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Tampa police yet to use full force of law in fatal hit-run inquiry

TAMPA — Police say they can't prove who was driving the Nissan Murano that killed a homeless woman in a hit-and-run case three months ago.

But they haven't used all the investigative tools at their disposal.

The morning after the crash, Jordan Valdez, then 16, told her mother that she had been involved in an accident, according to Tampa police.

If she also admitted to her parents that she was driving when the crash occurred, police might have enough to make an arrest, given the other circumstantial evidence they have collected, said local lawyers who are not involved with the case.

Yet detectives haven't interviewed the teen's parents to find out more details about what she said.

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said that could still happen — but only as a last resort.

Detectives "never want to put a parent in a position to have to testify against their child," she said Wednesday. "They would much rather build the physical evidence and circumstantial case."

That strategy is at odds with the approach taken by the Hills­borough Sheriff's Office in the high-profile hit-and-run case against former school dance teacher Jennifer Porter. She was arrested only after authorities hauled in her parents for questioning about their daughter's role in a March 2004 collision that killed two young brothers and injured two of their siblings.

Porter's parents were forced to cooperate against their wishes. There is no legal protection in Florida for conversations between parents and a child.

Prosecutors can serve parents with subpoenas to make them testify, giving them immunity that takes away their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Defense lawyer Lyann Goudie represented Porter's parents during the questioning. She didn't like the position that authorities put her clients in, but she said it was a lawful tactic.

Goudie said detectives could ask Valdez's parents all sorts of questions to bolster their case — such as who drove the car on the day of the crash, when their daughter arrived home and whether she appeared shaken and nervous — and piece that together with what they know from witnesses and physical evidence.

"It's not the picture-perfect hit-and-run case, but very few of them are," said Goudie, a former homicide prosecutor.

The Valdez family has not responded to the St. Petersburg Times' attempts to reach them at home or at work.

McElroy said Tampa police continue to investigate the case. Supervisors are reviewing the investigation to make sure all possible leads have been pursued, she said. There is no statute of limitations for leaving the scene of an accident with death, a first-degree felony.

Melissa Sjostrom, 33, was limping across Hyde Park Avenue just before 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 8 when she was hit. The impact knocked her out of her shoes and hurled her 100 feet.

Autopsy results showed evidence that Sjostrom had used cocaine the day she died.

Detectives have connected a red paint chip from the scene to the Murano they found parked in front of the Valdez family's Davis Islands home within hours of the crash. They know from the SUV's SunPass transponder that it exited the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway at the Plant Avenue toll booth three blocks from the scene and minutes before the crash.

But the SUV's tinted windows made it impossible to tell from a toll booth video who was driving. Eyewitnesses to the crash can't identify the driver either.

Jordan Valdez is believed to have been returning home from cheerleading practice around the time of the crash, but police officials say there are too many things that could have happened between the time she left practice and got home. For instance, she could have picked up a friend and let the friend drive, or she could have gone home and switched cars with one of her parents.

Tampa police say the teen and her attorney made a constitutionally protected admission last month that she was the driver at the time of the accident, and she was cited for careless driving.

Ty Trayner, the teen's attorney, is adamant that she has admitted nothing. The traffic ticket was thrown out Tuesday because of a lack of evidence against her.

The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office declined to comment on the case.

Police officials say they have consulted with prosecutors and, together, have determined that they don't have enough evidence to make an arrest. The key missing evidence: a "wheel witness," or proof of who was driving the car when it hit Sjostrom.

They don't want to simply take their chances with a jury because an acquittal would prevent them from re-filing the case if stronger evidence emerged, they said.

Prosecutors can win convictions solely on circumstantial evidence, but it isn't their preference.

With an entirely circumstantial case, they must prove a person's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and disprove any other reasonable scenarios that would support his or her innocence, said defense lawyer Stephen Romine, who is not involved in this case. If a suspect could reasonably claim that someone else got into the vehicle and drove it during the time of the accident, prosecutors won't get a conviction.

Had the driver of the Murano stopped at the time of the crash, it's likely that no charges or even a traffic ticket would have been sought.

In addition to fear, people often flee from scenes because they have been drinking or have something else to hide. Police do not believe that alcohol and reckless driving were issues in this case, McElroy said.

Valdez, a student at Academy of the Holy Names, has a clean driving history, records show.

The deceased woman's family received a $100,000 check from the company that insured the SUV.

The insurance money doesn't preclude Sjostrom's estate from filing a wrongful death lawsuit, said civil lawyer Tom Carey, who is not part of the case. If civil lawyers prove that the SUV was involved in Sjostrom's death, Valdez's parents can be held liable as the owners of the vehicle.

The lack of a finding of guilt in the criminal system has no bearing on what happens in the civil system, Carey said.

Sjostrom's 14-year-old son, who lives with her adoptive mother in California, would be the primary beneficiary of any civil award.

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

Tampa police yet to use full force of law in fatal hit-run inquiry 05/20/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 5:17pm]

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