It's a story that would have all the makings of an action-packed Hollywood thriller, if it weren't for the very real -- and serious -- consequences that played out across several rural middle Tennessee towns this week: a wanted man who police said was dangerous and armed with a shotgun, doing everything he could to not get caught.
Police say in the span of three days, 36-year-old Aaron Gooch would steal at least five cars, lead police on at least three chases and even tunnel through hotel room drywall to free himself from a police dragnet.
The Donation Jar
The saga began on Friday, when Gooch placed a to-go order at Camino Real Mexican restaurant in Dickson. Surveillance cameras in the restaurant show Gooch, who was wanted on auto theft charges, eyeing a donation jar set out by the restaurant co-manager, Maria Lopez.
One of Lopez's employees, Nadia Garcia, had just been killed in an apartment fire in Dickson earlier that week, and Lopez was taking up donations for her family. More than $2,000 was in the donation jar, according to Lopez.
Surveillance footage shows Gooch looking side-to-side, waiting until no one was around. Then in one quick motion, Gooch took the donation jar -- hiding it under a coat in his hand -- before quickly turning and leaving the restaurant with the money.
Gooch wasn't seen or heard from until Monday afternoon, around 4 p.m., when police officers in the Humphreys County town of McEwen say they spotted the stolen Buick he was driving.
The Getaways Begin
Police tried to pull Gooch over, but he wouldn't stop, according to McEwen Police Captain Michael Pate. A pursuit followed, with Humphreys County Sheriff's Deputies joining. After several minutes, dash-cam video shows police deployed spike strips to stop Gooch, but after running over the strip, he continued driving down Highway 70 on just two intact tires.
Gooch's girlfriend, Courtney White, was in the passenger seat. As Gooch turned off the highway and onto Booker Lane and other increasingly rural roads, White stuck her hand out the window in a sign of surrender.
As Gooch drove his car into a wooded area, the terrain proved too much for Captain Pates patrol car, and it lost power steering. Pate and other officers and deputies chased Gooch on foot.
Pate says Gooch drove the Buick further into the woods where it got stuck in mud, and Gooch got out and ran away in the thick brush, managing to flee from deputies and a Sheriff's Office K-9 named Crockett that lost Gooch's scent in a cow field, according to the Humphreys County Sheriff's Office: getaway number one.
Police managed to arrest White, who stayed in the car after Gooch ran off. Inside the vehicle, police found about $220 of the missing donation jar money, which was returned to restaurant manager Maria Lopez later Monday night.
More telling, however, was what else McEwen police say they found in the car: syringes. Police said Gooch is hooked on crystal meth and heroin, and the needles they found had wet blood on them.
“That’s letting us know that he’s on a binge,” Pate said.
Pate said later Monday evening, Gooch stole a vehicle from Superior Farm & Pet Food Center in Waverly, driving it to Benton County, where he got into a second pursuit, ditched the vehicle and ran away again: getaway number two.
After ditching his second car, Pate says Gooch made his way to the Best Western in Camden.
When Gooch’s girlfriend was arrested Monday, she told McEwen police they had booked a room at the hotel through Tuesday. That tip brought police to the hotel Tuesday morning, and led to Gooch’s most incredible escape of all.
The Hotel Room Escape
Benton County Sheriff’s Deputies were prepared for a man hopped up on drugs. They knew about the syringes found in Gooch’s car the day before.
“If a guy gets this far along on drugs, you don’t know what he’s going to do because he doesn’t know what he’s going to do,” said Benton County Sheriff Ken Christopher.
But deputies were not expecting what Gooch was about to do to escape the hotel room after deputies surrounded it.
Christopher says deputies got in contact with Gooch inside his room at the Best Western, and told him he was surrounded. He agreed to come out, but he said he wanted to call his mother first.
Christopher says in the time the deputies let Gooch supposedly call his mother, he busted through his back hotel room wall using a broken off table leg from his room.
