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An interview with the police chief whose officers chased a John Deere farm tractor
Andy LeBeau of the Boone Police Department has been an officer for three decades. But he'd never prepared for what happened this week: An hour-long, 20 m.p.h. pursuit of a dude on a large tractor.
On Tuesday, I made a tweet:
So far, that tweet has been viewed more than 2.2 million times. Do you know what happens when a tweet is seen by that many people? They all make the same jokes. Dozens and dozens of replies were some version of “Nothing runs like a Deere.” Many, many people made George Jones and Vince Gill and Grand Theft Auto references. A lot of folks thought that this was The Most Boone Thing Ever, as if there wasn’t already a very long list of The Most Boone Things Ever.
However! There were a lot of genuine and legitimate questions about this hour-long pursuit of a John Deere tractor through Boone which—as you can see in the original TikTok video taken by a dude ostensibly rippin’ a cig on the side of the road—topped out at 20 miles per hour. Who was driving that thing? Where did he get the tractor? Why couldn’t police stop him sooner? Why not knock him off the side of the highway?
For answers, I called up Boone Police Chief Andy LeBeau, whose department was in hot pursuit of a very slow tractor. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
RABBIT HOLE: How long have you been in law enforcement?
CHIEF ANDY LEBEAU, BOONE POLICE: I've been doing police work for 32 years. I’ve been chief in Boone for two years, but I've been with the Boone Police Department for 20 years.
RABBIT HOLE: Had you encountered anything like this before?
LEBEAU: No. I've only seen stuff like this on TV, where you have a person driving a large vehicle that is intentionally ramming people or things or vehicles. I've only seen that on the news. So, yeah, we had this tractor. Someone stole the tractor and drove into town and started driving it toward people in a parking lot and then rammed a truck, and then rammed a dumpster and pushed it into a church building. Then our officers got there and the chase was on, as silly as the chase was.
The man's driving on Highway 421. It's pretty well-traveled and the tractor’s crossing the center lane, driving towards oncoming traffic, creating a real hazard. It was a decent size tractor. We were contemplating: How we are gonna stop this tractor? There was discussion about using our vehicles, but we really didn't feel like that would be effective because he would just be able to push us out of the way.
RABBIT HOLE: So, you don't train to stop a guy who's running loose on a tractor. Unless I'm missing something.
LEBEAU: No, no, that is not normal policing.
We thought: we gotta make up a plan here. Of course we don't want to create excessive danger to the public, and certainly we have use of force law and policies, and we wanna make sure we're doing everything lawfully. But we gotta think outside the box here because he's not stopping. And he's showing an indication that he wants to potentially harm other people.
RABBIT HOLE: How is this discussion unfolding? Are you on the phone with people? Are you on the radio with all your officers? Who's saying, Hey should we try this? No, we shouldn't should do that? How does this discussion happen while you're dealing with this guy who's driving down the road?
LEBEAU: Our patrol captain was out there running the situation. I'm at the office and I'm listening to it. I called the captain and discussed the fact that he's on the road that heads to an elementary school, and he’s driving his tractor intentionally at other vehicles. He's hit vehicles. He's rammed a police car. So even though we know this person, he's being dangerous. So we just said hey, he can't get to that elementary school. We can't allow that to happen.
RABBIT HOLE: Wait, you know this person?
LEBEAU: Yeah, Ronnie Hicks is one of our local homeless folks. I think every single one of my officers—including me—is familiar with him. You know, if people have mental health issues or substance abuse issues, I really don't like to discuss that, it’s kind of their business. He's a sad case, but obviously he can't do stuff like this. He’s been arrested for other things in the past.
RABBIT HOLE: Has anything in the past risen to this level?
LEBEAU: There have been serious issues, but this one was a little bit over the top.
RABBIT HOLE: Objectively, it’s a little bit comical if you're an observer, watching this tractor roll by 20 miles-per-hour with police pursuing the tractor at a very low speed. It looked like a parade.1 I've seen a lot of questions from people online: Why is this so hard? Why can't you like cut him off? Like, why can't you do the PIT maneuver? Why did it go on for so long? What's so hard about stopping a guy who's only moving at 20 miles an hour?
LEBEAU: With the vehicle he’s in, it'd be kind of like taking a Toyota Prius and putting it in front of a monster truck. Tractors are designed to lift heavy things. They have an extremely heavy base and huge wheels. The one police vehicle that he did hit? It bent the frame. The rear ends are so heavy. The traditional PIT maneuvers that sometimes you see the highway patrol use? Our vehicles just aren't big enough to take on a tractor2. So yeah, we just had to follow while we're basically trying to figure out how we're gonna disable that tractor.
We tried stop sticks, but tractor tires are very thick. It wasn't working. So I said hey, I know there are isolated areas out there where there are no homes, businesses, and cars. I said if you have to, use your rifle essentially as a stop stick to flatten his tires. So they found a place that was isolated enough to do that, and put a couple rounds in his back tires to deflate them. It partially deflated them, but not fully, because we found out that sometimes farmers fill their back tires with liquid to create weight, so they're kind of self-sealing. But that got him to turn down the side road, almost into the middle of nowhere, away from the school. He got about, I don't know, 1,000 feet or so from the school. So we were happy to get him diverted.
