Fugitive feared drowned after river escape

By Alexandra Newlove

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RIVER SEARCH: Search and rescue experts scoured the river for the missing man, after he dived into the river following a police chase. Top right is the spot where the man entered the river. PHOTOS/ALEXANDRA NEWLOVE
RIVER SEARCH: Search and rescue experts scoured the river for the missing man, after he dived into the river following a police chase. Top right is the spot where the man entered the river. PHOTOS/ALEXANDRA NEWLOVE

Swift currents and murky water on a rain-swollen river are hampering police who may be on the hunt for the body of a man who fled officers on Thursday night.

But police say it is unclear whether the man got into trouble in the river and drowned, or swam away and successfully escaped after he led police on a 70-kilometre chase, finally abandoning his car and jumping into the Mangakahia River and quickly disappearing into the darkness.

Two officers and a police dog were chasing the man after he pulled over in a rest area on Mangakahia Rd about 3km north of Parakao at 7.30pm. He drove to the edge of the rest area and ran off, before jumping into the Mangakahia River, which was swollen from rain.

Yesterday, Police Search and Rescue scoured 45km of river and bank. The search was hampered by the fast-flowing river which was a murky brown and swollen with rain.

Northland road policing manager Inspector Wayne Ewers said there were grave concerns for the man's safety and police were urgently trying to confirm who he was. Late yesterday police were still not sure if they were looking for a body, or a dangerous driver.

"We do have concerns for his safety," Mr Ewers said. "The officers chasing him heard a splash ... they've then seen a person dog-paddling away, but it's dark and wet and they've lost sight of him."

The calamity began when police attempted to stop the driver as he sped along Western Hills Dr near Central Ave at 6.40pm doing 100km/h in a 50km/h zone.

"He's done a U-turn, two passengers have got out - in no particular hurry - and he's taken off and gone up State Highway 14," Mr Ewers said.

The blue Subaru WRX Impreza Saloon then led police on a 50-minute chase along 71km of rural roads. The vehicle was spiked twice before it reached the rest area on Mangakahia Rd. The car was recovered by police with its front tyres entirely worn off.

Police were asking the passengers who hopped out of the car to come forward. One of them was believed to be known to police.

Mr Ewers said it was hoped the man had escaped the river and in this case, there may also be someone in the Parakao area that had assisted him.

Police were appealing for any information about the man. Contact Whangarei Police on 09 430 4500 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

- Northern Advocate

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