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Princeton man in 120-mile chase was thinking of suicide

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DULUTH -- The driver of a car that led police on a high-speed chase for almost 120 miles Saturday afternoon that ended in a fiery crash in Knife River was apparently suicidal at the time, the Minnesota State Patrol reports, and hadn't committed any major crime before the chase started.

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The 18-year-old Princeton, Minn., man first fled police in Mora, Minn., about 11:30 a.m. and wasn't captured until one or more tires blew out on his car after crossing police "stop sticks'' on the Highway 61 expressway near the bridge over the Knife River.

The car swerved across the median, rolled, crashed and then caught fire. The driver was pulled from the vehicle and did not suffer life-threatening injuries. He was being treated Monday at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth, said Sgt. Mark Baker of the Minnesota State Patrol.

The initial chase began after Mora police clocked the car at 62 mph in a 40 mph zone of Minnesota Highway 23 and the driver did not pull over. Officers soon discovered, through a phone call from the man's relative to 911, that the driver was suicidal, Baker said.

"Apparently he didn't want to hurt anyone else. But this is an unusual way to try to end your life,'' Baker said, adding that the driver was not wanted for any other crime.

The chase sped down Highway 23, north on Interstate 35 and onto London Road in Duluth before moving onto Highway 61.

The 1999 Pontiac Bonneville rolled off the road and over the Knife River before coming to a stop in Lake County. The driver was wearing his seatbelt.

Because the crash began in St. Louis County, before the car slid into Lake County, charges will be handled in St. Louis County court, Baker said.

Bente Soderlind of Duluth said the chase passed her while driving out of Duluth on Highway 61.

"I pulled over when I saw the lights coming behind me and, at first I thought, 'that driver needs to pull over.' Then I realized they were chasing him,'' Soderlind said. Her truck "just shook when they went by, that's how fast they were going. ... My daughter said she counted 15 police cars."

MapQuest lists the distance from Mora to Knife River at about 114 miles and lists the usual drive time at 1 hour and 57 minutes. But the driver led police up to 120 mph along the route, crashing about an hour after the incident began, police said.

Baker said officers pulled back at times but continued the pursuit because of the driver's aggressive behavior when they attempted to stop him.

State Patrol officers attempted several times to use tire shredding stop sticks along the chase route on I-35 and along London Road, but the driver "managed to avoid them. He drove around them and drove at officers to avoid hitting the sticks," Baker said.

St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said he wouldn't second guess the decision to continue the pursuit but said officers from his agency probably would have backed off, given that the driver hadn't committed a crime other than speeding.

A few St. Louis County deputies were involved in the incident but not in the front line of pursuit, he said, noting that State Patrol policy is more aggressive on chases.

"We changed our policy about five years ago and we now have a much more restrictive (chase rule) than the State Patrol does,'' Litman said. "We look at what the person is being pursued for and we weigh it against the potential danger to the public, to the suspect involved and to our officers. ... I don't think we would have continued this one, knowing the information they had available. It's just lucky no one was hurt."

No other vehicles were damaged and no one else was injured.

"We're actually fortunate this occurred mostly along the freeway and the expressway. If this is going to happen, you'd rather it be on a four-lane than on a two-lane,'' Baker said.

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