Monday, November 20, 2017
Public safety

Two years later, family awaits arrest in Spring Hill hit-run death

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SPRING HILL — Vincent Barnes has missed a lot since a hit-and-run driver claimed his life two years ago.

His son, Malachi, has started school and can dress himself in the morning. The light brown locks that used to tumble over the boy's forehead have been trimmed into trendy spikes.

Now 5, Malachi plays soccer and takes karate lessons.

"All of those things where you want a dad to say, 'Hey, I'm proud of you,' " Shannon Barnes, Malachi's mother and Vinny's ex-wife, said through tears last week. "A little boy needs his dad to be cheering from the sidelines. No one can ever fill that void and bring his father back."

"Vinny" to all who knew him, Barnes had just begun his 5-mile bicycle ride to his job at the Texas Roadhouse restaurant on Cortez Boulevard when, authorities say, a man in a black Chevrolet pickup hit him near the intersection of U.S. 19 and Northcliffe Boulevard.

Barnes, 28, was dragged and then tossed onto the side of the road. He died at the scene, his well-worn Bible found near his body.

The driver sped away.

Wednesday marks the two-year anniversary of the crash. No arrest has been made.

Florida Highway Patrol investigators have identified at least one person of interest in the case, but do not have enough evidence to make an arrest, a spokesman said last week.

That's difficult for Vinny Barnes' friends and loved ones to accept.

"You always try to teach your kids there are consequences to your actions," Shannon Barnes said. "How do you tell your son that they know who did this to your father, yet he's walking the street?"

• • •

A native of Idaho, Barnes was working as a cook at the Word of Life Bible Institute in Hudson in 2004 when he met Shannon, a student there at the time.

He was quiet but friendly, Shannon said. They became friends first, starting each morning saying devotionals together. The couple married two years later at the Spring Hill home of Vinny's parents, Stanley and Gail. The Barneses did not respond to an interview request last week.

Malachi was born in 2007. After that, the couple started to drift apart, Shannon Barnes said. In 2009, Vinny Barnes moved to an apartment in Spring Hill.

"He was devoted," Shannon said, "especially to his work and to his child."

The split was amicable, and Vinny continued to spend a lot of time with Malachi. The boy still remembers hunting for turtles at his father's apartment, and the shelled critter is now his favorite animal.

In early 2011, about the time the couple's divorce became final, Barnes gave up the apartment for a tent in the woods along U.S. 19, just south of Northcliffe. He made the move so he could devote his paycheck to his son and savings for a home, Shannon said.

It was a small sacrifice for a lover of the outdoors who needed little more than a change of clothes and his Bible.

Barnes quickly earned the respect of his Texas Roadhouse co-workers for his friendly demeanor and work ethic, said managing partner Keith Ball. Many were aware of his money troubles and living situation.

"He never complained about any of that," Ball said. "It wasn't like he expected any kind of special consideration or admiration. He just showed up to work, and I never saw the guy without a smile on his face."

Barnes was the best of dishwashers, but he had a dream to teach people how to serve as missionaries. He thought about one day starting his own school, Shannon said.

"He always said, no matter what you're doing, do it to honor God."

• • •

At the time of the crash, authorities believed the driver was a man and that the truck had after-market rims and a hard-shell bed cover. Troopers released photos of pieces of the vehicle recovered at the scene.

As more time passed without an arrest, Shannon Barnes reached out to J. Steele Olmstead, a personal injury attorney who has practiced in Hernando for more than 20 years and specializes in pedestrian and cyclist cases.

The FHP declined to give Olmstead details, citing an active investigation.

"But my contacts in the community say (investigators) know exactly who this guy is," Olmstead said.

Olmstead sent a letter identifying the man and offering evidence he thought would help in the investigation.

The man — whom the Times is not identifying because no one has been charged in Barnes' death — has a checkered driving history.

In the last 10 years, he has been arrested seven times. That includes two DUI charges and several other traffic offenses. He was convicted and sentenced to prison for leaving the scene of a 2009 crash in Citrus County where a death occurred. He started the prison term in May 2011 and is now serving five years of probation.

According to Florida Department of Motor Vehicles documents, the driver at the time owned a black Silverado, and so did a relative.

FHP spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins declined to provide specifics about people of interest in the case or confirm that the man Olmstead suspects is one of them. The agency used a host of resources, including electronic and aerial surveillance, to track down the truck and driver, Gaskins said.

"We'd love to put whoever is responsible for this in jail," Gaskins said. "There was a very honorable, valiant attempt to put the pieces of this puzzle together, and it just hasn't happened."

The case is still open, but there is little more investigators can do without more leads, Gaskins said. He and Olmstead agree that justice likely hinges on someone with knowledge of the case coming forward.

Otherwise, Olmstead said, "This fella got away with manslaughter, and anyone that he talked to who hasn't said anything is an accessory."

• • •

More than 300 people showed up to a memorial service for Barnes at Northcliffe Baptist Church. About a third of them were co-workers from Texas Roadhouse.

Vinny Barnes' photo is still posted in the entryway of the restaurant, and patrons regularly ask if an arrest has been made in the case.

Shannon is now a server at the restaurant and lives with her parents in Spring Hill with Malachi and a newborn daughter. She knows there will soon come a day when she will have to tell Malachi something more than what she already has: Daddy was in an accident and is in heaven with Jesus watching over them.

She has a message for anyone who knows something about the driver:

"Think if it was your own child's father and he passed this way."

Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

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