Three people were inside the Coyote Café in La Vernia in the mid afternoon of Jan. 19 when they heard police sirens.
Running outside, they saw La Vernia police vehicles and a white Dodge truck crashing into each other as they traveled south on U.S. 87, near Snow’s Quick Lube.
“It looked like a policeman was executing a pit maneuver,” one of the witnesses said, referring to a tactic to cause another vehicle to skid or turn sideways. “We thought he had it, but it smashed its way out.”
In pursuit of the truck were other La Vernia police vehicles and cars belonging to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office.
The chase ended about 4 p.m. when the Dodge truck hit a tree where C.R. 307 angles off U.S. 87 between La Vernia and Sutherland Springs. The driver, reportedly unhurt, was sitting behind the steering wheel when officers cautiously approached. A DPS trooper removed him from the cab and La Vernia police Sgt. Donald Keil placed him under arrest.
The driver was identified as 26-year-old Joe Ricky DeLeon, a Wilson County resident. He was charged with theft of property valued at at least $30,000 but less than $150,000, evading arrest or detention with a vehicle, and five counts of aggravated assault against a public servant.
La Vernia police Chief Bruce Ritchey explained that the suspect had struck one DPS and three La Vernia police vehicles, one of which contained two officers, which resulted in the five assault charges.
“He hit me three times right around Snow’s,” Keil said. Keil and La Vernia police Officer Chris Iapichino, whose vehicle also was hit, were taken by La Vernia Emergency Medical Services personnel to San Antonio’s University Hospital, where they were treated and released.
Iapichino was involved in the chase from the beginning. According to Ritchey, Iapichino responded to a call from an employee at the Heritage Bank branch in La Vernia that her truck had been stolen from the bank parking lot.
While outside for a smoke break, she left her keys on the seat of the truck. As she stood nearby talking with someone, a man got into the truck, started it, and drove away, despite her protests.
While Iapichino was taking her report, she saw her truck driving through another parking lot nearby and pointed it out to him. The pursuit was on.
As the truck sped up F.M. 1346, Keil said La Vernia police and DPS troopers tried to stop it at Old La Vernia Road, but the truck pushed through, striking law enforcement vehicles in the process. It moved onto Loop 1604, where Bexar County sheriff’s deputies briefly joined the pursuit, and then turned onto U.S. 87, heading back to La Vernia.
“I got in front of him before he got into town,” Keil said. “I was trying to warn people out of the way. School was just letting out.”
The truck rammed the back of Keil’s vehicle. It was at this time, near Snow’s, when Iapichino caught up to the truck and struck the rear, causing it to spin around. But the truck rammed Iapichino’s vehicle, knocking it out of the chase, and hit Keil’s vehicle again before taking off.
Keil, driving behind the truck, said he decided to try to stop the driver by shooting out the right rear tire.
“I was afraid he would kill somebody,” he said. Although Keil’s shots seriously damaged the tire, the truck didn’t stop until it took out two signs and hit the tree at C.R. 307.
In the wake of the pursuit, shots, and crash, La Vernia Independent School District delayed the buses as school let out. U.S. 87 also was closed for a time.