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Driver sent to prison for fatal 2002 wreck

NEW PORT RICHEY — More than six years ago, a woman walking across U.S. 19 after a fight with her boyfriend was struck and killed by a pickup. The driver didn't stop.

For years, Dawn Haywood's death went unpunished.

The suspect — a man whose stepfather was a local politician and whose brother had committed an eerily similar crime years earlier — was nowhere to be found.

Now the 2002 case has finally reached a resolution. Landon Luepkes, 48, who was arrested last year, pleaded guilty in November to leaving the scene of the crash. He was sentenced to five years in prison, of which he'll probably serve 85 percent.

The other charge against him — DUI manslaughter — was dropped. A witness who would have testified that Luepkes was drinking before the crash recently passed away.

Such is the way with court cases that sit idle for years. Witnesses disappear, people die, the public forgets.

• • •

Dawn Haywood was walking home from a bar just before 10 p.m. on May 9, 2002. After she stepped onto U.S. 19 near Gulf Drive, a silver pickup struck her and kept going. Authorities suspected the driver was drunk.

Haywood, who was 45, died at the scene.

Days later, police got a tip that Luepkes, who had more than 30 arrests to his name, including two DUIs, had been seen washing blood off the hood of a silver pickup.

He told them he'd hit a large dog. He also had the hood replaced.

But later that summer, authorities matched tissue samples taken from the truck to Haywood.

By then, police had their evidence, but no suspect.

Luepkes had disappeared. He remained under the radar for six years until a deputy encountered him last fall on a mountain in Virginia. He showed a Florida ID, and the deputy matched it to the Pasco warrant.

Heather Haywood, who struggled to recover after her mother's death, saw Luepkes' arrest as a new beginning for her.

But records show Haywood, 33, was arrested earlier this year after failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor charge of passing a bad check. She could not be reached Tuesday.

• • •

In 1997, Luepkes' brother, Shane, was charged with hitting two pedestrians with his car at 2 a.m. one December morning, killing both. He left the scene and later said he hadn't noticed hitting the two.

After pleading no contest to a charge of leaving the scene of a fatal crash, Shane Luepkes spent weekends during 1999 in the county jail and served community service and probation.

The brothers are the stepsons of Peter Altman, a former county commissioner and mayor of New Port Richey.

Reached Tuesday, Altman said he hoped Landon Luepkes' prison time leads him to a new start.

"I think inside that he is a good person," Altman said. "And I think that if he can find himself on the straight and narrow path when he gets out that, he could be a productive citizen.

"It would be nice for him to salvage his life."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Driver sent to prison for fatal 2002 wreck 12/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 2:05pm]

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