The early Sunday morning heist of a marked fire department SUV sparked a lengthy police chase that spanned three towns and only ended when the alleged thieves slammed the stolen vehicle into a snowbank in Eastport.
Suffolk County Police arrested Raymond Peruggi and Corey Smith, both 23 and from Center Moriches, at around 8 a.m. Sunday when they crashed the stolen vehicle—a 2012 Chevrolet Tahoe belonging to East Moriches Fire Department Chief Bryan Kelly—into a snowbank along Montauk Highway in Eastport, near Tuttle’s Mower Shop, while trying to elude pursuing officers.
Both Mr. Peruggi and Mr. Smith, who authorities said led police from multiple departments on a 41-minute chase that began in Brookhaven Town and continued onto Riverhead Town and Quogue Village in Southampton Town, have been charged with third-degree grand larceny, a felony.
Suffolk County Police have declined to say if it was a high-speed chase, though a public information officer would only say that “nobody here would venture to say that their actions weren’t reckless.” Authorities said Mr. Peruggi was behind the wheel.
Mr. Peruggi and Mr. Smith were arraigned Monday in Riverhead before Suffolk County Justice Paul Hensley and both entered not guilty pleas. Bail was set at $30,000 for Mr. Peruggi and $20,000 for Mr. Smith. Neither had posted bail as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office central records department. Both men were scheduled to return to court on Wednesday.
Police said Mr. Peruggi and Mr. Smith, whom they described as friends, were caught on security footage stealing the running SUV from the parking lot of the Center Moriches Firehouse on Main Street sometime before 1:15 a.m. Sunday, when the vehicle was reported stolen. Volunteer firefighters with the East Moriches outfit were covering for their counterparts in Center Moriches because it was the night of their annual awards dinner, which was being held off-site.
“My guys were protecting their district overnight, so I came in to check in on them,” Chief Kelly said when reached on Sunday afternoon. “They’re my guys, so coffee, a bite to eat, whatever they want, I came to check on them. They’re my guys.”
Chief Kelly explained that as a trained paramedic who works part-time for several districts, in addition to serving as fire chief, he carries oxygen tanks, an Artificial External Defibrillator (AED) and certain drugs in his car. These items, he said, need to be kept at a certain temperature to function properly.
“If I’m not home for the night, I always keep [my vehicle] running. It is a force of habit,” Chief Kelly said. “There isn’t a chief’s car on the island that isn’t left running for long periods of time with the keys in it, because most have the same things. If someone tells you otherwise, they are lying.”
At around 1:15 a.m., Chief Kelly said he got a call to assist as a paramedic, ran outside and discovered that his SUV was gone.
“The cameras caught it all—I mean, it was pretty simple,” he said. “They just jumped in and took it.”
According to County Police, surveillance video from the Center Moriches Firehouse shows the two men entering the vehicle and driving east on Montauk Highway. Suffolk County immediately sent several patrol cars, as well as their aviation units, to canvass the area but were unsuccessful in locating the SUV.
Then at around 7:20 a.m., either an off-duty police officer or firefighter spotted the stolen vehicle on Route 25A in Rocky Point, according to police. Officers then followed the suspects east through Shoreham and Riverhead before turning south into Southampton Town. They made it as far as Quogue Village before turning west and, later, crashing into the snowbank in Eastport.
Mr. Peruggi and Mr. Smith were immediately arrested and transported to the 7th Precinct in Shirley.
No accidents occurred during the chase, and no injuries were reported, according to authorities. Chief Kelly’s Chevrolet Tahoe, however, lost a passenger side tire and also sustained front-end damage after slamming into the snowbank.
As the stolen vehicle crossed over into different jurisdictions, Suffolk County Police notified local departments—Riverhead Town, Southampton Town and Quogue Village police—to assist them in the chase. A county police aviation unit also assisted in the pursuit.
The chase lasted 41 minutes, ending at 8:01 a.m. in Eastport, according Southampton Town Police Sergeant James Cavanagh, who noted that his department was contacted at 7:42 a.m. He added only two police vehicles were in pursuit of the stolen SUV at any given time, as dictated by police protocol. Suffolk County Police had the lead chase vehicle.
“The additional units hang way behind, directed by a dispatcher,” Sgt. Cavanagh said of the throngs of police vehicles that residents reported seeing Sunday morning. “We don’t caravan out of concern for the safety of innocent pedestrians and the people in the stolen car as well. It was only a property crime—we want to keep them safe, too.”
Suffolk County Police said they attempted to use tire deflation devices, otherwise known as “stop sticks,” to disable the vehicle during the pursuit, but they were unsuccessful.
Chief Kelly said his SUV was in pretty bad shape, both inside and out, but that it should be salvageable.
“They were inside the car drinking and they beat it up pretty good,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re just really happy the police did a great job and they kept these maniacs away from people getting hurt. Even though it wouldn’t be our fault necessarily, we would’ve felt awful if something happened.”
Asked if he knew why his car was targeted, besides the fact that it was running, Chief Kelly said: “I don’t know. You’ve got to be pretty crazy to do it … I wake up in the middle of the night and leave my wife and kids to check on my guys, and next thing I know I’m driving around until 5 a.m. looking for my car.”