Furious chase nabs underground racers

18:10, Dec 31 2012

R D Copper's pickup was puttering down a rural highway on a Sunday morning in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley when a showroom's worth of luxury sports cars roared out of nowhere and made a beeline for him, police said.

The 15 or so customised BMW M3s, Lexuses and a McLaren zoomed closer and closer at speeds of up to 160 kmh. They weren't going to stop. Copper had no choice — he veered to get out of the way.

The wild scene got even stranger: Using handheld cameras, the Washington area drivers filmed the moment the pickup lurched onto the shoulder and they blew past.

They'd messed with the wrong man. Copper is a retired lawman, and he was not amused. He called for backup.

His reports sparked a furious 32 km chase across two counties, pitting officers from four rural law enforcement agencies against the drivers, some of whom they would later learn were part of an underground crew of drivers known simply as Mischief.

Once the chase ended, authorities determined that the incident was the most high-profile involving Mischief, which has created a series of gritty, controversial and Billboard-charting DVDs that have documented white-knuckle street racing, stunts and crashes on the Capital Beltway and roads across the Washington area. They are a real-life counterpart to the Hollywood pyrotechnics of the The Fast and the Furious franchise.

Mischief is part of the "import tuner" scene, which has gained popularity in recent decades with the rise of import cars on American roads and has been described as "new age hot-rodding."

In the old days of muscle cars, a driver might customise a car's parts to increase power. Import tuners also often tweak the computer system that controls the engine to maximise performance — a sort of hacking meets hot-rodding. Cars that come from the factory with 200-horsepower engines can be retuned to have have three or four times more power.

Mischief stands out for having the hottest cars and producing the slickest videos — in an area that's not particularly known for this kind of daredevil driving.

Those associated with the group have had numerous run-ins with the law. Their videos have drawn the ire of police, who say they glorify dangerous driving and could entice young drivers to emulate what they see.

"They are a tragedy waiting to happen," said Captain Susan Culin, commander of the police traffic division in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County.

"When you have racing or aggressive driving on public streets, you can expect a dangerous life-threatening outcome."

The impresario of the group is Dustin Worles, a Charles County, Virginia. resident who plays a "Jackass"-style joker in the tapes and has hair gelled up as if he were perpetually driving a convertible.

And this being a street-racing crew in the uber-achieving Washington area, Worles's associates include a band of drivers, according to Mischief's website, who work in buttoned-down Washington during the week and burn rubber on weekends: a CEO of a Maryland tech company, an executive at a Manassas, Virginia, car dealership and a computer engineer, among others.

The CEO and engineer were not involved in the Shenandoah incident.

Authorities said the crew's driving that morning was reckless enough to warrant jail time, but to put Mischief out of action, they would have to catch the members first.

Augusta County Sheriff's Deputy Trevor Ross said his radio crackled about 10.40am on November 11. It was a quiet Sunday, and he was out on patrol in the area of Staunton, Virginia, the county seat about three hours southwest of Washington.

"Any units in the area of 262 and Lee Highway," he recalled the dispatcher saying. "Report of vehicles driving recklessly."

Ross was off. Soon after, the dispatcher reported that the drivers got off on Highway 250. Ross said he thought, "I can catch them." He flipped on his lights and sirens and picked up the pace.

Highway 250 runs up Shenandoah Mountain, where the road bunches into sharp curves. Ross said he would need to reach them by the mountain's 1000-metre crest or risk the drivers escaping into neighbouring Highland County. It would be close.

Somewhere up ahead, Worles was speeding along in a black BMW M3, while Arash Dashtaray, the executive at Dash Motors in Manassas, Virginia, was in another vehicle in the pack, police later determined. Neither would comment for this article.

The type of driving seen that Sunday is common in the Mischief Web videos and DVDs, which they claim have sold hundreds of thousands of copies since the series launched in 2002.

In one, a BMW M3 careers off a road — in what is identified as Maryland's Montgomery County — at a high rate of speed.

In another, a sports car is seen weaving through traffic on the Beltway at a high rate of speed, as if in a video game. In a third, Mischief records two motorcyclists involved in a 200-kmh police chase on an Arizona highway.

Law enforcement said they were unaware of any injuries related to Mischief's videos, but the type of driving on display has been responsible for injuries and numerous deaths on the region's roads over the past five years.

Just how close to the lines of public safety the drivers would skate became dramatically clear on Highway 250, police said.

In footage recovered from the Mischief cameras, a driver is seen cutting across a double yellow line to pass a slower motorist — and ends up right in the path of an oncoming pickup, police said.

With less than 50 metres between the vehicles, the truck's driver is seen pulling off the road to avoid a crash, police said. The car's driver weaves back into his lane and tears down the highway.

At another point on the video, a car is seen executing a similar manoeuvre in the path of a trash truck, which is about 100 metres away, police said.

Neither near-collision caused any injuries, but authorities said that at least four drivers were run off the road that Sunday.

Ross chased Worles, Dashtaray and the rest of the crew for roughly 30 km with lights blazing. Half the drivers zoomed across the Highland County line, where they were stopped by waiting deputy sheriffs.

Ross caught up with — and surged ahead of — the other half of the pack on a winding, mountainous stretch of Highway 250. But he broke off the chase when it became too dangerous to continue.

He managed to pull over two of the cars behind him. Then he realised that five others had turned around and gone back down the mountain to elude him. On the video, police said the drivers can be heard performing the manoeuvre: "Turn around or they are going to get us all!"

But Mischief didn't have a way out. The drivers who turned around ran into a police roadblock at the bottom of the mountain.

In all, 15 drivers were pulled over in Augusta and Highland counties in what police said was likely one of the biggest street-racing busts in recent Virginia history. Officers confiscated handheld cameras from five of the cars and impounded the vehicles. Ross said that the drivers were "laughing and joking like they just pulled over to talk."

Police were surprised to find that the crew had taped the run. The type of videos that had given them underground cachet could provide crucial evidence at a trial in February. Police said the tapes also showed that the crew had been drag racing on Highway 81 in Rockingham County the same day.

So far, the drivers are facing reckless-driving charges, but armed with more than an hour of tape, authorities said they are exploring additional counts of racing and eluding police. The drivers could face jail time.

"I was surprised we didn't have a crash," Ross said. "I kept expecting it and expecting it."

-Washington Post