TAMPA — Admitting a case was closed prematurely, Tampa police are changing the way they handle traffic fatality investigations, spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Thursday.
On April 24, a police detective administratively closed a fatal hit-and-run investigation that led to the home of a wealthy Davis Islands family but resulted in no arrest.
Police supervisors reactivated the case this week after determining that there was work left undone, McElroy said.
Previously, the agency said the case detective, Robert D. Powell, had been in consultation with the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office and, together, they decided there wasn't enough evidence to make an arrest.
But McElroy said Thursday that, while the detective did speak with prosecutors early on, he never asked them to review the evidence prior to ending his active investigation.
"That should have happened," she said.
Because it didn't, she said, "we lost a month of investigating time working on the case."
An administratively closed case is treated like a cold case. Fresh leads and tips are pursued as they arise, but the case is not actively investigated.
Under the agency's new policy, detectives must have prosecutors and the captain of criminal investigations review any traffic case involving a death before closing it. Though detectives often consulted with those entities under the old rules, it wasn't a requirement.
The announcement heartened the family of Melissa Sjostrom, the 33-year-old homeless woman killed in the Feb. 8 accident.
"I'm thrilled," said Sjostrom's aunt, Lisa Mott. "If anything positive can come out of Missy's death, I'm thrilled. I'm 100 percent behind the Police Department."
The State Attorney's Office is not commenting on the case.
McElroy would not specify what leads weren't pursued.
News of the policy change followed the St. Petersburg Times' report on Thursday that police had not interviewed the parents of 17-year-old Jordan Valdez. Police believe Valdez was driving the Nissan Murano that hit Sjostrom as she limped across a South Tampa road at 8:27 p.m.
Detectives don't like to put parents in the position of testifying against a child, McElroy said, but the option is a legal way to gain information about what statements the child made after a possible crime.
Valdez has not admitted driving the SUV when the crash occurred, her lawyer has said.
Detectives learned that Valdez was driving home from cheerleading practice around the time of the crash, and toll booth video shows the SUV she typically drove exiting the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway three blocks from the scene just minutes before the crash occurred. Tinted windows hid the driver's identity.
Witnesses to the crash saw an SUV drive across the Davis Islands bridge. Detectives scoured the neighborhood and matched a red paint chip from the scene to a Murano with front-end damage in front of the Valdez home.
But police say that circumstantial evidence doesn't firmly identify the driver, and that's what they need for an arrest.
So far, they have only cited Valdez with a ticket for careless driving, which was thrown out by a judge on Tuesday due to a lack of evidence.
McElroy said supervisors routinely review cases after they already have been administratively closed, but previously there was no specific timetable for that to take place.
The review process is designed "to catch these kinds of oversights," she said. In this case, it didn't happen until this week.
Any potential discipline against Powell, the case detective, won't be discussed until after the case is complete, McElroy said.
"Our first priority," she said, "is achieving a successful resolution in this case."
Times staff writer Elisabeth Parker contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.