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Hit-and-run crimes tough to solve for traffic investigators

Darcee Randall, 49, almost died after being hit by a hit-and-run driver Feb. 6. The driver has not been found.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Darcee Randall, 49, almost died after being hit by a hit-and-run driver Feb. 6. The driver has not been found.

LARGO — Instead of using the crosswalk, Darcee Jo Randall cut across East Bay Drive to get cigarettes from PK's Food Store.

What happened next is a blur.

Police think she fell in the center lane, 25 feet short of the other side. A car swerved to miss her crouched body.

A second car didn't miss. It left her badly injured, breaking her collarbone, a leg and facial bones. Then it sped away.

Investigators have been looking for the driver ever since. They are no closer now than they were two days after the Feb. 6 crash, when paint chips, shards of a headlight and other evidence made them think they had it in the bag.

For all of its early promise, Randall's case hasn't advanced past Stage 1. Neither have half of the 14 other major pedestrian hit-and-run investigations launched since Jan. 1, 2009 in the Tampa Bay area.

Finding hit-and-run drivers, it turns out, virtually always is more complex, elusive and frustrating than the most promising case might suggest. Investigators need evidence from the scene or witness accounts to find the vehicle fast, before it is repaired. Ultimately, they have to put someone behind the wheel at the moment of impact.

Arrests are few. Within days of the Largo crash involving Randall, two pedestrians were killed in separate hit-and-runs.

In one, a German tourist was killed on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa after being struck by a Volkswagen. The car's grille was left at the scene. In the other, a Clearwater woman crossing U.S. 19 was struck by a black sedan with tinted windows, possibly a 2004 Infiniti.

Both cases are unsolved, and investigators acknowledge they need a break.

"You're just kind of hoping," said Largo Officer Jim Hartwell, who has worked Randall's case since the beginning. "Waiting."

• • •

Zero.

That's the number of times Hartwell, a member of Largo's traffic homicide unit for 11 years, has solved a serious hit-and-run.

It's not because he's slacking. Too often the evidence he sweeps up from accident scenes just doesn't produce a car or a driver.

Hartwell thought Randall's case could be the exception.

Among the debris scattered along East Bay Drive that night were 1-inch shards of glass and tiny paint chips. Precious evidence to an investigation.

Pieced together by Scotch tape, the glass bits formed a headlight with a distinctive diagonal line. Investigators had a decent idea of the shape of the car after hearing from a witness and reviewing grainy surveillance footage from a bank.

But the line made it unmistakable, he said.

They started looking for a 2010 Lincoln MKZ. The average owner's age is 65, he said.

"It has to be that car," he said. "We know it was that."

Hartwell also took a paint flake to the dealership. He determined the sedan is a factory-only shade of "brilliant silver."

Police checked with the nearly 20 registered owners in Pinellas County, and with car rental companies statewide. No dice.

Largo police lack the resources to check every new Lincoln MKZ in the state, he said. And given the county's abundance of tourists, it's possible an out-of-state driver was behind the wheel, he said.

As the list of suspects grows, so do odds against finding a driver.

"There comes a point where we have to stop," Hartwell said. Sometimes, witness accounts can help, but even they can't lock down a case.

Police had witnesses in the case of then-16-year-old Jordan Valdez, whose SUV struck and killed a 33-year-old homeless woman in Tampa on Feb. 8, 2009.

Investigators could prove the Nissan Murano was in a hit-and-run, but they could not put Valdez behind the wheel. One witness could not see through the car's tinted windows; another suggested the driver was a Hispanic male with short hair.

Valdez ultimately was sentenced to probation in the juvenile system. A judge withheld adjudication of guilt.

• • •

Darcee Jo Randall, 49, is alive and back home. But she's not okay. She's broken and has no one to blame.

Despite all the broken bones and a face held together by three titanium plates, Randall says everyone tells her she looks about the same.

"They couldn't believe how close they got to my face," said Randall, whose 5-foot-1, 105-pound frame has been thinned by recovery.

A former waitress, bartender and telemarketer, she spends most of her days in a double bed. She has been trying to tell her story to Medicaid workers, seeking help with hospital bills that she says have exceeded $1 million.

Everything she eats — oatmeal, chicken, brownies, noodles — is blended by her caretaking sister, Kelley, 48. Randall's itching, aching body makes her cranky. Makes her reach for a smoke.

But it is the mystery of the crash that still hurts worst.

"How can you do that to someone?" Randall said. "It would make me feel a whole lot better knowing they're not doing this to someone else."

• • •

Hartwell needs someone with a guilty conscience.

From a forensic standpoint, his leads have been exhausted.

Now he must depend on a driver who can't live with the inner shame. Or perhaps someone who may have heard the driver's confession. Those are probably his only chances of learning who was behind the wheel of the car that hit Randall.

Leaving the scene of an accident with death is a felony that carries a maximum 30 years in prison. Hit-and-runs involving severe injuries also can lead to prison and hefty fines.

Had the driver stopped that night, he or she may never have been charged. Randall didn't use a crosswalk. She was apparently on the ground, in the middle of the road, in the darkness.

"As the investigation stands now, no," Hartwell said. "It would have been the fault of the pedestrian."

But that's out the window now. Until someone opens up, Hartwell waits.

"Maybe they'll never come forward," he said, "but we'll never know how their life is affected by this. They might never be the same."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Katie Sanders can be reached at ksanders@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

whom to contact

Do you know what happened?

Anyone with information about the Largo hit-and-run accident on Feb. 6 is asked to contact Sgt. George Edmiston at (727) 586-7473.

Hit-and-run crimes tough to solve for traffic investigators 04/02/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010 12:29am]
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