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McDonough County sued over deputy’s fatal high-speed chase

Tammy Mellenthin, mother of James Mellenthin, addresses the media while attorney John Spesia and family members look on. “Our hope is that when the sheriff’s deputies are held accountable, no family will ever have to mourn a death of their loved one,” Tammy Mellenthin said.
Rich Egger
Tammy Mellenthin, mother of James Mellenthin, addresses the media while attorney John Spesia and family members look on. “Our hope is that when the sheriff’s deputies are held accountable, no family will ever have to mourn a death of their loved one,” Tammy Mellenthin said.

The family of James Mellenthin filed a wrongful death lawsuit over the high-speed chase that ended in a crash that killed the Cottage Hills man.

“We hope that it will result in justice for the Mellenthin family,” said John Spesia of the Joliet-based law firm Spesia and Taylor during a news conference in Macomb.

“We also hope that the lawsuit that we filed … will put an end to high speed vehicular pursuits by the McDonough County sheriff’s office that needlessly endanger the motoring public in McDonough County.”

The suit, filed Thursday, Oct. 26 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois in Rock Island, names the county, its sheriff’s department, Sheriff Nick Petitgout, Deputy Evan Schmalshof, and Deputy Nicholas Ruggio.

It also claims the deputies violated Mellenthin’s rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 4th and 14th Amendment during the chase on Jan. 27, 2023.

“The deputies acted with deliberate indifference and deprived James Mellenthin of his life in a manner that shocks the conscience,” Spesia said.

“Our federal courts have recognized that a police officer in a high-speed pursuit turns into ‘a speeding bullet.’ That’s exactly what happened here, and that speeding bullet caused the death of James Mellenthin.”

The suit asks for a jury trial. Spesia said it will be up to the courts to determine how much to award to the Mellenthin family.

McDonough County State’s Attorney Matt Kwacala declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying he had not been served.

Sheriff Petitgout said he does not comment on pending litigation.

The chase

As TSPR has previously reported, Macomb police initially pursued Mellenthin in town after receiving a complaint from a woman who said he was following her.

Mellenthin sped away when officers approached, and Macomb police decided to give up their pursuit.

“McDonough County sheriff’s deputies unilaterally decided to join a pursuit by the Macomb police department without being asked to assist,” Spesia said.

He said that was the first of many violations of the county sheriff’s department’s policies.

A passenger in Schmalshof’s vehicle said the chase reached speeds of up to 140 mph. Schmalshof eventually caught up with Mellenthin between Macomb and Industry, and tried several times to pass him.

Dashboard video shows Schmalshof narrowly avoided colliding with an oncoming vehicle during this time, according to the lawsuit. Eventually he was able to pull alongside Mellenthin’s car.

“As he traveled alongside James Mellenthin’s vehicle at a speed of more than 100 miles an hour, Deputy Schmalshof deliberately steered his squad car across the center line of Route 67 back into the lane of traffic that was occupied by the Mellenthin vehicle,” Spesia said.

The vehicles then collided. The lawsuit refers to this as a Precision Immobilization Technique – known as a PIT maneuver.

“Deputy Schamlshof caused deliberate physical contact with the rear left quarter panel of the Mellenthin Pontiac. That caused the rear of Mellenthin’s vehicle to move laterally and cause the Mellenthin vehicle to rollover and leave the roadway,” Spesia said.

Mellenthin was thrown from his car. He died at the scene.

A history of chases

The lawsuit alleges that McDonough County sheriff’s deputies – including Schmalshof – repeatedly violated the department’s Vehicular Pursuit Policy with impunity.

The 45-page document lists three other high-speed pursuits involving Schmalshof – on August 11, 2021; March 3, 2022; and on August 9, 2022.

The suit said that during the March 3, 2022 chase, Schmalshof drove the front bumper of his vehicle into the left rear quarter panel of the vehicle he was pursuing, and then used a “rolling road block driving maneuver” that caused the other vehicle into a ditch before it struck a field entrance.

In all three cases, Schmalshof did not obtain permission to pursue from a supervisor, and the suspects in all three cases were wanted only for misdemeanors, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also alleges that that after each case, the department failed to document or investigate whether Schmalshof acted appropriately. In addition, he received no additional training, warnings, or reprimands and the department took no disciplinary measures.

The lawsuit characterizes Schmalshof’s pursuit as being “conducted in a manner which shocks the conscience, with deliberate indifference and/or reckless disregard for the life, liberty, and property of James Mellenthin.”

Fatal chase nearly 20 years ago

The lawsuit also refers to a 2004 high-speed chase involving Deputy Tom Pledge. As he walked up to a vehicle during a traffic stop north of Macomb, the driver sped away.

That led to a chase that reached estimated speeds of around 100 mph. The chase ended when Pledge’s car crashed into a minivan at Route 67 and University Drive on the north edge of Macomb.

The crash killed Jill Dayton of Libertyville, who was a passenger in the minivan. The vehicle was driven by her daughter, Amanda Dayton Nehring. She was injured, as was Pledge.

The county was sued over that chase and reached a settlement in 2019. The county’s insurance company paid $2 million. The county negotiated its payment down to $1.8 million. To cover the cost, the county issued bonds, which are being repaid with county tax revenue.

The suit said the sheriff’s department never disciplined Pledge for that chase.

Spesia said his law firm represented the Dayton family in that case.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.