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Homeless voices heard last in case of deadly hit and run

A couple of months back, a reporter was talking to some homeless people about one of them, a man who had fallen into the water behind Tampa General Hospital and drowned.

They make up a community of sorts in what's been referred to as Homeless Hyde Park, at the edge of some of the city's richest neighborhoods. They wander Platt Street and sleep on church steps and stand at corners holding ragged cardboard signs that say "Hungry" and "God Bless."

Some of them spoke to Times reporter Elisabeth Parker that day for her sad story on the life of the man who drowned.

Then they asked: What about Missy?

Missy, who used to sleep at the church and who got hit on the street one night by someone who drove away. Missy, who died at the hospital. Missy, who they said police told them was hit by a teenager soon to be arrested, though no arrest ever came.

From there, what happened to 33-year-old Melissa Sjostrom, Missy to friends and faraway family, exploded in headlines and fierce debate about privilege and personal and parental responsibility. Not to mention police.

It's important to note that had the driver stopped that February night, probably no charges would have been filed. But leaving the scene of a deadly crash is a serious felony.

The detective decided he couldn't put a 16-year-old cheerleader named Jordan Valdez at the wheel of the Nissan Murano believed to have hit Sjostrom. He gave the teenager a ticket and a stern lecture at her lawyer's office as she cried. Then the case was administratively closed — until those headlines.

"It's clear this investigation wasn't handled as well as it should have been in the initial stages," Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue told me this week. "When it came to our attention, then it was time to fix it."

For all the kicking police have taken on this one, give them credit for moving swiftly and decisively to make up for lost time, working to talk to everyone down to her school guidance counselor and considering enhancing toll booth video through NASA. They hope her parents will come forward. They hope the person who was driving will say so. They are building a case on physical and circumstantial evidence anyway.

Most important: The message is coming from the top on how this case will be handled.

Records show the police chief is involved, wanting things done and praising supervisors for follow-through. When the big boss sets the tone, people below tend to act accordingly.

"We have a victim here," Hogue said. "I don't really care what her station in life is. The truth is she really is somebody's daughter."

He said there is no job more important in police work than in cases where lives are lost.

"Every one of those deserves our best effort," the police chief said.

Homeless people are used to no one hearing their voices.

They live anonymous lives, by choice or addiction, by mental illness or sad circumstance.

When they're gone, maybe no one except those who shared a church step or a soup kitchen meal or a pile of old blankets on a cold night will notice.

At least now, we're hearing the question: What about Missy?

Homeless voices heard last in case of deadly hit and run 06/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 2:47pm]
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