Botched investigation leaves Carrabba’s hit-and-run suspect free
STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of May 10, 2012)
Photo Illustration: A Ford SUV backed over Kennedy.
On the cold winter night when Beverly Trout Kennedy was run over in the Carrabba’s Italian Grill parking lot on U.S. 1 by a hit-and-run driver, no one knew the combination of tragedy and missed opportunity that would eventually surface.
But a recently released internal affairs file, tapes from the Indian River Sheriff’s Office and 32963 interviews with witnesses and deputies give a detailed picture of the events that resulted in Kennedy’s death and the failure to apprehend the person who ran over her.
Sheriff’s deputies have a prime suspect – a prominent Vero Beach professional – who when investigators finally called had the call returned by a criminal defense lawyer.
But their findings in the hit-and-run that killed Kennedy came too late to link witness information to evidence. The result: The likelihood is the person who sped off in a black SUV leaving an 82-year-old grandmother lying bleeding on the pavement, leg crushed where he ran over her, will never have to answer questions.
That’s because the original traffic investigator assigned to the case did not investigate properly on the night Kennedy was hit.
When he did ask questions after she died days later, much of the case had gone cold. The sheriff’s office called him to task, giving him a disciplinary transfer. He contends his failure had more to do with the way things are done at the sheriff’s office than mistakes he made.
“It is so very sad, so very frustrating,” said Kennedy’s son Jack Trout, a St. Louis fire chief. “Our mother is dead, killed by a hit-and-run driver. But the time to catch that person passed with no investigation. How could that have happened?”
Here’s what witnesses and records say occurred that night:
On Dec. 15, 2010, 7:28 p.m., the stepdaughter of a prominent Vero Beach resident used a credit card to pay for a Carrabba’s dinner for her husband, her stepfather and herself.
The three walked to the parking lot, talked a little while, then separated. The stepfather – who now is viewed as the prime suspect – then got into his 2004 black diesel Ford Excursion SUV to back out of a handicapped parking space in front of Carrabba’s entrance. A witness subsequently said a black Ford Excursion was parked in the handicapped spot, and the suspect is believed to have still had his recently deceased wife’s handicapped decal.
Minutes earlier, Beverly Kennedy and husband George had also walked out of Carrabba’s after finishing dinner. She stood waiting behind the vehicle parked in the handicapped spot while her husband walked away to get their car.
About a minute later, a police sergeant from New Jersey and his mother pulled into Carrabba’s lot. They saw a dark-colored SUV speed west in the parking lot, then turn north and east toward U.S. 1. They also saw a bleeding woman lying on the ground on the edge of the empty handicapped space. Beverly Kennedy had been knocked down and run over.
Another witness, Vero Beach resident Maynard Sweigard, walked out of Carrabba’s at 7:36 p.m. and saw Kennedy lying on the concrete with blood coming from her upper left leg and ear. He too saw a dark SUV speeding west in the parking lot.
The New Jersey police sergeant told restaurant manager Scott Brinker to call 911. Brinker told the 911 dispatcher at 7:37 p.m. that a woman had been hit by a car that left the scene. Her leg was injured, he said.
Deputies Chris Rodriguez and Chris Reeve took the call, flipped on their cruiser’s flashers and siren and took off. Their in-car video showed their sense of urgency – speeding and running red lights – to get to Carrabba’s quickly.
Restaurant workers covered Kennedy with white tablecloths that soon became blood-soaked. Still conscious and able to speak, she said she did not see the vehicle that backed over her.
At 7:43 p.m., Rodriguez and Reeve arrived. Fire rescue and paramedics were already there.
Rodriguez described them as “working frantically” on Kennedy. Traffic investigator Jim Ooley was on his way, but he didn’t activate his flashers and siren to get to the scene.
Meanwhile, Reeve asked a few people standing around if they’d seen anything. A witness said he saw a vehicle leaving, but didn’t elaborate. Ooley arrived at 8:06 p.m.
