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LOWELL -- For four teens who had just broken into an empty house on Fifth Avenue yesterday morning, he was the last person they wanted to see.
Not the homeowner. The Lowell police chief.
"It's no big deal," Police Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee insisted to The Sun yesterday, back in the office after he led the charge of a dozen officers to the scene of the burglary. "There were multiple officers on the scene. I really don't want to put myself in some extra limelight."
The break in-progress was phoned in by an alert neighbor about 8:45 a.m., when almost all of the city's on-duty patrolmen were attending morning roll call.
At the time, Lavallee was driving near School and Pawtucket streets. He crossed the School Street bridge and went straight to the scene.
"The chief shot right over there and was the first officer on the scene," said police Lt. William Busby, who acted as the on-scene commander during the manhunt in the Pawtucketville neighborhood. "The chief spooked 'em and the four of them took off running and split up."
Lavallee then chased the men on foot for quite a distance, keeping them in sight as long as possible so he could tell other officers where they went.
By 10 a.m., a police search party -- including Lavallee, Officer Eric Hyde, who had been on traffic duty at the nearby McAvinnue School, and three off-duty officers who left private work details -- had cordoned off a three-block section and found three of the four male suspects hiding in backyards throughout the neighborhood.
"I was just one of many officers who responded," Lavallee repeated when asked about his role in the arrests. "The other officers did all the work, a great job."
But the chief does deserve credit for being the first-arriving officer and providing the descriptions and direction-of-flight information that were both keys to the arrests, according to Busby.
"He was actually the one that confronted the suspects and gave chase initially, and knew the general direction they were running so we could get them cornered in a two- or three-block area," Busby said. "Then we just started going yard-to-yard and fished 'em out. It worked out pretty good."
All of the suspects will be charged with breaking and entering in the daytime with intent to commit a felony. Police identified two adult suspects as Lowell residents Carlos Cruz, 17, of 5 Wright St., and James Ortiz, 18, of 85 Bellevue St. A third suspect, 14, will be charged as a juvenile.
The fourth suspect escaped, but detectives learned who he was and arrested him about 5:45 p.m. on Mammoth Road. Christopher Concepcion, 17, of 6 Ardell St., was charged with attempting breaking and entering, breaking and entering, and larceny over $250, police said.
Last night, detectives said they were investigating whether at least one of the four boys was also responsible for other housebreaks in the immediate area.
Evidence, including household items possibly taken in the break-in, was recovered from one suspect at the time of his arrest, police said.
The four suspects appear to have learned the hard way about a tradition of street-savvy police chiefs that dates back many years in Lowell.
"When I started here, (Chief) Jack Sheehan had that perspective of being a streetwise cop, and even prior to him, Chief (Leonard) MacPhail was also out there (making arrests)," Lavallee said. "So it's really not new for us. It's a tone or philosophy that's continued here through the years up to (most recent former Chief) Ed Davis, and beginning long before that."
In his first year as chief, Lavallee has established a habit of providing hands-on assistance with arrests. He has been involved in a drunken-driving arrest, an underaged-drinking arrest, and a search for a GPS thief. He also cited a man who rear-ended him in front of the police station.
Earlier this month, Davis, who is now the Boston police commissioner, technically a civilian position, was credited with arresting a shoplifter outside a Boston supermarket.
Lavallee admitted last night that he could not remember the last time he engaged in a foot pursuit. Asked if it was several years, he said "at least."
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