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Simple seat belt violation escalated into Utah man’s death, chief says

Three Ogden officers, bystander also injured during wild series of events

SHARE Simple seat belt violation escalated into Utah man’s death, chief says
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Tire tracks and broken glass remain at the scene of an accident on Sullivan Road in Ogden on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. One man is dead and three police officers were injured Tuesday after a pursuit ended in a crash.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

OGDEN — It started out as a minor seat belt violation, but police say it ended in the needless death of a Clinton man.

Three Ogden police officers and a civilian also suffered injuries during a wild series of events Tuesday that ended with a fleeing suspect crashing into a police car.

The incident began about 4:30 p.m. when an Ogden police officer pulled a driver over in the 2500 block of Monroe Boulevard for not wearing a seat belt, Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt explained Wednesday.

As the officer was talking to the driver, James Lee Franklin, 20, of Clinton, admitted that the license plate on the car he was driving was not registered to that vehicle. Watt said the license plate was taken from another car that Franklin owns.

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Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt conducts a press conference at the Francom Public Safety Building on Wednesday, July 22, 2020, describing a police incident that occurred Tuesday in Ogden. One man is dead and three police officers were injured after a pursuit ended in a crash near the city’s downtown.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

But when the officer checked the vehicle identification number of the car Franklin was driving, he discovered that it was not registered, Watt said. Two more officers then arrived on scene as backup.

At that point, the officer was going to write Franklin a ticket, let him go, and then impound the vehicle, according to the chief.

But when the officer approached the vehicle again, Watt said Franklin was uncooperative.

“Mr. Franklin put his seat belt on, and then argued with the officers about the actions (they were taking),” Watt said.

The officer closest to Franklin opened his car door and reached inside to unbuckle his seat belt. That's when Franklin allegedly used his body weight to trap the officer’s arm between the console and the driver’s seat.

“Mr. Franklin physically trapped his arm,” Watt said.

Franklin then began driving off while the officer was being dragged alongside the car.

“He was initially being dragged, but the speeds got so quickly accelerated that he was afraid his feet were going to be trapped under the vehicle and that he would be run over, that he lifted his feet up and was holding onto the steering wheel and holding onto the seat belt trying to keep himself in there, as well as trying to talk Mr. Franklin into stopping the vehicle,” Watt said.

Franklin drove about a block and a half before he hit a curb in the 2900 block of Monroe, sending the officer onto a grassy park strip.

The other two officers who were on scene began chasing Franklin, and did not see that their fellow officer had been ejected, the chief said.

As Franklin continued to flee past 30th Street, which turned into Sullivan Road, another patrol car with two officers inside came into the area but stopped because Franklin was swerving in traffic.

For an unknown reason, Franklin appeared to lose control of his vehicle and smashed into the stopped Ogden police car while traveling 60 to 70 mph, direct hitting the passenger side door, the chief said. Franklin’s car then bounced off the patrol car and hit another vehicle that had pulled over due to the police activity.

Watt said the officer who was dragged, the two that were hit, and the 59-year-old civilian in the other vehicle, all suffered injuries, but none are believed to be life-threatening. The three officers were treated at a hospital Tuesday night for cuts and bruises and were later released.

“We were extremely fortunate with the nature of the injuries. This could have been far worse,” Watt said.

When officers approached Franklin’s vehicle, he was “slumped over the steering wheel. They removed him from the vehicle and realized that he was not breathing,” he said.

Franklin’s seat belt was still on, and officers weren't able to unbuckle it, forcing them to work around the seatbelt to get Franklin out of the car, Watt said.

Investigators believe Franklin died as a result of injuries sustained in the crash, but were still waiting Wednesday for a full autopsy report, including toxicology results. Watt said the investigation into the crash was ongoing Wednesday.

Court records indicate that Franklin was scheduled to be in court on Wednesday to face charges of felony drug distribution.

Franklin was pulled over on June 22 in the same area he was pulled over on Tuesday, for failing to signal while making a turn. It was also noted in charging documents that the same vehicle “was observed in a high drug traffic area earlier in the evening.”

Inside his car, officers found small individually wrapped baggies of methamphetamine and marijuana, the charges state.