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This story was updated Tuesday, June 18, 2019, at 6:44 p.m. with more information.

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Theonda Thorne

The subject of a high-speed, 100-mile police chase late last week was wanted in connection to "numerous" robberies against the Hispanic community in Chattanooga, Hamilton County court records show.

Nineteen-year-old Theonda Thorne, aka T.J., a known Athens Park Bloods gang member, is one of two known suspects in the crimes, which took place over the course of two days in late April. The second suspect, Thomas Sales, was arrested on April 20.

 

The robberies

Thorne and Sales allegedly robbed at least four Hispanic victims in at least three separate incidents on April 17 and April 19, court records show.

The first took place in the 3900 block of 7th Avenue just after 10 p.m. on April 17. Police spoke to a woman who said she and a friend were robbed at gunpoint by two men.

The woman and her friend were sitting in a vehicle when the two men approached them and demanded the woman's cellphone and her friend's belongings, she told police. The victims complied, and the robbers fled the scene.

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Thomas Sales

Two days later on April 19, investigators were called to Erlanger to speak to another victim, a man, who had been robbed in the 3700 block of 5th Avenue.

Through a translator, the man told police he was walking to his front door from his yard when two armed men approached him from behind and demanded money.

The man said he told them he had no money. Regardless, the two suspects pistol-whipped him and took his wallet from his pocket. The wallet "contained nothing of value and two debit cards bearing his name," an officer wrote in a criminal affidavit.

"[The man] sustained severe injuries to his brow and forehead," police noted.

Just three hours later at about 4:57 p.m., the third robbery took place. This time, in the 1500 block of Willow Street.

The victim in that incident was also taken to the hospital and spoke to police there.

He told police he had just gotten home from work and was unloading his truck when two armed men walked up to him and demanded money.

The man said he tried to run away, but the suspects chased him around the truck, knocked him to the ground and pistol-whipped him. They then went through his pockets and took his wallet, which contained $1,600 and an identification card.

All three victims described the same car: a white, newer model Nissan four-door sedan. And they all gave the same or similar suspect descriptions: tall, thin, black men wearing white or grey hoodies.

 

The investigation

While police say there haven't been any additional reported robberies of Hispanic individuals in the area, members of the Hispanic community have been targeted for many years, said Stacy Johnson, executive director of La Paz Chattanooga.

"Certain Hispanic populations will not open bank accounts or they may hold cash on them so that does make them more of a target for robberies," she said.

That's often because they don't know how to open a bank account. But La Paz has worked to educate people on how to do that and encouraged them to report crimes.

"We have done a lot of work with the Chattanooga Police Department, holding information sessions and workshops, introducing the Latino community to the police department and creating trusted relationships so that if something like this does happen, they are more likely to report," she said.

And over time, reporting has gotten better but there is still room for improvement, Johnson said.

"People are reporting things more now than they ever have," she said. "But I definitely think that there are a lot of things that go unreported as in the past."

With the April robberies, just two hours after the last robbery on April 19, investigators spotted a car matching the suspect vehicle in a driveway in the 1700 block of Wilcox Boulevard.

The vehicle, a Nissan Sentra, was white and had dark tinted windows and damage to the rear passenger side door.

Officers tried to stop the vehicle, but the driver evaded police.

Instead, officers made contact with Sales, who was in the Wilcox Boulevard house where the car had pulled in.

Sales was taken to the police station for questioning after telling police that his friend "T.J." (Thorne) had just dropped him off.

In the meantime, police obtained a search warrant for the house and found a black handgun and an assault rifle. They also found a white and grey hoodie and 37.6 grams of marijuana.

Over at the station, Sales waived his right to an attorney, court records state, and told police he was in the vehicle when Thorne and another unknown man got out and robbed a Hispanic man. It's not clear if police are still looking for a third suspect.

Sales echoed what the victim said, that he was chased around the truck and then pistol-whipped.

After the robbery, Sales said, they went to Hamilton Place mall.

Surveillance footage showed the Nissan park near J.C. Penney just 30 minutes after the third robbery. Thorne and Sales are seen getting out of the car and going into the mall. They leave the mall about 40 minutes later and 40 minutes after that, Sales was in custody.

Thorne, however, was on the run.

 

The high-speed chase

He was placed on Hamilton County's 12 Most Wanted list in early May and was spotted in Knoxville driving a grey Nissan Altima on June 14. He "rammed multiple US Marshall vehicles" and then got on Interstate 75 to flee back to Chattanooga, court records state.

For 100 miles or more, Thorne evaded local, state and federal officers from multiple agencies.

The pursuit finally came to an end just past exit 11 in Ooltewah. A Chattanooga police officer was waiting for him at that exit.

The officer saw the vehicle traveling south on I-75 in the left emergency lane at speeds of up to 130 mph. The officer said Thorne's vehicle lost control, hit a concrete divider, spun out and hit another driver.

"Mr. Thorne not only endangered his life, but risked hundreds of lives as he recklessly fled from law enforcement for over 100 miles," police wrote in a criminal affidavit.

After a brief struggle, he was arrested and booked into the Hamilton County Jail. He faces a slew of charges, including three counts of aggravated robbery, felony evading arrest, aggravated assault on police and felonious reckless endangerment.

Thorne is one of 55 defendants in a racketeering indictment against the Athens Park Bloods, a criminal street gang that prosecutors say participates in homicides, robberies, drug deals and witness intimidation.

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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