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FHP says trooper's work sloppy but sufficient in '98 road death

TAMPA — The lead detective ignored possible evidence, tainted an important clue by accidentally smudging it and got the cause of the accident wrong.

The Florida Highway Patrol found that Cpl. Dennis Jetton made all these mistakes and more in a traffic homicide investigation, and yet the agency is standing by his original inquiry into the death of Kevin McGinley, a new report says.

"While the (report) identified several errors … there was no evidence the errors affected the accuracy or outcome of the original investigation," Laurence Noda, the inspector general of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, wrote Monday in a letter to the parents of McGinley, a 21-year-old who died Feb. 13, 1998, on Interstate 275.

It's a perplexing statement to Hugh and Jill McGinley, the Indian Shores couple who have spent 11 years and upwards of a half-million dollars investigating their son's death, convinced the FHP got it all wrong.

"It's an utter disgrace," Hugh McGinley said. "For them to put that forward as good-faith investigation is just outrageous."

He believes his son was pushed into the path of an oncoming truck during a roadside tussle, and a murderer walked free.

For 10 years, the FHP has stood by its investigators' findings that Kevin McGinley was the victim of a phantom hit-and-run, that a passing car sideswiped him, sending him stumbling into the path of a United Postal Service semitrailer truck.

But in an internal review released this week by the FHP in an effort to address the McGinleys' criticisms, Sgt. Diane L. B. Martinez concludes there was never enough evidence to support the decade-old hit-and-run theory.

The young man somehow ended up in the path of a UPS truck, and the collision killed him. That much is not in dispute. How he came to be there remains a mystery.

Although Martinez found that the lead investigator, Jetton, dismissed possible leads as "irrelevant," and produced a "flawed" report filled with grammatical mistakes and factual errors, she concludes there was no indication Jetton "intentionally withheld, falsified or misrepresented information regarding his on-scene investigation."

Jetton, who retired in 2007 while under investigation for his conduct in an unrelated case, could not be reached by the Times for comment.

Among the details Jetton thought were "irrelevant" to the traffic homicide investigation, according to the new report:

• A roadside fight involving the victim, reported by several witnesses just before McGinley died.

• The recordings of 911 calls from people passing the scene, describing what they saw before and after the crash. Jetton said he didn't need to listen to these calls because he later interviewed the callers by phone, and none of the callers witnessed the crash.

• An upside-down shoe print on the front bumper of a UPS truck that struck McGinley. The print seemed to match McGinley's Nike shoe found at the scene, but Jetton said he didn't believe it was McGinley's. Furthermore, Jetton said he accidentally smudged the print when he lifted his own foot to the bumper to show other investigators the position the person wearing the shoe would have been in to leave the mark.

• An interview with the girlfriend of Anthony Lloyd, the man witnesses said McGinley fought with just before the crash. In 2004 she testified under oath to Hugh McGinley's attorneys that Lloyd said he had punched Kevin McGinley, forcing him into traffic. In the new report, Jetton said he didn't try to interview her because her statement was "hearsay and irrelevant."

• Statements from other people not at the crash scene, including two of Lloyd's roommates who told McGinley's investigators Lloyd said he had beaten a man to death who fell back into the highway into the path of a truck.

Martinez doesn't outright say Jetton was wrong to assume these witnesses were irrelevant, but wrote that, based on the FHP's own rules, "Jetton was required to obtain statements from anyone who can contribute pertinent facts or information to the investigation."

This latest report is far from the independent criminal investigation the McGinleys have sought for years from every state agency from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to Gov. Charlie Crist's office. The report is an administrative review concerned only with determining whether the FHP employees on the case followed agency policy.

And though the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles concludes the FHP investigators acted properly — without exhibiting a pattern of misconduct, obstruction of justice or criminal wrongdoing — several of the report's own findings appear to undermine the credibility of the original inquiry.

It notes that Jetton's supervisor, Sgt. Stephen Mauriello, acknowledged "deliberately" withholding public documents from the McGinleys for more than a year.

Also, Jetton said for the first time that evidence had been moved. He told Martinez that investigators from UPS were at the crash scene, and while he was taking photographs he saw them "holding the decedent's shoe near the front bumper of the UPS vehicle.'' He said he told them to put it down because he hadn't finished taking measurements.

Whether the new report is enough to spur an independent investigation is unclear. The governor's office has already turned down a request for a special prosecutor.

"The sad thing," Hugh McGinley said, "is that when you look at this — yeah, it's outrageous for us — but these are the people who everyone else has to rely on. These people are never prepared to acknowledge mistakes or put things right.

"What's going to happen to the next people? The next family? The next Kevin McGinley?" he continued.

FHP spokeswoman Courtney Heidelberg declined to comment beyond what is in the report, saying it's under litigation.

The McGinleys sued the FHP and the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office last year, claiming they failed to properly investigate how their son died. The matter is in federal court.

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

FHP says trooper's work sloppy but sufficient in '98 road death 03/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009 1:58pm]
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