By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – An ex-con, unlicensed tow truck driver suspected of stealing cars. An astonishing high-speed chase through the streets and onto the sidewalks of Providence and North Providence, ending with the fugitive slamming the truck into his own residence and mistakenly trying to hide in the backyard of an off-duty cop who grabbed him and held on.
Five injured law enforcement officers and numerous smashed police vehicles. A flurry of gunfire resulting in the suspect’s sister receiving a flesh wound.
It sounds like the script of a B movie, but it all really happened last Wednesday.
At the epicenter of the action, firing rounds at the tow truck which was bearing down on him, was a young North Kingstown police detective serving on a prestigious R.I. State Police joint task force.
In fact it was Det. Tyler Denniston, 28, with six years on the NK force, who first spotted Sean Sparfven, 30, an ex-convict with a long criminal record, who was being investigated for using the tow truck to steal cars and resell them to scrap yards. The task force had been investigating Sparfven for some time, according to Col. Steven G. O’Donnell, state police superintendent.
On Sept. 19, he says, at about 2 p.m. in the Mount Pleasant Avenue area of Providence, Denniston saw the tow truck pass him, recognized it from a police bulletin and followed it to a North Providence salvage yard.
His subsequent attempt to arrest Sparfven for driving without a license set off a chain of events that would range across two municipalities, culminating in the arrest of Sparfven, of 31 Edgemere Ave., Providence, for assault with intent to murder and numerous other charges.
Denniston and fellow task force member state police Det. Herbert Tilson were assaulted, says O’Donnell, when Sparfven allegedly punched Denniston in the face and then tried to run down both officers with the tow truck. As the scene unfolded, Sparfven reportedly sideswiped Denniston’s car and rammed Tilson’s head-on with such force that the vehicle being pulled by the tow truck flew off into the street.
The fact that the young NK detective was in the middle of the action doesn’t surprise his boss. After all, he nominated Denniston for the task force based on these very qualities – his ability to quickly assess situations and take decisive action with the confidence of a veteran.
NK Police Chief Thomas J. Mulligan explains that, typically a nomination for an officer to be considered for a task force is the result of “an individual’s work performance; how he carries himself as a police officer allows him to be considered.”
Denniston’s name was put forward, Mulligan recommended him but, ultimately, it was O’Donnell who selected him for the elite group.
The son of a state trooper and active in police charitable work, Denniston is “a good officer, well-grounded,” says Mulligan. “[He exemplifies] the individual officer keeping his wits about him and knowing what’s going on. That’s why he’s in detectives and why his name was submitted to the Colonel.”
Denniston made a name for himself on April 2, 2008 when he captured a bank robber who was being chased by officers from several towns, the state police and a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter on night training.
The pursuit started in Charlestown, continued throughout South County and included police from Westerly, Narragansett, Hopkinton, Richmond, South Kingstown, the DEM and K-9 units.
At 4 a.m., Denniston – who had been monitoring the situation – pulled a car over for speeding on Post Road and discovered Michael Dirocco, 25, of Warwick, in the passenger seat. After presenting fake I.D, Dirocco told Denniston he’d robbed a bank.
“This was an example of Tyler being aware and doing a good job,” says Mulligan proudly. “Big arrests are a credit to him.”
He believes the task force experience is another major step for a promising and talented officer. “Working up there broadens his horizon; he’s exposed to more. He has the potential to learn a lot from the officers in that task force. He’s been there six to eight months part-time. Typically, the assignment is for a year but it depends on his interactions with the task force, how long they want to keep him.”
It’s entirely possible, Mulligan feels, that O’Donnell may want to hold onto him a while.
“He had quite a day,” he says of the tow truck chase.
The book on Sean Sparfven, says O’Donnell, includes driving up on the sidewalk, narrowly missing collisions with other motorists, hitting a cruiser in North Providence and smashing into a task force vehicle in Providence.
A joint investigation is being conducted by the state police, North Providence police and the state attorney general’s office. Denniston and Tilson are on leave while the shooting is sorted out, which is standard practice. Denniston was unavailable for an interview because of the ongoing inquiry.
Sparfven was arraigned on two counts of assault with intent to murder, three counts of assault with a deadly weapon, simple assault, resisting arrest, eluding police, reckless driving, mayhem, hit-and-run, two counts of leaving the scene of an accident involving personal injury, driving without a license and four counts of possession of a stolen car.
The car theft charges were the result of the original task force investigation into Sparfven’s activities.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.