Trooper dies after car hits semitrailer

Thursday, April 21, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper Ralph Tatoian, 32, was killed Wednesday when his patrol car slammed into the back of a semitrailer on Interstate 44 while he was responding to a search for a robbery suspect said to have shot a sheriff's deputy.

Tatoian, died in the crash about 4:30 a.m. near Pacific, west of St. Louis.

The rig he hit had been partially pulled off the road as its driver tried to assist with an earlier one-car accident. Tatoian apparently swerved to avoid the car from the accident and hit the truck, said patrol spokeswoman Julie Scerine. Other drivers were not injured.

Gov. Matt Blunt announced that all flags at state facilities in Missouri will be flown at half-staff to honor the memory of Tatoian.

Flags will remain at half-staff until dusk on the evening of funeral services. Final arrangements have not been announced.

Scerine said Tatoian -- a 10-year veteran of the patrol who lived in north St. Louis County -- was responding to a Franklin County search for a man who hours earlier allegedly shot a deputy investigating a store robbery in Mount Sterling in neighboring Gasconade County.

The deputy, Harold "Chris" Heitman, was treated at a hospital for a gunshot wound to the head, authorities said, even as they mourned the loss of Tatoian.

"Our heart goes out to the family of this trooper," Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke said. "He was responding to help us."

Around 1 a.m. Wednesday, Gasconade County Sheriff's deputies responded to a store robbery in progress and were confronted by a man armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, the sheriff's department said. Shots were exchanged, and during the gunfire, Heitman suffered a wound near his left eye.

After the robbery, authorities said, the suspect fled in a car, leading authorities on a roughly 30-mile chase that went into Franklin County. His vehicle eventually was disabled when troopers put down spike sticks that flattened its tires.

"I guess because of driving on the rims, his car caught fire," Toelke said.

On a dead-end road on U.S. 50, the suspect then bolted on foot into a wooded area. While officials cordoned off the area and helicopters searched overhead, a plain-clothed deputy in an unmarked truck spotted the suspect walking in an open area, about three or four miles east of Gerald, Toelke said.

As the suspect heard sirens in the distance, he ran into the woods before two deputies cornered him, and the arrest was made about 6 a.m., authorities said.

The suspect, Massigh Stallmann of High Ridge, Mo., was charged Wednesday with first-degree robbery, second-degree burglary, tampering with a motor vehicle, felony stealing, felony assault of a law enforcement officer, felony resisting arrest, and two counts of armed criminal action. Stallmann is being held in the Franklin County Jail on a $500,000 bond.

The patrol said Tatoian's survivors include his wife, Deborah, and three children -- a 14-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 7 and eight months. He is also survived by his parents, Ralph and Mary Ann Tatoian of Edwardsville, Ill.

"It seems like whenever an officer dies, there's talk about what a great guy he was, but Ralph just was," Scerine said of Tatoian, who served as a sniper with the special emergency response team. "He had these huge dimples and an infectious smile."

Interstate 44 was closed for hours near Pacific as crews cleared the wreckage.

A "Ralph Tatoian Memorial Fund" benefitting the late trooper's wife and children has been established at Bank of America. Contributions may be made at any Bank of America. Donations also may be made to The Missouri Association of State Troopers Emergency Relief Society, which provides financial aid to survivors of troopers killed on duty. Those donations may be sent to the M.A.S.T.E.R.S, 5287 Highway 67 North, Poplar Bluff, Mo. 63901.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: