TAMPA — The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office filed an adult criminal charge Wednesday against a Davis Islands teen accused of fleeing a fatal crash earlier this year.
Jordan Valdez, 17, faces one count of leaving the scene of an accident with death, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum punishment of 30 years in prison.
Prosecutors decided to charge Valdez as an adult "based on the nature of the crime," Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi said. She would not comment further.
The victim's aunt said Wednesday she has been told by the prosecutor handling the case that Valdez was distracted, fiddling with her CD player, when the crash occurred.
Valdez is expected to be booked into jail today.
A 2007 Nissan Murano usually driven by Valdez, then a 16-year-old junior at Academy of the Holy Names, was linked to a Feb. 8 crash that killed a homeless woman as she crossed Hyde Park Avenue near the Davis Islands bridge. Melissa Sjostrom, 33, died as a result of the accident.
The Tampa Police Department administratively closed the hit-and-run investigation in April without making an arrest, but reactivated it a month later after the St. Petersburg Times raised questions about the case.
"The family is thrilled with the first-degree felony charge," said Sjostrom's aunt, Lisa Mott. "We still want to know what other charges apply and why she hasn't been charged with them yet."
The attorney representing Sjostrom's family noted that the charge had come on the five-month anniversary of her death, bringing her relatives a sense of relief.
"We are looking forward to hearing everything that the investigation will reveal about the facts and circumstances," attorney Michael Maddux said.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors spent weeks haggling over whether Valdez would be charged in adult or juvenile court. During that time, the teen gave at least one statement to authorities, according to police.
The state's decision to prosecute Valdez as an adult disappointed her attorney.
"She's a juvenile," said defense attorney Ty Trayner. "They should have filed in juvenile court. That's what juvenile court's for."
He said prosecutors already have made a plea offer, which Valdez has not yet accepted. He would not provide specifics of the potential sentence, but said it does not include prison time.
Trayner said the teen is upset about the incident. No matter what her punishment, she will talk to other young people about her experience and try to prevent them from making the same mistake, he said.
"I think she just panicked," he said. "I hope that every kid realizes that all she had to do was stop, and they may not even have charged her with anything."
Before closing their investigation, authorities had plenty of circumstantial evidence against Valdez. Detectives had learned that Valdez was driving home from cheerleading practice around the time of the crash, and toll booth video shows the SUV she typically drove exiting the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway three blocks from the scene just minutes before the crash occurred. Tinted windows hid the driver's identity.
Witnesses to the crash saw an SUV drive across the Davis Islands bridge. Detectives scoured the neighborhood and matched a red paint chip from the scene to a Murano with front-end damage in front of the Valdez home.
Valdez's father contacted the case detective after police impounded the SUV but later declined to say anything, citing the advice of an attorney.
Her parents will not be charged, Bondi said.
Police said that circumstantial evidence didn't firmly identify the driver, and that's what they needed for an arrest.
Instead, they issued Valdez a ticket for careless driving, which was thrown out by a judge due to a lack of evidence.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.