- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

PERRYOPOLIS, Pa. (AP) - A western Pennsylvania police officer killed when his cruiser slammed into a turning vehicle wasn’t involved in a high-speed chase as was first reported, though he was trying to catch up to a motorist suspected of speeding, state police said Monday.

Sgt. Gino Fagnilli, commander of the Belle Vernon station, said investigators don’t believe the motorist realized that Perryopolis Officer Richard Champion was trying to catch up and make a traffic stop before Champion’s cruiser hit an SUV that turned in front of the officer Sunday afternoon.

“It’s a mischaracterization to say this was a pursuit,” Fagnilli told The Associated Press on Monday. “We don’t have any reason to believe the motorist even knew he was being pursued.”

Instead, Fagnilli said, “The movement that Unit 1 made is what caused the accident.”

Fagnilli was referring to the SUV driven by Andrew Bohatch Jr., 59, of Uniontown. Bohatch was driving north on Route 51 about 1:15 p.m. when he turned into the parking lot of the Big Barn Country Store & Deli that he co-owns, Fagnilli said. In doing so, Bohatch put his SUV in the path of the southbound police cruiser, which had its lights and siren on and was traveling faster than the speed limit to catch up to the suspected speeder.

Bohatch was in critical condition Monday at UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Pittsburgh. Investigators said it was too early to determine whether he’ll be cited or otherwise charged in the crash.

Champion was in his cruiser and appeared to be unconscious as it caught fire after the crash. Witnesses, including employees from Bohatch’s store, tried unsuccessfully to put out the fire with extinguishers and break windows to get the officer out of his car.

Fagnilli said that before the crash, Champion was parked on the roadside running Vascar, stop-watch like device that can be used to calculate the speed of passing cars as they drive past two lines painted on the road.

When Champion saw a car he thought was speeding, he pulled onto the highway and was driving faster than normal to catch up when the crash occurred. There were no radio transmissions indicating there was a pursuit or a license plate number reported, and video from the officer’s dashboard camera gives police an idea of which vehicle he planned to pull over, Fagnilli said.

That motorist hasn’t been identified, but isn’t expected to be charged or cited in connection with Champion’s death, Fagnilli said.

Champion, an Army reservist who had worked part-time in Perryopolis for eight months, leaves behind a wife, Dawn, and 16-month-old son, Tanner.

“It’s always hard to talk with the family, especially when you’re dealing with a younger family with a young child,” said Chief Roger Beadling, who heads the eight-officer department about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. “You just sit there and wonder, ‘Where are they going to go from here?’”

Gov. Tom Corbett has ordered flags at the state Capitol and state facilities in Fayette and Westmoreland counties to be flown at half-staff until sunset the day Champion is buried. Funeral arrangements were pending.

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