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A dead woman, a damaged car and dropped charges: Ticket in fatal hit-and-run is dismissed

TAMPA — The police detective’s memory of the meeting is clear, his agency says. On April 23, a 17-year-old girl and her lawyer admitted to him that she was driving her Nissan Murano the night it struck and killed a homeless woman limping across a South Tampa street.

Knowing he might never get a chance to charge the teen criminally for the hit-and-run, Detective Robert D. Powell wrote Jordan Valdez a ticket for careless driving and gave her a stern lecture in the presence of her attorney and father.

“There was no doubt that they were admitting civilly that she was behind the wheel,” said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy, who spoke to the detective about his recollection on Tuesday, the day the St. Petersburg Times first reported about the case.

Though Ty Trayner, the teen’s attorney, is adamant that his client never admitted anything, he acknowledges that the meeting took place and she accepted the traffic citation.

Then, on Tuesday, he persuaded a judge to dismiss it.

The ticket vanished for the same reason that an arrest has never materialized. Police are certain that Valdez’s SUV hit the woman — an impact so hard it knocked 33-year-old Melissa Sjostrom out of her shoes and hurled her 100 feet through the air. But the only firm evidence they have to put the teenage driver behind the wheel is a statement that can’t be used against her.

State law requires people involved in a crash resulting in injury, death or damage to talk to law enforcement during the accident investigation. But the law also safeguards them against self-incrimination, something known as accident report privilege.

Without the protection, drivers who were worried about culpability might not speak up with information that could be useful to investigators.

That exemption angers the dead woman’s family, who want someone to be held responsible for fleeing as Sjostrom lay in the road with fatal injuries on Feb. 8.

The ticket’s dismissal Tuesday adds insult to injury, they said. “It’s outrageous,” Lisa Mott, her aunt, said by phone from Kentucky. “It just becomes more and more unreal.”

Sjostrom’s family sent Hills­borough County Judge Joelle Ober an e-mail asking her to postpone the hearing so they could make plans to attend.

The judge acknowledged the e-mail in court but did not delay the proceedings. She said she had no choice but to throw out the ticket because no witnesses or police officials were present to argue otherwise.

Powell, the case detective, did not attend.

He wasn’t being apathetic. By law, he couldn’t testify because he didn’t witness the crash, McElroy said.

He had tried for three months to build a criminal case. He gathered plenty of circumstantial evidence: A red paint chip from the scene that matched an SUV with front-end damage parked outside Valdez’s family’s million-dollar Davis Islands home. A Sunpass transponder that showed the SUV had exited the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway three blocks from the scene and minutes before the crash.

Crash witnesses saw an SUV hit Sjostrom and stop briefly before driving across the Davis Islands bridge, but they couldn’t identify the driver.

Rodolfo Padron told police he was driving two cars behind the driver who hit Sjostrom. Wondering why nobody was stopping, he took off after the two cars, and later told police the crash vehicle was a black SUV driven by a Hispanic man. He said on Tuesday he has since realized he followed the wrong car.

Powell learned that Valdez was returning home from cheerleading practice around the time of the crash, but couldn’t know for sure her path or whether she picked anyone up along the way.

All of the information seemed to point toward the person Powell suspected of being the driver at the moment the crash occurred. But none of it proved that key fact with certainty.

Without establishing who was driving independent of Valdez’s constitutionally protected statement, police didn’t have enough to make an arrest and eventually win a conviction, officials said.

“People have rights,” McElroy said. “Unless you have enough evidence to charge them, (arresting them) would be irresponsible.”

The Valdez family could not be reached at their home Tuesday.

The morning after police impounded the Nissan Murano, a detective got a message from Robert Valdez, Jordan’s father. The girl, then 16, had told her mother she had been in an accident, police say. The father left several phone numbers for police to contact him, but no one answered when the detective called back.

When Powell visited Robert Valdez at work — the family owns Manhattan Hairstyling Academy — the father said he had hired an attorney and had been advised not to say anything further.

The daughter’s statement to her mother isn’t specific enough for police to hang an arrest on, McElroy said. But she added it could be useful down the road.

There is no statute of limitations for a charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving death, a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The Police Department will pursue any new information or witnesses who come forward. McElroy said Sjostrom’s family deserves no less.

“No matter what her station is in life, she’s a person,” McElroy said. “She’s somebody’s daughter.

“It is our hope that we will someday have enough evidence to make an arrest. No one wants to send a teenager to prison, but you do have to face the consequences of your choices in life.”

Two weeks after Sjostrom died, a check for $100,000 came by mail to her mother from the company that insured the SUV. She said she won’t cash it. Mott, the dead woman’s aunt, said Tuesday that the family had not decided if they will sue.

A dead woman, a damaged car and dropped charges: Ticket in fatal hit-and-run is dismissed 05/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 6:37am]
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