A 15-mile high speed chase leaves in its wake many witnesses, and quite a few of them laid out for a jury in Rappahannock County Circuit Court last week the harrowing details and grisly ending of a Virginia State Police trooper’s pursuit of a motorcycle at speeds in excess of 130 mph last summer.
The operator of the motorcycle, 26-year-old Rajesh Pramod Patil of Haymarket, eventually interrupted the jury’s late-in-the-day deliberations May 24 to plead guilty, and left the courtroom in custody to begin a 16-month jail sentence.
Last Aug. 11, Patil, with 21-year-old passenger Rachel C. Kiele seated behind him, took off at a high rate of speed from the traffic light at Clevenger’s Corner in Culpeper County, heading west on U.S. 211.
Virginia State Police Trooper S.J. Riddle chased them into Rappahannock, through Amissville, past the intersection with Route 729 and through Massies Corner. Patil turned off the four-lane highway onto Old Mill Road near the Rappahannock County Library, headed toward Warren Street in Washington.
On the curve just before Old Mill reaches Warren, Patil lost control. Both Patil and Kieler were seriously injured when they were thrown from the bike at the end of the 15-mile chase. The bike and Patil wound up in a ditch alongside Warren; Kieler was thrown about 20 feet and landed on a grassy embankment on the other side of Warren. Both were flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital.
During the day-long trial, the details of the incident were not in dispute. What was contested was whether Patil was aware that he was being chased by law enforcement officers — a point that became the main thrust of Patil’s defense.
The state trooper’s story
Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff called several witnesses who saw the chase as it moved through a large swath of the county. Goff took the first witness, Riddle, through the entire sequence of events. The trooper testified that as he waited at the light at Clevenger’s Corner, he observed Patil and Kieler on the motorcycle. “They pulled up beside me,” said Riddle, “and both turned to look at me.”
When the light changed, Patil went around an SUV in the left lane. Riddle said he could hear the motorcycle accelerate and activated his lights and siren. By the time Riddle saw the motorcycle again just past Clevenger’s Corner, Patil was about a quarter-mile ahead, “doing about 90 to 100 mph and pulling away.”
Riddle estimated that Patil’s speed reached over 130 mph during the chase. The trooper said that his speedometer registers speeds only up to 132. Following Patil, “I was tapped out.” At that speed, he said, it took less than a minute to reach Rappahannock County from Clevenger’s Corner. He could see Patil passing other vehicles as he sped through Amissville.
Just west of Route 729, Riddle observed Patil thread his way through three slower-moving vehicles in both lanes. “I almost viewed a collision,” said Riddle.
A quarter to a half mile before reaching Massies Corner at U.S. 522, Riddle saw another law enforcement vehicle (driven by Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Deputy Lt. Jason Romero) making a U-turn toward the westbound lane. “I was afraid he would pull out in front of me,” Riddle testified.
“I was calling in road numbers to the dispatcher when I saw the motorcycle slow down to turn on Old Mill Road,” said Riddle. He estimated he was two to three car lengths behind Patil by then, close enough to begin to get the cycle’s tag number, when Patil accelerated again on Old Mill going toward Washington.
When Riddle arrived at the end of Old Mill, he saw that Patil had been thrown off his bike and that Kieler had been thrown across Warren Street. Riddle testified that he ran up the grassy bank to Kieler and saw that one leg was twisted backward. “She was wearing her helmet, but the visor was gone,” he said. There was blood on Kieler’s face.
“She was coherent to a degree,” he said, but she told Riddle that her dad had been driving the motorcycle. Someone else arrived to help Riddle and they positioned Kieler’s backpack to make her more comfortable.
A Washington rescue squad arrived almost immediately, the fire station being only about 100 feet from the accident scene. Sheriff Connie Compton also arrived and was able to ascertain Patil and Kieler’s identities before they were helicoptered out.
The witnesses along the way
Subsequent witnesses corroborated Riddle’s account. Junior Wood was on U.S. 211 near Clevenger’s Corner and recalled seeing the motorcycle go by with Kieler holding tightly to Patil.
John Vest, a manager at Settle’s Cars and Trucks in Amissville, testified he heard a high-pitched whine from what he recognized as a motorcycle and told an employee, “Someone’s hauling butt.” A few seconds later he saw Riddle’s car in pursuit with emergency lights and siren going. Both the bike and the trooper “were traveling at a high rate of speed,” he said. A few minutes later, “the sirens went off at the [Amissville] fire house next door and I figured there was a crash.”
Stacy Williams, co-owner of Williams Tree Service at Route 729, told the court she could see and hear the motorcycle’s whine and the trooper’s siren from her office inside the building. “The bike went flying by and then the cruiser,” she said, describing the chase as “a blur” that lasted a couple of seconds.
Ted Jenkins, a mechanic at Williams Tree Service, said he had been testing out a vehicle on 211 going west toward Massies Corner when he heard the motorcycle coming up behind him. He observed that Patil “cut between me and another car. It only took half a car length to make the maneuver.” He said that “the passenger looked like she was holding on for dear life. She was down the whole time.”
