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Richmond police now say it's unclear who was driving the vehicle that collided with officers in fatal accident

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Richmond police are growing increasingly vague in the two weeks since a collision involving a police SUV led to the death of two teens.

In addition to denying the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Freedom of Information Act request for body-worn camera footage of the crash, police now say they don’t know who was driving the teens’ vehicle.

On Wednesday evening, police said 18-year-old Jeremiah Ruffin had died. He had been hospitalized in serious condition since the April 7 crash, in which police initially said he was driving the Buick that collided with a marked Ford Explorer in the intersection of Bells and Castlewood roads in South Richmond.

In Wednesday night’s release, however, police referred to Ruffin as “the individual believed to be the driver.”

In response to reporters’ questions, department spokeswoman Tracy Walker said in an email on Thursday: “It is not yet conclusive who the driver was, it is still under investigation.”

Ruffin’s girlfriend, Tracey Williams, 19, was a passenger in the vehicle and was ejected during the collision, police said a day after the crash. Ruffin was also ejected, police released later that same day. Neither was wearing a seat belt.

Officers Richard Johnson and Dquan Walker were responding to a call for a burglary in progress in the 1500 block of Clarkson Road, about 3 miles west of the collision. That call came in one minute before the 10:42 p.m. crash, the department said.

But the department has not determined how fast either car was traveling, who had the right of way, or whether the officers turned on the SUV’s blue emergency lights and siren, as authorized.

After three emails and at least two voicemails since Thursday morning asking these questions, Tracy Walker, the department’s spokeswoman, told a reporter Friday that the investigation was still ongoing.

“We want to make sure to be true to the evidence,” Walker said when asked why police were now unsure who was driving the Buick after initially saying Ruffin was driving.

The seemingly cautious approach to releasing information to the public on this collision appears to be at odds with similar recent cases.

Last month, Richmond police investigated at least three fatal crashes. Within two to four days of each of those collisions, police released details of what happened, including the directions from which the vehicle(s) were traveling, and who was at fault. When asked why a crash involving two of its own officers appeared to be different, Walker said it was because there was more evidence to gather.

On Wednesday, about an hour before releasing that Ruffin had died, the department declined to release the body-worn camera footage, traffic camera video and crash report related to the incident, citing an exemption in the state’s Freedom of Information Act that allows police to withhold investigative files.

At 6:44 p.m. Friday, Police Chief Gerald Smith said in a statement: “As I stated when the accident occurred, we will follow wherever the investigation leads us. We want our community to know we are entering the final stages of the investigation surrounding the circumstances and causes of the tragic fatal collision that occurred on April 7. Once concluded, the full investigation will be turned over to the Commonwealth Attorney for review and next steps.”

The police department also will be expected to provide the details of another officer-involved collision that occurred just Friday evening.

At 6:11 p.m. Friday, three cars — a Richmond Police Department cruiser and two civilian vehicles — crashed in the 3800 block of Chamberlayne at the intersection of Laburnum Avenue in North Richmond. One individual and an officer suffered non-life-threatening injuries and were taken to a hospital. A third individual remained on scene, police said.

The collision is under investigation by the RPD Special Operations Division Crash Team.

Earlier in the day, family and friends of Ruffin and Williams blocked traffic at the crash intersection, chanting “No Justice, No peace.” Some of the group of about 30 people had just come from Williams’ funeral. Two Richmond police officers responded and asked the people to clear the intersection, which they eventually did, as two more police cruisers arrived.

Lying among shards of glass, taillights and other detritus scattered across the sidewalk from the crash is a memorial to the two teens. Candles, balloons, flowers, stuffed animals and messages written in bright markers adorn a light pole at one corner. Crime scene tape flaps in the wind.

Atop each of the four traffic lights at the busy intersection are cameras. Police would not confirm if the cameras captured the collision.

The two officers suffered head injuries, but police would not provide an update on their status this week. Their SUV was knocked off the road into two poles — before coming to rest by a fence.

Johnson, who was driving the police SUV, became a sworn Richmond officer on Feb. 18, 2021, the department said in response to a FOIA request on Wednesday. Walker graduated from the Richmond Police Training Academy 124th Basic Recruit Class on March 17, 2022.

On Friday evening, however, the police spokeswoman said both Johnson and Walker were hired about 11 months prior to those dates. The police academy lasts just eight weeks, and Tracy Walker could not say what they were doing in the meantime.

arockett@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6527

Staff writer Mark Bowes contributed to this report.

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