Kennedy at that point was on her way to the hospital in an ambulance.
Reeve said he told Ooley that Kennedy had “a pretty significant injury ... that her leg was badly damaged.” Rodriguez said Ooley asked him if the injury was life threatening, and he responded that she was elderly with health problems and her “leg was really bad.”
In his report, traffic investigator Ooley put his arrival time as 7:43 p.m., 22 minutes earlier than his actual appearance on the scene and the time when the two other deputies got there. He also wrote two pedestrians were involved, one waiting for her spouse and another who was knocked down by a vehicle that ran over her leg.
“I confused some things in my report,” he said last week.
“There was no vehicle information available on the vehicle that fled the scene,” Ooley wrote.
There was no vehicle information available because Ooley didn’t question the people gathered in the parking lot and inside the restaurant.
“I wasn’t 100 percent correct in what I did,” said Ooley.
In a police internal affairs interview months later, Rodriguez said they asked Ooley at Carrabba’s if he needed help.
“He said no,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez listed what he would’ve done had he been the investigator that night: “I would have gotten all of the information – looked for witnesses, collected her clothes, shot down to Lawnwood and checked her condition, and checked for security cameras outside Publix.”
But Ooley, an Indian River County deputy for 10 years at the time, did nothing.
“It was business as usual with the sheriff’s office not to spend a lot of time on hit-and-runs,” Ooley said Saturday. “Things became different because Mrs. Kennedy died, and the case got a lot of attention.”
On the night of the hit-and-run, Kennedy was stabilized, then air-lifted from Indian River Medical Center to Lawnwood. A few days before Christmas 2010 and a week after she was run over, it was evident she was dying. Her last spoken wish: “I want to see my kids before I go.”
On Dec. 23, she was taken to St. Louis in an air ambulance. Early Christmas Eve morning, with her adult children and grandchildren around her, she died.
Ooley learned from the St. Louis medical examiner of her death that same day. Out sick, he returned to work three days later and began investigating.
He checked video cameras in the parking lot and the surrounding area, but found nothing incriminating. He went after credit card information on Carrabba’s customers who paid during the hour before and after Kennedy was hit. He notified a local TV station and newspaper to ask if anyone saw anything. He called the police witness in New Jersey and learned from Scott Brinker, the Carrabba’s manager, that a Black Ford Excursion SUV had been parked in the handicapped spot where Kennedy was hit.
Ooley said the information he gathered could not have been obtained on the night of the accident. That, however, was not the case. He could have learned about the SUV from eyewitnesses.
After stories appeared in Vero Beach 32963 questioning how the hit-and-run had been handled, the sheriff’s office took Ooley off the case.
Det. Mike Snowhill began investigating in mid-March 2011, three months after Kennedy was run over. He poured over 464 pages of medical records on Kennedy looking for leads. He got credit card receipts from Carrabba’s. Several customers corroborated that the vehicle speeding away from Carrabba’s at the time Kennedy was seen on the ground was a “large dark SUV.”
When Snowhill called customers, he asked if anyone with them was driving a different car. One woman, who paid her bill at 7:28 p.m., said she had taken her husband and stepfather to dinner, but her stepfather had come in his own car.
“What kind of vehicle was it?” asked Snowhill.
“A large black diesel utility vehicle,” she said.
Snowhill fell silent.
“As soon as she said it, I knew I’d cracked the case,” he said.
He ran a vehicle check on the stepfather – a prominent professional with an office and home on the Vero Beach mainland. A 2004 black Ford Excursion diesel SUV came up.
Snowhill called him immediately and got his voicemail, leaving a message that he was investigating a traffic homicide at Carrabba’s.
An hour and a half later, criminal defense attorney Bob Meadows called back and said all questions should be directed to him, not his client. Snowhill sent a list of written questions to Meadows, but heard nothing back. The suspect had exercised his right to remain silent.
