On what seemed to be a typical Monday afternoon, Stephen "Daniel" Southerland, a special agent with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), was wrapping up a day of conducting a planned surveillance operation as part of an ongoing document fraud investigation in Brookhaven, Georgia.
Around 4 p.m. the team decided to pack up for the evening. As they drove away from Brookhaven, a small town near Atlanta, Southerland hung back behind to get gas in his government vehicle.
By the time Southerland got on the road, his team was ahead of him and no longer within view. When he approached the main highway, something caught his eye on the other side of the street.
“There were one or two cars ahead of me,” said Southerland. “I look over and saw a female walking down one of the lanes. It’s not unusual to see random things like this in Atlanta.”
By this time, there were several vehicles now waiting at the intersection.
“I noticed a woman walking up to the passenger side of the vehicles, looking in the windows and pulling on the door handles,” he recalled. “It looked like she was trying to talk to people. We all continued to wait for the light to turn green.”
After jiggling the handles of multiple cars on the other side of the intersection, the light on that side of the street turned green. According to Southerland it seemed like the woman had given up trying to get into a vehicle on that side of the road, so she maneuvered her way through the moving traffic and ended up on the side of the street where Southerland was still waiting at the light.
“She started walking directly toward my car,” said Southerland. “It’s obvious that I’m in a police car – a silver Explorer with black windows – maybe for that reason, she skips my car and goes to one behind mine. Southerland watched from his mirror as she knocked on a driver’s window. It looked like she might be giving up on trying to get into someone’s car and she might move to the concrete median as the light turned green.
“The light for me turned green so the cars in front of me started to go,” he said. “As I took my foot off the brake something told me to check again. So, I looked in the mirror again – it couldn't have been more than eight seconds since I looked the first time.”
Southerland saw feet hanging out of the back driver’s side window. Somehow the woman was able to gain access to one of the cars behind him.
“I stopped. I'm watching for a second because I'm bewildered about what's even going on,” he continued. “In a matter of seconds, she managed to get into the vehicle and get to the front seat.”
Southerland put his vehicle in park and ran back to the car. Others who were watching this scene unfold, also ran to the car to help. As everyone is running up to the car, the woman put the car in drive and smashed into the car in front of her, which almost hit Southerland’s vehicle. She then put the car in reverse and backed up so violently into the car behind her that the driver of the car was thrown onto the road.
“She put the car in drive again and completely ran over the driver of the car,” he said. “You could see the car bounce over the driver.”
After running over the victim, she made a U-turn and started driving back toward Brookhaven. Focused on the woman who had been run over, Southerland turned on the lights in his vehicle and blocked the intersection. It wasn’t until he went back to check on the driver that the gravity of the situation became apparent: There was a baby in the backseat of the car.
“In the grand scheme of things who cares about a car right?” said Southerland. “I was worried about [the driver]. Everyone had stopped their cars and people starting to surround her and I could hear her saying ‘my baby 's in the car! my baby 's in the car!’”
That shifted the priority of the situation.
“I kind of just yelled out, the window – ‘Hey, I'll call 911 and make sure traffic doesn't hit her,” he said. “I took off after the car. I caught up with her about a half mile down the road.”
While assessing the situation, especially knowing there was a child in the back of the car, Southerland quickly analyzed the best approach to try to defuse the situation.
“I’m running scenarios through my head,” he said. “You have to make a decision – do you cause the wreck? Do you stop the car from going anymore and if so, does that prevent injury, or does it make the possibility of lesser injury greater by your own actions? I knew there was another four-way intersection coming up and if she runs the red light, she might have gotten t-boned.”
Knowing the chances of the small child in the car being hurt if the carjacker was hit driving through the upcoming intersection, Southerland considered using his own vehicle to steer the car into the guardrail. He started to formulate a plan for how he was going to do this, but the carjacker lost control and hit the guardrail. He believed the carjacker was startled once she saw the police car coming up behind her.
After hitting the guardrail, a couple of times and blowing her back tire, the car came to a stop. Southerland was relieved to hear the baby’s cries coming from the back seat of the car. In the chaos of the wreck, the carjacker got out of the car and started running across the road again.
“You have to imagine…” Southerland explained. “…this is a three-lane road with a center median. She’s running. She ran right in front of me – right across to the other side of the road. She’s on the other side of traffic now trying to check door handles.”
Back in his vehicle, Southerland once again block traffic as the carjacker continues to pull on the door handles of people’s vehicles. She approached a large pickup truck.
“As I was parking and getting out I noticed that she tried the door handle of a large pickup truck,” Southerland explained. “She couldn't get in, so she climbed up into the bed of the truck and then up onto the roof. She's beating on the windshield while lying on the roof screaming ‘let me in, let me in.’ The driver pops it in reverse, then hits the gas. It puts her over the front of the truck.”
The woman gets up and starts walking toward the next car.
“I tackled her,” Southerland said. “I kind of got her into a handcuffing position and I was holding her down. I had called the police during the chase, so they were dispatching police to the scene. The police station wasn’t very far away from the scene, so I only had her on the ground for maybe 20 seconds.”
After a little bit of a fight, the local police department was able to take the woman, who has a lengthy criminal history, away from the scene.
After she was apprehended, Southerland walked back across the street to go check on the baby. The victim had been reunited with her child. He believes someone who stopped at the original scene drove the carjacking victim, who suffered non-life threating injuries after being run over, to the scene where her baby and car were located.
This situation could have ended differently if Southerland hadn’t been in the area.
“This was the definition, the epitome, of being in the right place at the right time,” Southerland said with a smile. “I have no doubt that she would have killed or seriously injured somebody else is she wasn’t stopped.”
For his actions on this day, Southerland will receive the Department of Homeland Security’s Secretary’s Valor Medal. While he appreciates the recognition, he’s confident others would have done the same thing.
“Even though this was a rare occurrence it is nothing to get into a car chase or save somebody from a fire or whatever,” he said. “You don’t think about it as going above and beyond – it’s part of the job. It’s who we are. If you have the opportunity to intervene and help, you aren’t going to just stand by and watch.”
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