AUSTIN (KXAN) — Interstate 35 northbound in Jarrell was shut down after law enforcement agencies were able to stop the stolen fire engine they were chasing at around 1:25 a.m. Thursday. This pursuit of the Austin Fire Department vehicle lasted one hour and 37 minutes and spanned around 40 miles.
The Texas Department of Public Safety tells KXAN that DPS Troopers stopped the stolen Austin fire truck on northbound I-35 by using spike strips. The department said the vehicle stopped on I-35 near the 275 exit where first responders from DPS, of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, Georgetown Police Department, and Austin Police Department, were positioned. The Austin Fire Department confirms to KXAN the truck belongs to its department.
DPS said officers on I-35 conducted a felony stop after the fire engine came to a halt and arrested the suspect who they identified as Frank Garcia Jr., 41, of Austin. Garcia was booked into the Travis County Jail early Thursday morning. DPS updated KXAN that Garcia was booked on charges of theft of property equal to or greater than $300,000, unauthorized use of a vehicle, criminal mischief, criminal theft and evading arrest/ detention with a vehicle.
DPS said Garcia stole the fire engine while it was at a medical call at the 1900 block of San Antonio Street at 11:39 p.m. Troopers said they observed the engine with emergency lights active and randomly blowing the horn.
During the interview with DPS, Garcia said he saw the fire engine with nobody around and “wanted to make it fly,” said DPS.
According to the affidavit, Garcia is currently wearing an ankle monitor as a result of a previous charge.
A spokesperson for the Austin Fire Department told KXAN that they don’t have anyone listed in their directory with Garcia’s name. The department is working to get more information on the damages their fire engine and equipment sustained.
KXAN photojournalist Andrew Choat spotted the long line of law enforcement on I-35 near the Highway 79 exit in Round Rock late Wednesday evening.
Choat said he started smelling burning rubber while he was going north on the freeway, and then several police cars sped past him.
He had his phone mounted on his dashboard and began recording. His video shows the long line of patrol units chasing the slow-moving fire truck as it weaved along I-35. Later in his video, you see the fire truck passing exit 256 near the intersection of FM 1431.
Bryan Gray, a tow truck driver coming back to town from San Antonio, said he saw police vehicles on the freeway start to converge around the I-35/State Highway 45 junction, and then once he cleared a small hill, he could tell they were chasing a fire truck.
“There was a ton of debris that came off the truck,” Gray said. “I’m talking oxygen tanks, I saw fire extinguishers, hoses. Before you knew it, there were 20-30 cruisers chasing behind him.”
Gray said law enforcement told him to stay with them during the chase just in case they needed a tow truck at the scene to assist.
“I was behind them the entire time,” he said.
Gray also saw rims from the truck on the roadway, and he heard shots of what he believed were non-lethal rounds to bring the suspect into custody. He said about 30 seconds later, he saw the suspect surrender to police.
The aftermath of the chase damaged the freeway with gouges about an inch thick, Gray said. He said there were some spots worse than others.
“That’s kind of shame for our DOT, TxDOT,” Gray said. “They just got done with this section and it looked beautiful.”
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, an alert went out to law enforcement about a stolen fire truck. Sgt. Deon Cockrell told KXAN a trooper noticed someone driving the stolen Austin Fire Department engine at 11:48 p.m. going northbound on Guadalupe Street near 41st Street.
DPS troopers and Austin police officers chased the vehicle until Jarrell.