Woman mown down by 'lunatic' driver

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The Independent Online

A 26-year-old man today admitted mowing down and killing an elderly woman in a hit-and-run collision following a high-speed police chase.

Joanna Hakesley, 70, suffered serious head injuries after she was struck by a stolen red Mazda in Church Road, Copthorne, near Crawley, West Sussex, on October 28 last year and died in hospital hours later.

Driver Leonard Jones fled the scene before dumping the vehicle in an underpass beneath Gatwick Airport and escaping on foot.

He was arrested by police a few days later and again tried to flee, before eventually being captured after officers Tasered him.

He was due to go on trial for manslaughter at Lewes Crown Court today but changed his plea to guilty before it went ahead. He had also admitted two counts of dangerous driving at a previous hearing, which can now be reported.

Opening the case before Judge Richard Brown, prosecutor Richard Barton described the minutes leading up to the fatal collision as a "quarter of an hour of utter stupidity" demonstrated by Jones.

Mr Barton said the car had been stolen from outside a house in Woodside Way, Salfords, near Redhill, Surrey, just before 11pm the previous Saturday and the incident had been circulated so police in the area would look out for the vehicle.

Despite being recorded at a number of petrol stations around the Crawley area over the next few days it was not until the following Thursday - the day of the collision - that the car was spotted by an off-duty police officer.

By then a warrant had also been put out for Jones's arrest as he had failed to attend court for an unrelated incident, Mr Barton said.

After recognising the vehicle at a Texaco garage in Copthorne Road to the east of Crawley, the officer began to follow it after reporting it to police headquarters.

The court was shown dramatic film footage taken from two other police cars and the police helicopter which were then tasked to pursue the Mazda, as it sped up once Jones realised he was being followed.

The five-door saloon could be seen swerving across lanes, overtaking other cars on blind bends, and breaking violently to avoid collisions as the defendant attempted to lose his pursuers at speeds of up to 100mph.

Mr Barton said the two police cars, both using sirens and flashing lights, were then ordered to stop chasing him due to fears his reckless driving would endanger other road users.

However it appeared he was unaware the helicopter was still monitoring his progress, meaning officers were able to liaise with the police cars so they could drive to where he had stopped the vehicle.

In the footage taken from the air, Miss Hakesley could be seen to cross the quiet tree-lined street onto the pavement on the other side, while the Mazda was paused in a side road facing towards her.

As the Mazda pulled forwards slowly, the police car drove towards it in an attempt to block its path, but the car is then seen to mount the kerb and drive along the pavement to avoid it.

As Jones accelerated around the corner he struck Miss Hakesley, causing her body to be thrown up high into the air.

Mr Barton said: "It is the Crown's case that it was obvious that Miss Hakesley had been in his view, he knew she was there.

"In any event it was grossly negligent on his part to drive round a blind left-hand bend on the pavement, accelerating as he did so."

Footage filmed from the police car showed Miss Hakesley's body lying in the road while the officer frantically called for an ambulance to attend.

Miss Hakesley, who lived nearby in Bramble Close, was airlifted to the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London, but she died at around 4.30pm that day.

Mr Barton said Jones did not pause at the scene but sped off, narrowly avoiding other pedestrians including a man with a zimmer frame.

Witnesses who saw the Mazda after the collision described him as driving like a "cannonball", and "a complete lunatic", Mr Barton said, and expressed their fears that he was going to kill someone - little realising that he already had.

The police helicopter continued to monitor his movements, despite losing him for a while, and filmed him as he drove around a roundabout the wrong way before he eventually left the car at Gatwick Airport and fled on foot.

When he was arrested three days later on October 31 he refused to answer any questions put to him by police.

Sitting in the dock clean-shaven and dressed in a white shirt, Jones, of Rhodes Way, Furness Green, Crawley, watched the film footage blankly without showing any emotion.

Mr Barton told the court that he had was also awaiting sentence for a charge of burglary, which he had pleaded guilty to last December while on remand for this offence.

Mr Barton said he also had a number of previous convictions for other motoring offences while a juvenile, including driving while disqualified and not having insurance.

And he was sentenced to six years in a young offenders' institution after being convicted of a number of violent assaults in October 2001.

Judge Brown adjourned sentencing until July 5 for pre-sentence reports to be carried out but warned a substantial custodial sentence was "inevitable".

The incident was initially referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) because of the police pursuit of the Mazda before the crash but it was later sent back for local investigation.

A family tribute released by Sussex Police following Miss Hakesley's death said she was born in Broughton, Northamptonshire, in 1939.

The statement added: "She was a loving sister and someone who cared about her family and friends, especially her neighbours, whom she took it upon herself to care for.

"She will be greatly missed by all her family who cannot believe that she has been taken away so abruptly."

Detective Chief Inspector Trevor Bowles of the force's major crime branch, which conducted the investigation into the collision, said: "Jones has pleaded guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence of his criminal conduct which led to the death of Joanna while she was walking on a pavement in Copthorne on that October morning.

"He showed callous disregard for human life and during police interviews failed to answer any questions put to him or to account for his unwarranted, unnecessary and criminal actions.

"Jones has been told to expect a substantial prison sentence when he is sentenced on July 5."