By Genevieve Reilly

A routine "ping" on the LoJack screen led a Fairfield police officer to search for a stolen car Wednesday morning, which triggered a high-speed chase and hours-long manhunt for a Massachusetts murder suspect.

Officer Kevin Wells had just started his first day on the job with Ruger, Fairfield's new German shepherd K-9, when he got several alerts via LoJack that there was a stolen vehicle nearby.

Wells headed down the Post Road in his cruiser, thinking the vehicle probably was near Interstate 95 or the Bridgeport border. Meanwhile, dispatchers had gotten the license plate, make and model of the stolen car, but as yet had no indication that it was being driven by Thomas Gardner, a 35-year-old Massachusetts man wanted in connection with a New Bedford murder.

As Wells approached the Post Road traffic circle, the LoJack signal weakened, so he headed back toward the town's center, turning onto North Benson Road and then Kinnie Drive. The signal was getting stronger so Wells headed up to the I-95 southbound rest area. The signal strength, he said, was now at a "21 or 22" -- 25 is the strongest.

"It started pointing me south," said Wells, who was relaying the information to other officers, including Patrol Officer Jenna Sirroco who spotted the stolen car -- a silver Honda Civic -- in the highway rest area parking lot and the chase was when Gardner sped off. The chase down I-95 toward Westport reached speeds of 100 mph on the highway.

Fairfield officers were joined by Westport police in the case when the suspect got off I-95 at Exit 18 in Westport and headed downtown.

After the car crashed near Winslow Park off Post Road East, and Gardner fled on foot, Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara said it was then officials learned that Gardner was wanted for murder.

As he fled from the Westport accident scene on foot and eluded search parties for several hours, Gardner apparently hid in the ceiling of a nearby empty storefront -- slated to become a U.S. Post Office. He later told police he fell through the ceiling tiles, breaking a wrist and injuring his foot. He was treated and released from St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport.

He has been charged by Fairfield police with first-degree larceny, interfering with police, engaging police in pursuit and reckless driving.

Police continue to investigate an accident Wednesday afternoon between a patrol car, dispatched to join the search for Gardner, and two other cars at the intersection of Post and South Pine Creek roads.