BROOKSVILLE — Witnesses tried but failed to keep up with the speeding pickup truck after it ran several cars off the road late Friday.
The truck eventually came to a stop on the side of the road, a street sign lying twisted and crumpled behind the 2004 Chevy. A deputy said she smelled the "faint odor" of alcohol on the breath of the truck's owner at the scene, and witnesses said they saw the woman get out of the vehicle.
Open and shut case, right?
Right. In favor of the truck owner, Emily Vernon, the finance director for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
Vernon was not arrested and will not face charges in the single-car collision at Lake Lindsey and Daly roads, just southwest of Istachatta, early Saturday.
But Vernon, 39, who has worked at the Sheriff's Office since May 2006, will be the subject of an internal affairs investigation into her conduct, Sgt. Jim Powers, a spokesman for the department, said Monday.
According to authorities and local attorneys, Vernon most likely avoided criminal charges because no witnesses could place her behind the wheel of the truck — dubbed a "wheel witness."
Officials with the Sheriff's Office emphasized that Vernon was treated like any other motorist in a similar situation.
"Nobody was able to place the individual behind the wheel of the car at the time of the crash," said Sgt. Adam Lillibridge, a supervisor in the department's traffic unit. "My specific instruction to the deputy was to treat this as if it was Joe Citizen and not Emily of the Sheriff's Office."
Lillibridge said it would take a couple of days before a citation report would be released. He wasn't immediately sure if Vernon had received a traffic ticket in the incident.
According to the accident report, witnesses in two separate vehicles chased after the truck as it swerved on the road, but eventually lost sight of the Chevy as it sped north on U.S. 41 and then east onto Lake Lindsey.
Tara Duval-Good, a witness, said the truck locked up its brakes and skidded across U.S. 41 and went into a ditch before getting back on the road and speeding away, forcing more vehicles off the road.
When witnesses finally caught up to the truck, the Chevy was on the side of the road, Vernon was outside of the vehicle looking at the front bumper and the County Road 476 road sign had been knocked down.
Vernon then entered the truck but gave her keys to one of the witnesses after he asked for them, according to the report. As Vernon walked across the road, she tumbled into a nearby ditch, witnesses told a deputy. The report said she was "dancing in the road'' at one point.
Once the deputy arrived at the scene, she said, Vernon had the faint odor of alcohol on her breath and body and seemed "overly relaxed." Vernon told the deputy that she had drunk half a bottle of wine and taken a dose of sleep medication about an hour before the collision. Asked why she had driven off the road, Vernon told the deputy "she wasn't paying attention" and was "messing with the iPod."
The deputy later found two wine carafes in the passenger seat of the truck — one was empty — and a plastic bottle with a half-inch of a pinkish liquid that smelled like alcohol, according to the report.
Deputy Gisele Mulverhill said in her report that based on her training and experience, a DUI/property damage charge was not advisable because there were no witnesses to the crash itself. Further, a simple DUI charge was also not advisable because the witness had taken the keys, Vernon was out of the truck and thus not in "physical control'' of the vehicle in the presence of a deputy.
Lillibridge approved Mulverhill's assessment and confirmed that deputies did not have to perform a field sobriety test on Vernon.
Deputies contacted Vernon's husband, who arrived a short time later to pick up his wife and the truck.
Former County Judge Peyton Hyslop, now a defense attorney, said that had the Sheriff's Office pursued charges against Vernon, they most likely would have been tossed out before a court date was set.
"It'd be a great DUI to defend and a tough one to prove," said Hyslop, who read the accident report. "I don't see anything out of the ordinary here."
Prosecutor Don Barbee, who didn't read the report, said a "wheel" witness is crucial to pursuing any case like this one. "Someone has to put her behind the wheel," Barbee said. "That is one of the ways individuals avoid DUI charges."
The Times was unable to reach Vernon for comment on Monday. Vernon has several violations on her Florida driving record, including five citations for unlawful speed — she was caught going 83 mph in a 55-mph speed zone in November 2006.
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.