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Hit-and-run accidents: 32963 inquiry finds few serve jail time

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of May 31, 2012)
Photo left: Deputy Jim Ooley, who teaches course in accident investigation. Photo bottom: Hit-and-run victim Shakerria Williamson

A young, dark-haired man entered an Indian River County courtroom a few days ago to face justice for causing an automobile accident with injuries, then fleeing the scene.

Nine months before on US 1 in Vero Beach, Jeffrey Ekblom, whose license was suspended, ran a red light in a white PT Cruiser and crashed into a blue Honda driven by Linda Cassano.

Ekblom, 31, took off, as Cassano, 62, was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.

A witness, however, got Ekblom’s tag number, which led to his arrest, prosecution and sentencing last Wednesday, when a county judge gave him 45 days in jail, $225 in fines and a license suspension.

What is notable about this case is how rare such outcomes are in Indian River County, where few hit-and-run drivers are prosecuted and even fewer serve any jail time – even when they are identified.

A Vero Beach 32963 investigation found that of 121 hit-and-run accidents in 2011, 11 accidents left victims with injuries. While information as to the identity of the hit-and-run driver was available in seven of the 11 cases, only two were ever prosecuted and only Ekblom got any jail time.

This raises new questions about the quality of law enforcement investigations and the follow-through of prosecutors.

On December 15, 2010, Beverly Kennedy, 82, was knocked down and run over by a hit and run driver in the parking lot of Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Vero Beach. She died nine days later, making the case a homicide.

But a weak initial investigation by deputy Jim Ooley on the night of the hit-and-run made it impossible to arrest the person who eventually became the prime suspect.

The case got a lot of attention because Kennedy died.

But Ooley and his supervisor both told 32963 that unless a death occurs with a hit-and-run, sheriff’s office investigations tend to be cursory. Ooley’s lax investigation on the night Kennedy was hit – when it appeared to be an injury not a death – they both said was “business as usual.”

Jim Harpring, attorney for the sheriff’s office, disagreed. Thorough investigations of hit-and-run cases where there are injured victims are of utmost importance to the sheriff’s office, he said.  And if they are not investigated properly, he said, the sheriff’s office looks into it – as it did with Ooley, who was disciplined.

Ooley, now a road patrol officer, teaches the course in traffic accident investigations at the police academy.

To get a better sense of where the truth lies when it comes to how aggressively the sheriff’s office investigates hit-and-run accidents with injured victims, 32963 looked at all of the hit-and-run accidents in Indian River County in the year after Kennedy’s death.

Donald Cushman, 87, is among those Vero Beach residents disappointed in how these investigations were conducted.

In September, Ruth Avenius, 95, his companion of 18 years, was walking across the cul-de-sac near their home in west Vero Beach, when he heard a thud.

He ran outside and saw her lying behind a neighbor’s vehicle. Blood was pouring from the back of her head and she was unconscious. Another neighbor called 911. An ambulance arrived, but no deputies.

By the time a deputy showed up about two hours later, the scene had been cleared.

The neighbor who owned the car said the marks on her Mercury were pre-existing, and that Avenius must have been so frightened by the sound of the motor that she fell on the road and cracked her head open.

The deputy visited Avenius in the hospital and found her unconscious. The investigation was closed with no charges.

Records show that the hit-and-run suspect who was never charged had received three speeding tickets in the past four years and a fourth for running a red light.

After more than a week in the ICU, Avenius spent three months in rehabilitation, but could never walk again and required 24-hour care. She died a few weeks ago.

“The officer apologized for taking so long to get here,” said Cushman. “He said it was a communication screw-up.”

A few weeks after Avenius was hit, Shakerria Williamson, 46, was sitting in a lawn chair in a front yard in west Vero Beach, when a woman veered off the road into the yard and ran over her left, lower leg. Williamson went to the hospital in an ambulance.

When a deputy arrived on the scene, witnesses gave him the tag number and the name of the neighborhood woman who hit Williamson. Nevertheless, the deputy did not investigate.

It was not until Williamson, a respiratory therapist at Indian River Medical Center, filed a complaint that sparked an internal affairs investigation that the suspect was arrested.

But the charges against her – she already had a criminal record for theft and cocaine possession – were dropped shortly after.

Williamson, who is still having leg surgeries from her injuries, is unable to work nine months later.

“The message I took from how this was handled is that I don’t matter,” she said.

In November, another hit-and-run victim went to the hospital when a driver ran through a red light in central Vero Beach and collided with the car of Tom Ridge, 80, who had the green light.

Ridge was discharged from the hospital the next day. But a month later, he returned with constant dizziness and nausea.

Doctors discovered bleeding in his brain, and he had emergency brain surgery. Now, six months later, he has frequent mini-strokes and can no longer drive.

“I can’t begin to measure the loss of finances and quality of life I’ve suffered,” he said.

The suspect, who was driving without a license and fled the scene, was identified by a witness and subsequently arrested.

“The deputy was conscientious,“ said Ridge.

Records show that the driver, Cesar Solis, had previous arrests for underage drinking and driving without a license, and that he received probation.

For causing the accident that left Ridge debilitated, along with leaving the scene and not having a license, he received probation again.

“What Solis did was a criminal act,” said Ridge. “He should have done jail time.”

In June, a jogger, running on a grassy strip off 87th Ave. in west Vero Beach, was grazed by a Chevrolet pickup.

While Sean Verne, 47, didn’t have lasting injuries, he was perplexed by the reason given by the deputy for not arresting the hit-and-run driver – especially since two witnesses said they saw him drift off the road.

One of the witnesses got his tag number, and Verne called the sheriff’s office with it when he got home.

But the deputy dropped the investigation because he said Verne should have called immediately from the accident location.

“How could I?“ asked Verne, “I wasn’t jogging with a cell.”

The deputy wrote in the accident report: “Verne left the scene without reporting the accident,” and closed the case.

In two of the 11 crash-with-injury reports, addresses given by deputies for victims do not exist.  The long-time residents of the home listed in one report didn’t know the hit-and-run victim or why their address was in the report.

In one of the reports, the hit-and-run vehicle was identified by witnesses, but a deputy believed the vehicle owner when he said he didn’t know who had been driving his car – even though he was described by witnesses and had a history of careless driving.

Oddly, in the 110 cases where no bodily injury occurred, the motivation to make an arrest seemed greater when stationary property was destroyed by a hit and run driver than when a person was hurt.

Six drivers, who damaged poles, signs or structures and left the scene were charged with misdemeanors. (Ooley made one of these arrests.)

In three other cases without injuries, hit-and-run drivers were not charged with leaving the scene because they told deputies they left because they felt threatened.

“In my case and some others, you get the feeling the deputies don’t want to be bothered,” said hit-and-run victim Sean Verne.

Our review of cases with injuries showed that assessment to be accurate about half of the time. Unless the victim filed an official complaint with the sheriff’s office, nothing was done to remedy what appear to be lax investigations.

Harpring, the general counsel for the sheriff’s office, said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the quality of hit-and-run investigations without carefully reviewing each case.

But he offered this general comment: “I have great confidence in the men and women from this office out there on the street doing their jobs every day.”