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Questions raised after Tampa woman leaves, returns to scene of fatal hit-and-run

TAMPA — She felt the bang. Her windshield shattered, spraying glass on her arms. But Amanda Bentz told her father she didn't immediately realize she had hit and killed a man while she was driving to a friend's house Sunday night.

In shock, her father said, she drove on. But unlike others who left the scene in highly publicized pedestrian crashes, this 20-year-old returned an hour later. Will that make a difference in whether she is charged with a hit-and-run?

"A lot here is evaluating her intent," said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon. "Was her intent to truly disguise or avoid her responsibility in this case? Or was it just a young person who panicked, ran home, got her parents and came right back?"

But defense attorneys caution that state hit-and-run law does not mention this kind of "intent."

Said Tampa attorney Kim Seace: "There is no grace period."

• • •

A passing motorist called 911 on Sunday night to report seeing someone lying in the middle of W Waters Avenue just west of N Grady Avenue. There was no crosswalk where deputies believe the man had been walking. They determined that he was Billy Leedan Ivy, 42, of 7015 N Dakota Ave. and that he died at 9:30 p.m.

At 9:32 p.m., Rob Bentz missed a call from his daughter. He said he missed nine more after that.

She had kept driving, he said, but nerves made her stop. Unable to reach her father, she got in touch with a friend, who drove her to the Bentz family home at 6909 Summerbridge Drive.

By that time, she had been able to get in touch with her brother, who told her father what happened. There was no living room discussion, the father said. No question of whether they would return. He just got his shoes and jacket and met them outside.

His daughter's face was blank with shock. "I hit something out there," she told him. "I don't know if it could be a person."

There was no decision to be made, Rob Bentz said.

"It was really clear-cut," he said. "We needed to get in a car, get back there. … She didn't know what was going to happen. She faced up to it. It was something she knew she had to do."

They drove to the scene, and the father approached a deputy first. He said his daughter was driving and thought she had hit something. Then, she talked to detectives. She gave them a sample for a blood alcohol test and let them impound her car.

On the scene, Rob Bentz hugged his daughter as she cried.

No charges had been filed by Monday afternoon, and the crash remained under investigation. Deputies have no reason to believe alcohol was involved, McKinnon said. Investigators will turn their findings over to the State Attorney's Office.

Ivy's family declined to comment Monday.

Amanda Bentz has one traffic citation on her record in Hillsborough County, for speeding in 2006. She was arrested in 2007 on a charge of petty theft and in 2009 on a charge of battery and criminal mischief. She pleaded no contest to both and adjudication was withheld. Her father said the battery charge stemmed from an altercation that happened after her dog got hit by a car and died.

Rob Bentz still hasn't contacted a lawyer. He said a detective told him this was an accident and never mentioned anything about his daughter leaving the scene. He said he believes detectives recognized his daughter's intent to come forward.

But defense attorneys say the stakes are high.

"It's a 30-year felony," said Tampa lawyer Ty Trayner. "Let's say the state attorney says, 'Let's go ahead and prosecute.' Are they going to wish they had gotten a lawyer in the beginning?"

The public reacts with anger in pedestrian fatalities where families defer to lawyers and delay talking to police. Jordan Valdez and Jennifer Porter were accused of sacrificing ethics and morals to protect themselves. But which cases are easier to defend?

The one in which the family had consulted first with a lawyer, Trayner said, all intentions aside.

Jordan Valdez, at the time 16, was driving an SUV on Hyde Park Avenue the night of Feb. 8, 2009, when she hit a 33-year-old homeless woman, Melissa Sjo­strom. Valdez went home, parked her car in front of her house and ate dinner with her parents. The following day, when Valdez's parents learned that their daughter had been in an accident, they called a lawyer. Ultimately, Valdez was sentenced to probation in the juvenile system. A judge withheld adjudication of guilt.

Jennifer Porter, at the time 28, kept driving in 2004 after hitting four siblings, ages 2 to 13, who were crossing a dark street near the elementary where Porter taught. The impact killed two and left the two others seriously injured. More than a day passed before Porter and her family contacted a lawyer and the lawyer contacted authorities. Porter also avoided jail time.

Neither gave statements without an attorney's advice.

Amanda Bentz did.

Then again, neither came back to the crash scene that night.

Bentz did.

• • •

Kim Seace now defends drivers accused of leaving the scene of a crash. For a long time, she prosecuted them. She handled cases in which people returned to the scene — "and won some of those cases," she said. "I can't think of any that I lost."

But, she said, many factors come into play.

McKinnon said the Sheriff's Office is taking Bentz's cooperation into account.

"She was totally cooperative," he said. "Rather than to rush to judgment and charge her on the spot, we felt it was more important to review the circumstances, the intent, and to defer those charges until we can complete the investigation."

Rob Bentz believes his family did the right thing.

"I can see what happened to the Valdezes," he said. But "unfortunately, you have to fess up to these things. You're not going to walk away from it."

Trayner, who represented Jordan Valdez, remembers something authorities told him when they investigated and charged her with the hit-and-run.

"I was told it might have been a different situation if my client had come back that night with the parents," he said. "That comment was made, so let's wait and see if it makes a difference."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Questions raised after Tampa woman leaves, returns to scene of fatal hit-and-run

03/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 8, 2010 11:00pm]
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