GRAND FORKS - The man who stole a Grand Forks police car and died minutes later in a crash on Interstate 29 Monday was facing three felony charges when officers tried to arrest him outside a Dollar Tree store.
Two Grand Forks officers met 33-year-old Jordan Lee Poitra in the parking lot at 1719 S. Washington St. after being called to address what Lt. Derik Zimmel said was an "unknown problem" around 5:10 p.m. A scuffle ensued as officers attempted to arrest Poitra on an outstanding warrant. He stole a patrol car and, shortly thereafter, hit a semitrailer on I-29 in what the Highway Patrol is investigating as a "deliberate act."
Zimmel said Tuesday that many details are still unclear from the initial call for service. He said Poitra may have been one of the 911 callers that brought police to the Dollar Store.
"A lot of that is still to be determined through the investigation," he said. "The bottom line is there was a call for officers to speak to a male subject and it was unclear what the nature of the problem was."
Zimmel said Tuesday that officers Shawn Thompson and Brian Samson responded to the call. Poitra tried to take the weapon of one of the officers and "manipulated" the officer's holster. According to a police statement, at least one of the officers deployed a taser, but was unsuccessful in subduing Poitra.
Poitra then ran to a nearby patrol car—Zimmel said Tuesday afternoon that he doesn't know which officer's vehicle—and, at 5:22, fled the scene 12 minutes after the officers arrived.
During the scuffle, the officers suffered minor injuries. They were treated and released from Altru Health System later in the evening. Zimmel declined to detail their injuries.
Also during the scuffle, the body camera of one of the officers was dislodged. As of late Tuesday afternoon, it had not been found. Police are asking the public for help as they search for it.
After stealing the patrol car, Poitra sped westbound on 17th Avenue South and drove through the fence protecting I-29, the release said. He turned north onto the interstate and shortly after angled west, crossing the median and striking a southbound semitrailer nearly head-on, Zimmel said.
Investigators are still determining how fast Poitra was driving, but Zimmel said "it was pretty substantially high speeds—he ripped through town."
Poitra was facing felony charges of burglary, theft and unlawful entry into vehicle in Cass County. He failed to appear for court in January and a warrant was issued for his arrest. His criminal record otherwise contains misdemeanor charges, mostly driving-related.
An incident report said Poitra told officers on Dec. 15 that he quit or was terminated from Industrial Builders, 1307 County Road 17 North in West Fargo, about six months prior. At that time, he was looking for work in Fargo and the heat went out in his truck and he was cold, the report said. Poitra said he didn't have anywhere to go, so he jumped the fence and used a construction brick to break into the building, according to the report.
Poitra cooked and ate a pizza in the break room, the report said. Security footage showed him going into five vehicles.
His permanent address is unclear, but a press release said Poitra had ties to Grand Forks and court documents showed he lived in Belcourt earlier this year.
Lt. Dwight Love said the 2016 Ford Police Interceptor Utility marked unit was purchased for $27,246. Although the vehicle is covered under insurance, a new model is more costly and the change-over and equipment will cost extra. The department has a $500 deductible, Love said.
A replacement 2020 model runs for $36,731 and Love said it could end up costing around $60,000 after the modifications and equipment are installed.
Zimmel said the Highway Patrol is not investigating the scene as a crash, but rather as a deliberate act because "indications are that once he got on the interstate he steered directly into the semi."
An emergency alert was sent out around 7:20 p.m. to cell phones in the area warning drivers to avoid I-29 between 32nd and DeMers Avenue until about 10 p.m.
Zimmel said he decided to issue the emergency alert because traffic was significantly stalled and there were numerous first responders on foot. The interstate was reduced to one lane of traffic in both directions.
Zimmel was asked if responding officers broke department protocol during the incident.
The investigation is ongoing and Zimmel said he can't comment directly on procedures in place for this incident, but the procedures for how officers depart from their vehicles are generally situational.
"We're not going to have vehicles left unattended," he said. "An officer is not going to go up and do a loud party complaint with the keys in the vehicle and the vehicle running and the doors unlocked—that's not going to happen. At the same time, if an officer does a traffic stop on a vehicle and they're going to go talk to the violator, they're not going to turn the car off, take the keys out, put them in their pocket and go up and talk to that violator, so it really is situationally dependant."
Sydney Mook contributed to this report.