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Updated: Arson suspect flees in squad car (w/video)

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Jennifer Hillard, 35, of Alexandria.2 / 2

The window separating the back of an Alexandria squad car from the front was only 11 inches by 11 inches, but a woman who had been arrested at a downtown fire on Sunday was able to squeeze through that window and speed off.

Police said the suspect, Jennifer Hillard, 35, Alexandria, drove east on Douglas County Road 82 at speeds of more than 100 mph, when officers began to give chase. She was eventually stopped by Minnesota State Patrol troopers who put down spike strips near Sauk Centre.

After reviewing video, Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels described Hillard as “a very small lady” who was able to slip a hand free from a set of handcuffs while in the back of the squad car. Wyffels said Hillard kept her hands behind her back and waited until the arresting officer left the squad car to consult with a sergeant about what charges she might be jailed on. That’s when she made her move.

“One of the logical things to try is the sliding (window),” said Wyffels. While the sliding window was shut, it was not securely latched.

“You might think the (window) is shut but if the pin is not in the hole, it’s not shut,” Wyffels said.

With the squad car already running, the suspect drove off.

Squad cars are routinely left locked running in such situations to allow the emergency lights and radio equipment to operate.

Once in the front seat, Hillard was able to drive off.

Wyffels said a “very observant dispatcher” was able to monitor the car’s location and knew it had left the fire scene while the officer was still in the building.

The dispatcher informed officers the squad was heading east on County Road 82 near McKay Avenue toward Osakis. Before officers started their pursuit, Hillard was driving at speeds between 100 and 126 mph.

An officer from the Osakis Police Department intercepted Hillard as she was entering the city and gave chase. Other agencies assisted in the pursuit until a Minnesota State Trooper was able to deploy stop sticks, ending the chase.

There were no personal injuries reported or damage to property, other than to the Alexandria squad car, which will need two new tires and rims, Wyffels said.

According to the Douglas County jail, Hillard is 5-feet tall and 110 pounds. She made an initial court appearance Monday on charges of arson, theft of a motor vehicle, fleeing a peace officer, driving while impaired, possession of a controlled substance, reckless driving and speeding related to the fire and the chase. Her next court appearance is set for Nov. 14.

The episode started when police and firefighters were called to a fire on the 500 block of Broadway at 6:41 p.m. Sunday.

A police officer used an extinguisher to put out the fire and the apartment was believed to be empty. But police found Hillard hiding in the ceiling tiles of the apartment.

“Which wouldn’t be the best place to hide in a fire,” Wyffels said.

Hillard fell through the tiles and into an adjoining laundry room.

Police said Hillard was found to have a methamphetamine pipe in her possession along with a lighter.

Hillard has previous convictions in 2009 in Douglas County, including a gross misdemeanor conviction for driving while intoxicated.

Wyffels said the situation will be addressed with the officer who had the squad car stolen, but the officer will likely not face any serious disciplinary action. Wyffels did not name the officer.

There were three Alexandria officers at the fire scene as well as the Alexandria Fire Department.

Assisting Alexandria police were the Osakis Police Department, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Minnesota State Patrol, Todd County Sheriff’s Office, Sauk Centre Police Department and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office.

Wyffels said the woman’s small hands and frame made the drive-off possible. He said usually cases of sliding out of handcuffs involve children.

As for getting through the window, “There are very few human beings that could climb through there,” Wyffels said.

“The egg on our face is the latch wasn’t latched,” Wyffels said but added that Alexandria police and other responders did a lot of things right in reacting to the emergency.

Wyffels said that considering the fire and the high speeds on a well-traveled county road, “It’s

amazing nobody got hurt.”

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Celeste Edenloff contributed to this report.