Romero told the court that he was going eastbound on 211 near Massies Corner when heard the radio dispatcher report the pursuit. He pulled into the turn lane to prepare to go westbound on 211. He said the motorcycle went by too fast to be able to determine its color or even the number of people on it. “Once the trooper passed, I followed, traveling about 140 mph.” he said. “So fast, I overshot the turn at Washington.”
Marty Bywaters-Baldwin testified that he left the library and was driving down Old Mill minutes before Patil and Riddle turned in. Just as he turned right onto Warren Street, he heard a noise behind him and saw in his rearview mirror the flash of the motorcycle overturning. He parked on the side of the road and went to the scene. He testified that Kieler “was in bad shape” and kept asking what had happened.
Compton told the court that when she arrived at the scene, Kieler had “blood coming from her mouth and under her helmet” and that Kieler’s leg “was not in line.” When the medic arrived and removed Kieler’s helmet, Compton observed a long gash on her forehead. “She screamed when the medics put her on the board” to transport her, Compton said. “She told me her name was Rachel,” Compton said, adding that because Kieler had suffered several broken teeth, she had difficulty talking.
Goff last called Kieler to the stand. A pronounced limp and facial scars hinted at the seriousness of her injuries. Under questioning from Goff, she told the court that she had been in an on-again, off-again relationship with Patil. “We broke up the December before [the accident] and were talking again,” she said, but they hadn’t put a label on the relationship. (Later, in cross-examination, she testified that her parents, who did not approve of her relationship with Patil, did not know the two of them were back together until the accident.)
The day of the accident, Patil had suggested they take a ride out to the Rush River for a swim, Kieler testified. He picked her up in Centreville where she was petsitting, and about 30 minutes later they were at the traffic light at Clevenger’s Corner. She said she remembered seeing the trooper and even made eye contact with him.
After Patil passed the trooper, said Kieler, without warning he “gunned down on the throttle.”
She reported hearing the siren and seeing the cruiser’s emergency lights reflected in the motorcycle’s rearview mirror. She was crouched low for fear of being blown off the bike and told the court she was pounding on Patil to slow down.
Goff asked how, at the rate of speed they were going, she could hold onto Patil and pound on him at the same time. She replied that “on the straightaways, I could pound on his leg. Normally, I would tap him on the leg and he would slow down.” She claimed to have pounded on him almost continuously during the chase.
When asked if Patil had ever exceeded speed limits before when she was riding with him, she said that sometimes he had gone as fast as 100 mph and that she had told him she wouldn’t ride with him if he did it again. At 100 mph, “I thought the wind would get under my helmet and suck me off the bike,” she said.
Kieler told of her injuries as a result of the accident — nine broken bones, several broken teeth and a fractured eye socket. She said she spent five days in the hospital immediately following the accident; then, subsequently, four surgeries, two intensive periods of rehab and weeks in a wheelchair. She is undergoing physical therapy and still has trouble walking, she said.
During cross-examination of the witnesses, Patil’s attorney, David Bernhard, tried to cast doubt on their testimony. He returned time and again to transcripts from a preliminary hearing in December, pointing out apparent inconsistencies in details of their accounts, and trying to make the case that Patil was unaware that he was being chased by law enforcement officers.
In his cross-examination of Kieler, Bernhard tried to get Kieler to take some responsibility for the accident, citing a Skype exchange between her and Patil in which she said, “I love it when you drive fast and change lanes a lot.” Kieler said she meant that going 70 mph was fun, not 100 mph or higher.
Bernhard pointed out that none of the previous witnesses had observed Kieler pounding on Patil’s back, but she insisted she had pounded on him to get him to slow down. Bernhard asked if Kieler had turned her head to see if they were being chased. She replied that she couldn’t totally turn her head, but that she could look slightly to the side and see blue lights.
Further trying to establish that his client, Patil, couldn’t have known he was being pursued, Bernhard asked if Kieler and Patil were listening to music on earbuds under their helmets. After being shown her previous testimony, she admitted that they had been listening to music.
On redirect, Goff asked if Kieler had in any way encouraged Patil to drive fast on the day of the accident. “No,” she replied. Had he ever driven this fast before? “No.”
Bernhard called one last witness, Patil’s mother, who testified to the extent of her son’s injuries, saying it took many months for him to recover.
The jury began its deliberation shortly after 6 p.m. and was still meeting at 8 p.m. when Patil entered an agreement pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of eluding or disregarding a police officer (amended from a felony charge of eluding that includes endangering an officer or another person); reckless driving endangering life, limb or property; and reckless driving at speeds over 80 mph.
He was sentenced to a total of 30 months in jail with 14 months suspended. In addition, his license was suspended for 18 months. He will undergo two years of supervised probation upon release from jail and was ordered to pay $1,327 in court costs.
After sentencing, Patil was remanded into custody and taken to the Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional jail. Judge Douglas Fleming made no remarks other than to praise the attorneys for vigorously advocating for their clients.