Tampa-area cases reflect rise in hit-and-run crashes across Florida

Published February 21 2017
Updated February 21 2017

RUSKIN — Cameron Fuller sat on his parents' porch Tuesday morning, cracking jokes, tugging at his neck brace, and bummed that he's not yet allowed to ride his new bike.

"I'm so excited to be alive," Cameron said. "I'm so excited I didn't break a bone."

Cameron was crossing U.S. 41 on his BMX bike on New Year's Eve when he was struck by a sport utility vehicle. The driver, 35-year-old Jorge Soria of Ruskin, kept driving and is still on the run, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

The number of hit-and-run crashes like the one that left Cameron in a coma for a week is steadily across Florida and in the Tampa Bay area, state data show.

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There were 99,004 hit-and-run crashes in Florida last year, a nearly 26 percent increase from 2013, when there were 78,661. These range from fender benders to fatal collisions. As a result of last year's crashes, 179 people died.

The number of hit-and-run crashes in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando climbed to 11,817 in 2016, a 21.5 percent increase from 9,721 three years earlier. That's more than twice the increase in the region's population overall for the period. Last year, 23 people died on Tampa Bay area roads.

Officials say the increases are largely a result of more people on the roads. Florida's population and the number of visitors to the state are growing. The economy is improving and gas prices are relatively low, meaning more people are driving for work and play.

Troubled by the rise, Florida Highway Patrol officials called the news media to the blue Ruskin duplex where Cameron lives with his parents and siblings. They wanted to put a face on a statistic to mark the Patrol's "Hit and Run Awareness Month," a campaign to urge drivers to remain at the scene.

Under Florida law, a driver must stop immediately at the scene of a crash on public or private property that results in injury or death. Leaving the scene of a crash is a felony and drivers, upon conviction, lose their licenses for at least three years and face a mandatory minimum of four years in prison.

"What we need to remind people is there are severe penalties for leaving the scene of a crash," said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol. "People need to understand that when you're involved with something, don't take a bad situation and make it worse."

The reasons people leave the scene vary, Gaskins said. Some don't have valid driver licenses or insurance. Some have been drinking or using drugs and don't want to risk a DUI charge.

Agencies such as the Hillsborough and Pinellas county sheriff's offices, as well as the St. Petersburg and Tampa police departments, investigate hit and run crashes through their own traffic divisions. In Pasco County that duty is left up to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Finding a driver who leaves the scene of an accident is a tough, time-sensitive task, said Sgt. Spencer Gross, spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

"I think the key is communication," Gross said. "Getting the information out quickly to other deputies or law enforcement agencies and working hard to locate witnesses that can provide a vehicle description or tag number."

Communication was key in identifying a dump truck driver who struck and killed a pedestrian in Tampa Monday and drove away, said Tampa Police Department spokesman Steve Hegarty.

The driver, David Yribar-Hernandez, was pulled over a short time later by a Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputy who had a witness' description of his vehicle. When Yribar-Hernandez fled as the deputy attempted to question him about the accident, Tampa police officers quickly helped stop and arrest him.

To discourage hit-and-run drivers, Gov. Rick Scott signed a state law that imposes a four-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence for drivers convicted of leaving the scene of a crash that kills someone. It also boosted the mandatory-minimum prison sentence from two years to four years for a DUI driver who leaves a fatal crash scene.

Determined to solve more cases, the Highway Patrol last year created a new hit-and-run investigator position in each of its dozen troops to work cases after an initial investigation is complete.

Trooper Christopher Wells holds the new post in Troop C, which includes the Tampa Bay area.

"Tracking down vehicles and doing interviews is very time-consuming, so that's where I come in," Wells said. "I can do those follow-ups and put together a case for the victim. We try to go above and beyond to try to track these people down and bring them to justice."

Wells works with debris left at the scene and scours social media for clues. In the last six months of 2016, he went through more than 100 cases and closed about half of them, resulting in roughly 140 charges.

Tampa Bay has seen several high profile hit-and-run cases in recent hears.

In 2014, a Pinellas County judge sentenced Christopher Patrick Weed to 11 years in prison for running down Rob Lemon and his girlfriend Hilary Michalak as they rode on a tandem bicycle on the Clearwater Memorial Causeway.

The following year, Marquice Anderson was sentenced to 35 years in prison for fleeing a crash on 16th Street in St. Petersburg that killed Jame'sia Lang, 21, Briana Campbell, 23, and Grace Collier, 25.

Cameron, the Ruskin teen, was on his way home from the Ruskin Recreation Center when he tried to cross U.S. 41 at College Avenue on a bike he'd received for Christmas six days earlier. He recalls his hearing a friend yelling, "Watch out," and turning in time to see a car coming at him. He said he remembers hitting the pavement and wondering if he was going to die. Then, darkness.

Cameron said he was in the crosswalk with a "walk" sign, but Wells said a witness gave a different version. Troopers say he was south of the crosswalk.

Soria was driving the green 2002 Chevrolet Suburban that hit Cameron, investigators say. Records show he hasn't had a valid driver's license since 2014 and was deemed a habitual traffic offender by the state. Investigators say his family is helping him avoid capture.

Cameron spent about a week in a medically induced coma. Doctors stapled shut a gash in his head and treated a bad case of road rash, but he has largely recovered. He's itching to get on his new bike, this time with a helmet.

He called the driver who hit him a "coward" who should have stopped.

"If he would have stopped, he probably would have never went to jail," Cameron said. "Now he's probably going to go to a jail for a long time."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.