Twice, the sheriff’s office impounded the Ford Excursion to look for blood or fiber on the tires or evidence on the undercarriage that would connect it to Beverly Kennedy. But investigators found nothing.
“Three months after she died was too late,” said Snowhill. “Rain on the road and normal wear and tear – or washing – would destroy any evidence that could’ve been there the night of the homicide or in the days right after.”
The suspect is not named because he has not been charged.
On April 1, an internal affairs investigator questioned Ooley about his work the night of the crash. Ooley said he spoke to Kennedy’s husband and “made contact with Rodriguez and Reeve at the scene.”
Lt. Leroy Smith asked, “Is that all you did? Anything else from an investigative perspective?”
“At that time, no,” responded Ooley.
Sounding increasingly annoyed, Smith asked Ooley why on that night he didn’t go to the hospital, talk to people in the parking lot or go inside Carrabba’s to examine credit card receipts and contact customers to see if anyone knew anything.
Smith: “Do you think your actions satisfied the regulations of crash investigation follow-up?”
“I still say yes, but I know where this is going,” said Ooley. “So I guess I did not.”
The sheriff’s office found Ooley guilty of violating crash investigation procedures and general procedures. His punishment: A lateral transfer to road patrol with the same salary.
“A slap on the hand,” said Kennedy’s son, Jack Trout, the St. Louis fire chief. “It’s hard to understand because if a traffic investigator did nothing here after a hit-and-run homicide, he’d be terminated.”
Asked Trout: “What’s the message here?”
“I know how terrible this is for Mrs. Kennedy’s family, but what I did is typical of how we investigate hit-and-runs,” Ooley told 32963 last week. “We just don’t spend a lot of time on them. This is how the agency operates.”
Senior Watch Commander Darrell Mullinax, Ooley’s supervisor, said most deputies “were shocked” that Ooley was transferred.
“We would investigate a hit-and-run fatality to the Nth degree,” he said. “But a leg being run over is different. What Jim (Ooley) did on the night of the hit-and-run when no one thought it was that serious was not unusual.”
About five months after Ooley’s lateral transfer, a deputy investigated another hit-and-run, with another pedestrian injured.
Last September, Shakerria Williamson, 45, sat in a relative’s yard on 43rd Place in Vero Beach. Suddenly, a blue Chevrolet Cavalier veered off the road into the yard and hit her, running over her lower right leg at the ankle. The female driver kept going, and an ambulance took Williamson to the hospital.
Deputy Eli Leonard responded to the 911 call. But witnesses said he ignored their efforts to give him the name of a suspect, a neighborhood woman known for driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
A month later, in October, Williamson filed a complaint saying witnesses at the scene could have identified who ran over her, but, she wrote, “the deputy wouldn’t give them the time of day.”
Williamson, a respiratory therapist at Indian River Medical Center, is in a cast and has been on crutches eight months after the hit-and-run because of complications with her leg. Her disability leave has run out, and colleagues at the hospital have had bake sales and raffles to help her pay bills.
“I am so limited. I can’t work. I can’t care for my kids,” she said. “I can’t believe the person who hit me didn’t have to pay for what she did.”
Internal affairs at the sheriff’s office subsequently found Leonard guilty of policy violations. His punishment: A line in his file telling him to “cease this conduct immediately.”
Leonard since has left the agency for security work in Afghanistan.
But the question remains: Did the lax investigations by Leonard and Ooley and their mild punishments – coupled with Ooley’s and his supervisor’s statements that these hit-and-run investigations are business as usual – suggest a larger problem at the sheriff’s office?
“The fact that we opened internal affairs investigations and disciplined the deputies contradicts any conclusion that we viewed these initial hit-and-run investigations as business as usual,” said Jim Harpring, attorney for the sheriff’s office.
As for the suggestion that the punishments were light, he said, they were “within the scope of what the sheriff is authorized to impose,” which doesn’t allow for termination.
“We trust our employees to do their jobs,” said Harpring. “If they don’t, we look into it.”