Dad told police his daughter was involved in a hit-and-run, records show

TAMPA — Robert Valdez Jr. told police his teenage daughter was involved in a hit-and-run accident near Davis Islands the morning after a homeless woman was killed trying to cross a South Tampa street, according to police records.

Now, with the investigation re-opened, detectives have considered seeking "direct testimony" from Jordan Valdez's parents — something police view as a last resort.

But that's not all investigators are doing, according to police e-mails obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.

Summaries of detectives' efforts on the reactivated case show they planned to cast a wide net to determine whether they can put Jordan Valdez, 17, at the wheel of the 2007 Nissan Murano that investigators believe killed 33-year-old Melissa Sjostrom.

They have worked to talk to Jordan's classmates and teachers, even her guidance counselor, at the Academy of the Holy Names. They want to talk to fellow cheerleaders, members of school clubs and friends.

They planned to seek her postings to and messages sent via MySpace and Facebook. A few days after the accident, police say, her Facebook status was set to "OMG" — short for "Oh, my God."

Investigators also are looking for new witnesses and surveillance video, according to the police e-mails, which were sent May 21 and 22, the days immediately following a Times story about the case and a Police Department decision to re-open it.

Detectives have obtained transponder information from the SunPass accounts of nearly 30 motorists who passed through a Crosstown Expressway toll booth near the time that the Murano did on Feb. 8, the night of the accident. From those, they hope to identify witnesses who might have seen who was driving the SUV.

They also have obtained video surveillance of the toll booth at Plant Avenue, where the Murano exited minutes before the accident. The original case detective looked at it before, but he couldn't identify the driver because of glare from toll booth lights, the Murano's headlights and the SUV's tinted windows.

Now police have talked of turning to the FBI or even NASA to help enhance the video, records show.

And a detective has tracked down which bank the Valdez family uses to determine whether there are bank records available for gas purchases or fast-food drive-through pickups — transactions that could turn up more surveillance videos.

This new effort, which has involved four detectives and a sergeant, stands in stark contrast to the original investigation.

In the first phase of the inquiry, uniformed officers and a single detective, Robert Powell, found paint chips from the Murano at the scene the night of the accident. Then an officer found the damaged SUV parked in front of the Valdez home on Davis Islands, but no one answered the door.

Powell later looked at the toll booth video, the SunPass record of the Nissan Murano and cell phone use records for the Valdez family. The cell phone records yielded no calls around the time of the accident.

Without evidence independently establishing Jordan Valdez as the driver, Powell closed the case administratively — meaning it would not be worked actively, but fresh leads would be pursued — without having prosecutors review the evidence.

That was a mistake, police say.

"When this case was reviewed by the supervisors it became apparent that there was more work to be done on the case, that it was closed prematurely, (and) that it had not been reviewed by the State Attorney's Office, so the team of detectives are now doing the work that wasn't done the first time around," Police Department spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Friday.

And this time around, the department's brass has been directly involved in the investigation, records show.

Supervisors have gotten regular updates on the investigation's progress, sometimes more than one a day.

On May 21, police Chief Stephen Hogue e-mailed one of his captains, "I appreciate this new approach and your involvement."

The next day, word came that Hogue himself wanted detectives to seek a search warrant for the computers at the Valdez home. The chief "wants it today," according to a sergeant's e-mail.

In a sworn statement supporting the search warrant, Detective Nicholas Sclavakis said police received two calls from the Valdez family the morning after Sjostrom was killed.

The first was from Kimberly Valdez, Jordan's mother, who reported the Nissan Murano missing and was told that it had been impounded.

Soon after, Sclavakis wrote, Robert Valdez Jr. called "and stated that his daughter, Jordan Valdez, had been involved in a hit and run" near the Davis Islands bridge, "and he needed to contact the detective investigating the hit and run."

On Friday, the attorney for Jordan Valdez said he was not aware that police say Robert Valdez told them his daughter was in a hit-and-run.

"I haven't heard that," attorney Ty Trayner said.

Eddie Suarez, an attorney who represents Robert Valdez Jr., declined to comment.

While the police are trying to obtain any video they can get of the Murano around the time of the accident, video from the main Crosstown Expressway toll plaza is not available, according to records.

Despite the passage of time, police expect their new efforts to pay off.

"We don't think it's going to affect the outcome in the long run, but it's not ideal that we lost a month's time in the time that the case was inactive," McElroy said.

"As far as interviewing Mr. and Mrs. Valdez, we said that would be a last resort for us, and that's still our position," McElroy said.

Police would like to build a case through physical and circumstantial evidence so they do not have to put the parents in the position of testifying against their daughter, she said.

"That may be an avenue that we would pursue, but we are not at that point yet," McElroy said.

Before the initial investigation was closed, Powell had little contact with Jordan Valdez or her family. He did meet with her, her father and her attorney at Trayner's office on April 23 to give her a ticket for careless driving.

A judge last week dismissed the ticket, but police said they would re-open their investigation.

At that meeting, Powell told Jordan Valdez he felt that he should give her a lecture, McElroy said, providing this account of what followed:

Please do, her father responded.

With that, Powell told the teenager that she had taken a life and could never give that back.

The girl did not make a statement to Powell, McElroy said, but dropped her head into her hands and sobbed for 20 minutes.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Dad told police his daughter was involved in a hit-and-run, records show 05/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 2, 2009 1:53pm]

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