers has placed Ratliff on paid non-disciplinary administrative leave until Farmington Police Chief Rick Baker returns from out-of-state. It will then be up to Baker what actions will be taken.
Beavers said he felt they needed to give Ratliff some recovery time. When one reporter asked how Ratliff was doing, Beavers said, “I believe he is handling this as well as expected.”
Several of Ratliff’s peers simply described him as “a good guy.”
Beavers, on behalf of the city, expressed condolences to the family of the accident victims.
While the robbery is being investigated by Farmington Police, the accident is being investigated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The patrol had not determined at press time how fast the drivers were going.
According to Missouri State Highway Patrol reports none of the four occupants of the vehicle was wearing safety restraints.
Reason for the charges
Horn said she pursued murder charges because a person can be charged with “felony murder” if a person dies during the commission of a felony or during a suspect’s immediate flight from the location the crime was committed. Horn said he can be charged with murder even though he was not the driver who collided with the victims’ vehicle.
According to the murder charges, the two victims “were killed from being hit by a Farmington police car which was, at the time, in a pursuit of the defendant, as a result of the immediate flight from the perpetration of the class A felony of robbery…”
“He didn’t necessarily have to intend for the death to happen,” she said.
The resisting arrest charge states that O’Neal fled in such a manner that created substantial risk of injury or death to other people because he failed to stop at a stop sign and drove at an excessive speed.
According to the tampering charge, O’Neal operated a stolen vehicle. The vehicle was reportedly stolen from the Salvation Army in St. Louis.
If convicted on the murder and/or robbery charges, he could be sentenced from 10 to 30 years or to life in prison. The tampering charge carries a sentence of up to seven years while the resisting arrest charge carries a sentence of up to four years.