He then entered a tiny corridor, tunneling in between the hotel room walls – no more than a foot and a half wide – and made his way to the end of the building, passing by several rooms inside the wall space, navigating around plumbing and electrical wires along the way.
“It’s a very narrow space that he got through, no one would have even suspected you could even get through there,” Sheriff Christopher said.
At the end of the building, Gooch busted back through the wall, into a room where someone was staying.
Gooch told the occupant he was with “maintenance,” and he ran out the door of that room, toward freedom once again.
He found a 1984 red and white Chevy pickup truck belonging to a hotel maid, and sped away in it: getaway number three.
As the manhunt continued Tuesday night, law enforcement across three middle Tennessee counties asked neighbors to remain on alert for Gooch – a man deputies said was potentially high on meth, and now, armed with a shotgun.
A misunderstanding over a green Jeep Wrangler parked at the Elks Lodge in Camden Tuesday led to false reports that Gooch had stolen another vehicle. But according to Sheriff Christopher, no one had seen or heard from Gooch since stealing the red and white pickup Tuesday morning.
Deputies tried pinging his phone, but they say he had shut it off hours earlier. Deputies found the pickup in a field a little more than eight miles south of Camden on Highway 641. The engine was busted.
Wednesday morning, the father of Gooch's girlfriend said he called Dickson Police, saying Gooch may be back in Dickson in another stolen vehicle -- this time, a 1989 Chevy S-10.
Dickson police sent out an alert, and someone sent in a tip that Gooch and the Chevy may be at the Roxy Theater in Dickson.
When police approached, Gooch took off again, leading to a short pursuit in Dickson in which police say Gooch rammed one of its police cars, and attempted to ram at least one other, causing that officer to collide with another cruiser. Police eventually managed to box Gooch in.
There would be no getaway this time.
As for how Gooch got back to Dickson, Benton County Sheriff Ken Christopher says Tuesday night, he thinks Gooch stole yet another vehicle, a 1988 Cadillac, about a mile south of where he dropped the red and white truck off.
Christopher says somewhere along the line, Gooch ditched that vehicle (they haven't found it yet), and he ended up in Dickson in the Chevy S-10 that he was found with Wednesday morning.
The “Grip” of Meth
McEwen Police Captain Michael Pate says Gooch’s run, which started when he stole the donation jar from Camino Real, exhibits an all too familiar pattern among meth addicts.
He said the charges of petty theft and the other minor crimes addicts are initially wanted for are soon supplanted by car thefts and vehicle pursuits.
“They just get on this run where it’s just – pursuit, ditch the vehicle, steal another one, pursuit, ditch the vehicle,” Pate said. “It’s just the repetitive daily drug use that drives all this criminal activity.”
Benton County Sheriff Ken Christopher said Gooch’s behavior, while more prolonged and extreme than other addicts, is indicative of the stranglehold that drastically changes the lives of meth addicts.
“The grip’s amazing,” Christopher said. “It’s amazing the hold that it takes on you, and I don’t know where it’s going to end, because the drugs keep getting stronger and the addiction keeps getting stronger.”
Restaurant Donations Increase
Camino Real restaurant manager Maria Lopez said Wednesday she was relieved to hear that Gooch had finally been arrested, five days after first stealing the donation jar for the Garcia family and escaping time and time again.
“It was like a movie,” Lopez said. “I was afraid he might even come after me.”
Since the original jar was stolen Friday, Lopez said more donations for the fire victim’s family had been pouring in. Eric Thornton, a local attorney who owns the complex that houses Lopez's restaurant, promised to match donations Lopez received until this upcoming Friday morning, up to $5,000.
“I think we may end up with even more money than was in the jar in the first place,” Lopez said.
Lopez thanked the Dickson community for the generosity of her neighbors and law enforcement that she says came through before, during and after Gooch’s long run from the law.
“I just want to say thank you to all the officers, and everyone who helped us to get through this,” Lopez said. “I’m very blessed.”