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Hit-and-run: Will real story ever emerge?

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of August 2, 2012)
Photo: Sydney Saunders and Ben Harvey at scene of hit-and-run.

In early June, Miranda Dean, while driving her father’s beige CRV, slammed into a black moped with two passengers on it. As Sydney Saunders and Ben Harvey lay in the middle of 16th St., seriously injured and bleeding, Dean, they say, waved at them – seemingly out of touch and unconcerned with their plight – and drove off.

Which raises a question central to the criminal charges filed against Dean last week: Why? What was going on with Miranda Dean that caused her to hit two people, then wave at them and flee?

Within 30 minutes of injuring Saunders and Harvey, Dean, still driving, hit a mailbox, went through a hedge and hit a parked Mazda, a few miles away. After the second accident, witnesses said they saw Dean in the car with her head back and her hands by her side – instead of on the wheel – to all appearances unconscious.

She had vomited and urinated, said police, further suggesting a loss of control over bodily functions. When police arrived, she repeatedly asked what had happened.

Based on DNA matches, the damage to her car and victims’ descriptions, Miranda Dean, 20, was charged with leaving the scene of an accident with injuries in connection with the accident involving Saunders and Harvey.

But driving under the influence or driving while impaired will not be part of the charges – despite what witnesses said they saw at the second accident site.

Here’s why:

When police arrived at the second accident scene, they didn’t smell alcohol on Dean’s breath and didn’t see a reason to do a breath test. Also, her lip was bleeding and she needed to get to a hospital.

When Dean arrived at Indian River Medical Center in an ambulance, hospital technicians drew blood, which was later used in a toxicology report to see what substances – if any – were in her system. The hospital ran tests which are not as discriminating as toxicology deciphering would be at a crime lab.

While tests for alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and opioids came up negative in the hospital toxicology report, police had no way of knowing if Dean had taken something else that could have caused her impaired state.

That’s because City of Vero Beach Police, who arrived at the scene of the second accident, couldn’t get a blood draw to send to a crime lab to check for a wider range of substances because they needed either probable cause – witness accounts of her unconsciousness were apparently not enough – or Dean’s permission, or a death or seriously bodily injury caused by the second accident.

While there was seriously bodily injury to both Saunders and Harvey at the first accident site, police said they couldn’t clearly connect those injuries to Dean’s apparent out-of-it condition at the second crime sight, where there was no injury.

She could have, they reasoned – trying to anticipate what a defense attorney would say – ingested something after the first accident because no one but the victims were witnesses of the first accident. And, Saunders and Harvey couldn’t say if her odd behavior probably meant she was under the influence of something.

“Was it indifference, drugs, a mental problem or something else?”  asked Saunders.

Whatever the cause, it was not evident at the hospital the night of the wrecks.

“Many drugs that cause impairment won’t show up in a hospital general screening – like LSD and Spice (synthetic marijuana), to name a few,” said Indian River County Medical Examiner Arnold Mittleman.

Virginia toxicologist Joseph Saady said: “Hospital toxicology reports are usually limited to certain classes of drugs and leave out a number of substances not in those classes, which is why a more comprehensive screening is necessary – especially with the variety of substances we see ingested today.”

The day after the crash, Miranda Dean’s father, Mark Dean, told police that his daughter was not a drug-taker or drinker, and probably had an undetected medical condition which caused her to seem out-of-it and crash twice.

To that end, she had tests. 

A few weeks after the two accidents, a 32963 reporter knocked on the front door of the Dean home on a wooded cul-de-sac in southwest Vero Beach.  Dean’s father came to the door.

While he expressed regret for what the victims were going through, he said he had to be closed-mouth because Miranda’s lawyer had advised them not to talk to reporters. Hearing her father at the door, Miranda walked from the back of the house to see who was there. 

She was slightly stooped, as if weighed down by something heavy, despite being very thin. Her face was extremely pale but streaked with red splotches from crying. But what was most startling about her appearance was about a dozen blue wires sticking out of her head connected to her scalp with ovals of white tape. The wires coiled down her neck and upper torso connecting to a blue pack she carried like a shoulder bag.

The device was measuring her brain’s electrical signals to identify a possible short circuit. Initial tests had shown she had seizures, offered her father. Now, they were looking for causes.

Seizures as in epilepsy?  Was Miranda Dean a victim of an undetected medical condition that caused her to have the two accidents?

“Most seizures aren’t epilepsy,” said Vero Beach neurologist Stuart J. Shafer. “What causes them depends on a lot of factors and can be very complicated. It may or may not be medications. Drugs are very common, but often we never determine a cause.”

The Deans will not say if they got further information about the cause of seizures, although that might come out in court, if it benefits her defense.

Prosecutors have been barred by the court from getting those medical records.

Meanwhile, victim Sydney Saunders, 19, has learned that more is wrong with her than a fractured right ankle, injured left knee and numerous scrapes and lacerations that required stitches. Recent tests show spinal problems, and she is having more tests to determine the cause of migraine headaches.

Her boyfriend, Ben Harvey, 28, who was driving the moped when they were hit by Dean, begins physical therapy this week to try to restore motion lost by severe breaks to his collarbone and his ankle. Harvey, too, is having complications with his neck and back.  He recently received bills for $140,000 for his hospital stay and helicopter transport.

He will never understand, he said, how Dean could hit them both and drive away.

“We may never know what caused Miranda Dean to behave the way she did,” said Saunders. “All we know is what she did to Ben and me, and how much we’re still suffering.”