Davis Islands teen sentenced to probation, community service

TAMPA — After she hit a homeless woman on a dark street, Jordan Valdez chose to drive off and pretend nothing had happened.

The teen took a different route home on Davis Islands to avoid being followed. She composed herself before going inside to eat a chicken and rice dinner with her family. She went to bed at her regular time and got up for school the next day.

But the truth dribbled out, first to her parents after police impounded her car and much later to prosecutors who were unwilling to let an unsolved fatal hit-and-run case fade away.

In a courtroom Tuesday, where a prosecutor called her actions "criminal, immoral, indecent and insensitive" and the cremated remains of her victim were tucked inside the dead woman's aunt's purse, Valdez begged not to be judged for her panicked decision but for the better person she promised to become.

She got her wish.

Though Valdez pleaded guilty to an adult charge of leaving the scene of an accident with death, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe sentenced her to probation in the juvenile system and withheld adjudication of guilt.

"What you did was wrong," he said. But "I honestly believe that this case cries out for juvenile sanctions."

Valdez, 16 at the time of the crash and 17 now, will be supervised by the state until she turns 19. She must perform 250 community service hours, including 120 hours in a trauma center or hospital that deals with accident victims. The remainder of the hours must be performed at high schools, where she will speak to peers about her experience.

She will lose her driver's license for five years but can apply for a hardship license after three.

Her father said she has not driven since the accident.

It occurred at 8:27 p.m. on Feb. 8 as Valdez drove home from cheerleading practice in Brandon. According to court documents released Tuesday, she told prosecutors she wasn't wearing her prescription glasses. She said she got distracted by the radio in her 2007 Nissan Murano as she headed south on Hyde Park Avenue.

When she looked up, she saw a woman crossing the street only a few feet in front of her car.

Valdez slammed on her brakes before hitting 33-year-old Melissa Sjostrom, who had made it about three-fourths of the way across the street, Assistant State Attorney Michael Sinacore said. Sjostrom wasn't in a crosswalk.

The teen slowed her SUV but did not stop before speeding toward the Davis Islands bridge. Multiple witnesses called 911 and ran to Sjostrom's aid.

"Jordan Valdez should have been there," Sinacore said. "She couldn't have done anything to save Melissa Sjostrom, but she could have just been there. Just been there and showed a little compassion."

He argued that Valdez deserved to be sentenced to six years of youthful offender probation, meaning she could be monitored longer and would face adult sanctions if she violated her sentence.

"There is no excuse for her behavior," Sinacore said. "She acted in an extremely selfish manner."

Tampa police quickly linked her SUV to the case with circumstantial evidence, including a red paint chip from the crash scene. But witnesses couldn't identify the driver, and Valdez's attorney initially didn't let her make any statements.

After three months, a detective wrote Valdez a ticket for careless driving and administratively closed the case. The agency reopened it in May after the St. Petersburg Times raised questions about the thoroughness of the investigation.

Tuesday marked Valdez's first time in court since her July arrest. She stood with her parents and their attorneys as Sjostrom's aunt and adoptive mother talked about the loving, giving woman they lost.

They wanted an adult conviction for Valdez but, like prosecutors, were not seeking jail time.

The sentence left them unsatisfied but not surprised. They felt that class had been a factor in the case from the start. Sjostrom was homeless, while Valdez lived in an expensive house and attended Academy of the Holy Names, where she is now a senior.

The punishment was "absolutely not" fair, said Lisa Mott, Sjostrom's aunt. The end message: "If you kill somebody and intentionally leave the scene, you're going to get a slap on the hand."

"It's a double blow," said Marylou Hansen, Sjotrom's adoptive mother.

Valdez remained stoic throughout much of the hearing. But she cried when she turned to speak to Sjostrom's family and supporters.

"I never, ever meant to intentionally hurt anybody,'' she said. "I know I was wrong. I will keep Melissa in my heart forever.''

Valdez's punishment includes paying restitution for $1,215 worth of counseling for Sjostrom's 15-year-old son, who lives with Hansen in California, and the approximately $1,600 Hansen and Mott spent to travel to Florida for the hearing.

Defense attorney Ty Trayner said Valdez's parents, Robert and Kimberly, hoped to attend a memorial for Sjostrom today at Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

Katrina Wombles, a homeless woman who was Sjostrom's close friend, said she would welcome the couple's presence.

Long after most of the crowd of supporters for both women had gone on Tuesday, Wombles approached the Valdez family outside the courthouse. She took Jordan's hand and said she forgave her.

"Can I give you a hug?" Wombles asked.

The teen said yes. As they embraced, Wombles said her friend Sjostrom would have hugged Jordan, too.

Times staff writers Kevin Graham and Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Timeline

Feb. 8, 2009: Driving an SUV, Jordan Valdez, 16, hits and kills a homeless woman walking across Hyde Park Avenue near the Davis Islands bridge at 8:27 p.m. Valdez flees the scene.

April 24: A Tampa police detective administratively closes the fatal hit-and-run investigation without making an arrest.

May 20: After the St. Petersburg Times raises questions about the case, police admit it was closed prematurely and reactivate the investigation.

July 8: The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office charges Valdez with one count of leaving the scene of an accident with death, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum of 30 years in adult prison.

Oct. 1: The teen's defense attorney indicates that Valdez will plead guilty as charged.

Davis Islands teen sentenced to probation, community service 11/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 11:20pm]

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