Family of Tennessee drowning victim accuse police of failing to help him

Johnny Baldwin, 24, had led officers on a chase before ending up in tributary of Tims Ford Lake.

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By David K. Li

A man fleeing police ended up in a Tennessee creek and eventually drowned — with officers a short distance away and refusing to help him, his family said Friday.

Johnny Baldwin, a 24-year-old from Warrenville, Illinois, drowned in Boiling Fork Creek in Winchester, Tennessee in the early morning hours of June 4, at the end of a chase by Winchester and Decherd police officers, authorities said.

In a statement to NBC News on Friday, Winchester police said officers don't have water rescue gear and couldn't help Baldwin. The responding officers did call for a water rescue team, but Baldwin had drowned by the they they arrived, police said.

"Officers are not trained in water rescue," according to the police statement. "Officers do not know how to handle a drowning person who is fighting to stay alive."

But Lance Northcutt, a lawyer for Baldwin's family, said no swimming was required and that a policeman's baton or a branch would have been lifesaving tool.

"He was right there. They ordered him to comply and he was there," Northcutt told NBC News. "They have to get a branch or do something to save this man’s life."

Officers were trying to stop Baldwin for alleged erratic driving at about 1:43 a.m., but he drove away and eventually wound up on a dead end road before fleeing on foot, according to a Winchester police report.

"We searched the area for the suspect when I heard something in the water and when I got to the edge of the lake, I could see a white male halfway across the lake," the report said.

Body camera video from one of the officers, obtained by the family, showed that it was dark and Baldwin appeared to be swimming with his head above water with at least one officer shining a flash light and talking to him. Baldwin was only 10 feet off the shore, according to police. NBC News does not know what happened before the video started.

"Get over here dude, come out man," said one officer, who Northcutt identified as the supervising sergeant on the scene. "Well then swim, your dumb ass jumped into the river."

Baldwin eventually vanished from view as one officer looked like he was removing equipment to jump in.

"Naw don't get in, don't get in there," said the man Northcutt identified as the sergeant. "Naw don't get in there with him, he's going to pull you down."

Baldwin was in Tennessee visiting an aunt, the family said.

"I think he was at the very end of his physical struggle," Northcutt said, explaining why Baldwin suddenly vanished from view. "He was begging to be helped. The tragedy is they didn't have to jump into the water for him to be alive."