The front wheels have gone flat. He's got one back tire that's getting really low. He turned on a private drive and there was a gate there, and that's when he decided to make a run for it.3
But I agree with you. When I look at the video as a police chief, I'm like, oh gosh that looks horrible. But there's just not a magic button you can press that makes a person—well, I think it's pretty clear that he wasn't thinking logically. We did charge him with DWI, so we fully suspect that he was impaired by some substance. So, yeah, how how do you stop him? It's a good question. In this case: A combination of stop sticks and shooting his tires in an area where it's safe to do so.
RABBIT HOLE: The shooting of a tire feels like it’s from Dragnet. I thought to myself: They don’t do this in real life, do they?
LEBEAU: Well, as I told the captain, if that’s what he had to do to stop it, do it. I was just thinking: I can't believe I just told my captain to do that. But if he's being a threat to the community and heading towards an elementary school, we gotta stop him.
RABBIT HOLE: So, was he in a car, like, sticking out the window?
LEBEAU: Oh no. No no no no no. That would've been a little bit crazy. He got up ahead of him where he could take a shot. The guy that took the shot is the commander of our SWAT team. He's very well qualified. He was my pick to do this unpleasant duty. And he did hit the tires and not the person. So that's mission accomplished in terms of what he was trying to do.
RABBIT HOLE: Whose tractor was that?
LEBEAU: He stole it from a barn outside of town and then drove it to town.
RABBIT HOLE: Did the owners know it was stolen?
LEBEAU: The sheriff had to track them down. They didn't know it was gone. We knew it was stolen right away because the man driving it was Ronnie Hicks. I mean, everybody knows him and knows he doesn't have a tractor. He doesn't have a car. We knew obviously it was stolen because we we knew who was driving it as soon as we saw him.
RABBIT HOLE: Are tractors hard to steal? I don't actually know the answer to that.4
LEBEAU: Well, I've never stolen one and I'm not much of a farmer. So that probably also put me at a little bit of a disadvantage, having to make decisions about how to stop a tractor.
RABBIT HOLE: Were you like, hey, I need to call a farmer, does anybody know a farmer?
LEBEAU: I don't have farmers on my speed dial!5
RABBIT HOLE: So, hundreds of thousands of people have seen this video and have reacted to it. It looks funny, but it’s also serious. What do you think about the attention?
LEBEAU: In hindsight, I absolutely see the humor in it. But, I’ll leave that to the citizens to have fun with it. I've seen some really hilarious comments, and of course, the Dukes of Hazzard music played under the video. I appreciate all that stuff, you know, but I'm being a public servant and the police chief. I tend to play the more serious card. I mean, this is a story where I can be serious and the community can have fun with it and and that’s fine. It’s the 15 minutes of fame, and hopefully something else will happen somewhere else, and the spotlight will be off of us.
RABBIT HOLE: As officers, is this is a story you'll be telling for a very long time?
LEBEAU: There's no doubt 20 years from now at a retirement party, they'll be talking about this pursuit. But we probably don't have quite the excitement level or anticipatory excitement about getting into a pursuit, because most cops that I know don't like them. I really hate them. I mean for me, they're a necessary evil at times. We have guidelines and policy about when we do it. You constantly have to weigh the danger to the public versus continuing the pursuit. Are we creating a more dangerous situation by pursuing them, or should we just back off so they'll go back driving normally? In this particular case, clearly the guy wasn't going to drive normally, he was trying to hit people before we got there. Backing off for us in this case wasn't an option. It wasn't fun while it was going on. It was a challenge, but like you mentioned, there’ll probably be stories for years to come about the tractor chase.
Some people wanted to know why there were so many cop cars in pursuit. Major Shane Robbins of the Boone Police provided me with some context there: “Our guidelines are to have two primary pursuit vehicles and a supervisor for typical chases. This was not a typical chase. Officers, deputies, and troopers were actively involved in warning motorists, stopping traffic prior to intersections, deploying stop sticks, and any other actions they could initiate to lessen the risk to the public. This was a very unique and fluid event.” Since Boone Police started the chase, they were permitted to stay with it even after it left the city limits.
Robbins told me another reason why his officers wouldn’t ram someone to stop a chase: “We do not currently train our officers in the specific use of the PIT maneuver. PIT is designed to induce vehicle instability. Tractors, in general, are designed with a low center of gravity and wide stance for stability. This tractor weighed approximately 10,000 pounds. Our patrol cars weigh less than half of this weight. This would have further diminished any chance of a PIT being successful.”
I also have no farmers on my speed dial, so I asked for context from farm tractor enthusiasts and experts. That, somehow, led me to be connected to North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, who just absolutely LOVES tractors. His office provided this quote from the insurance commissioner: “That’s a John Deere farm tractor, 2 wheel drive, 40-99hp range, similar to a model 4030 or 4630 etc. Looks like a wood splitter on back hooked up to 3 point hitch. Hope they throw the book at that idiot. Total disregard for public safety.”