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Davis Islands teen surrenders at jail in hit-and-run case

TAMPA — Jordan Valdez physically stepped into the public spotlight Thursday for the first time, five months after the Davis Islands teen was involved in a fatal hit-and-run.

She surrendered just before 1 p.m. for booking into the county jail, a day after the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office filed an adult criminal charge against the 17-year-old, accusing her of fleeing the scene.

Jail records show the booking process lasted 22 minutes.

The 4-foot-11-inch, 97-pound cheerleader came in with her mother and two attorneys at her side.

She said nothing as she left.

Though a first-degree felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident with death carries a maximum of 30 years in prison, prosecutors have offered Valdez a plea deal that doesn't include prison time, said her attorney, Ty Trayner. As of Thursday, she hadn't accepted it, and Trayner wouldn't disclose the terms of the offer. But the case won't go to trial, he said.

"If she would have stayed there she might have gotten a careless driving ticket at worst," Trayner said. "She might not have been charged at all."

It could take months for the case to play out in court, where it has been assigned to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe.

The news of a possible negotiated resolution doesn't sit well with relatives of Melissa Sjostrom, the 33-year-old homeless woman who died in the crash.

"We are livid to hear that a deal has even been considered much less offered," said Lisa Mott, Sjostrom's aunt.

Valdez plans to write a letter of apology to Sjostrom's family, Trayner said.

Valdez, then 16, "panicked" after hitting Sjostrom about 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 8 as the woman crossed Hyde Park Avenue near the Davis Islands bridge, Trayner said. Sjostrom wasn't in a crosswalk.

"If she had to do it over again, obviously it would have been a different situation," Trayner said. "She's a 16-year-old driver. She panicked. Maybe she did what you might have done at her age."

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Valdez admitted to authorities on Tuesday that she was the driver at the time of the hit and run. Her parents also acknowledged that Valdez told them she had been involved in a crash, McElroy said.

"She gave a confession stating that she was behind the wheel, she was the driver at the time of the crash'' and hit the woman and didn't stop, McElroy said.

McElroy wouldn't release details about Valdez's confession but said police and prosecutors feel the charge fits the crime.

"It was never our intention to put a 17-year-old behind bars for panicking and leaving the scene," McElroy said. "It was always our goal to ensure that she faced the consequences of her decision to fatally injure someone and flee, and we feel this charge would do that."

Investigators linked a 2007 Nissan Murano usually driven by Valdez to the crash soon after the wreck occurred.

However, Tampa police administratively closed the hit-and-run investigation in April without making an arrest.

The agency reactivated it a month later after the St. Petersburg Times raised questions about the thoroughness of the investigation.

It became clear to defense attorneys that prosecutors could have circumstantially proved a case against Valdez, Trayner said.

After investigators reopened the case, they cast a wide net that included searching the Valdez family home and sending subpoenas to Valdez's fellow cheerleaders. She's believed to have been returning home from cheerleading practice around the time of the crash.

Trayner said Valdez had two brief cell phone conversations with her boyfriend long before the accident occurred.

The victim's aunt said she has been told by the prosecutor handling the case that Valdez was distracted at the time of the accident by fiddling with her CD player.

Rather than face being subpoenaed themselves, Trayner said, the teen's parents made the decision to come forward voluntarily and make a statement to authorities.

He said he doesn't yet know if he will seek juvenile sanctions for Valdez, which would end the court system's jurisdiction on the case when she turned 19.

"We're very, very disappointed that the state is choosing not to handle this as a juvenile matter," Trayner said. "She's a straight A student. She's very smart, but obviously, street sense, she's still maturing."

Valdez is a rising high school senior at Academy of the Holy Names and a Florida Bright Futures scholarship candidate who plans to attend a state college, Trayner said.

A guilty or no contest plea to the felony charge would make her ineligible for Bright Futures, even if a judge withholds adjudication to keep a conviction off her record.

Thomas Ostrander, a local criminal defense attorney not connected to the case, said college admissions committees may view Valdez's actions as an error in judgment. They may also be forgiving because of her age and maturity level, he said.

Ostrander said Valdez's attorneys may present a sympathetic picture to the judge. Showing that she's more than a "chirpy cheerleader that happens to get good grades" but also a good human being at heart will bode well for Valdez at her sentencing, Ostrander said.

"She's got a very good chance of coming out this surviving," Ostrander said. "Yeah, she's going to be wearing a scarlet letter for a while. But she'll come out of it pretty good."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

FAST FACTS

What's next?

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe has been assigned the case of 17-year-old Jordan Valdez, whom prosecutors charged as an adult with leaving the scene of an accident with death. An arraignment date will be set by the clerk's office, at which point Valdez must plead guilty or not guilty. A formal resolution to the case could take months.

Davis Islands teen surrenders at jail in hit-and-run case 07/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 1:02pm]
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