Thursday, June 21, 2018
Public safety

Port Richey city manager draws police scrutiny but no arrest is made

NEW PORT RICHEY — A 911 call led officers to the red Ford Escape idling in neutral in the middle of Astor Drive. The brake lights were on, both rear windows down, when they pulled up behind the SUV just before midnight July 13, a Saturday.

Reports say the driver appeared to be asleep at the wheel.

New Port Richey police Cpl. William Phillips noted in his report that he recognized the sleeping man as Tom O'Neill, the former New Port Richey city manager. Phillips requested help from the Pasco Sheriff's Office and Florida Highway Patrol "to avoid the appearance or potential conflict of interest," he wrote in the report, but neither had an officer to spare. Emergency dispatch sent an officer from Port Richey — where O'Neill is now the city manager — with a dashboard-mounted camera to the scene.

Officers tried unsuccessfully to wake O'Neill, so they called an ambulance.

Eventually, he came to.

Phillips noted in his report that O'Neill had "watery, bloodshot eyes, dazed expression, slurred speech and the odor commonly associated with alcoholic beverage about his person."

But instead of being investigated for DUI, O'Neill left in an ambulance while an officer drove his SUV home for him.

Reached Friday, O'Neill said he was experiencing a medical problem but declined to reveal what it was. And just like that night, he wouldn't say if he'd been drinking.

• • •

Phillips wrote that he asked O'Neill is he was sick or hurt.

"I'm fine," O'Neill responded.

The officer asked for his license and registration.

"I'm fine," O'Neill said again. He asked if O'Neill knew where he was, where he was coming from, did he have anything to drink.

"I'm fine."

In the 46th minute of the dashboard video, O'Neill emerged from the SUV, and walked, with his arms slung over paramedics' shoulders, to the truck's rear bumper and sat. The officer tried to start a field sobriety test, but O'Neill stared straight ahead without responding, according to the report.

EMTs decided to take O'Neill to Northbay Hospital for an evaluation, "citing the possibility of a stroke of other unknown medical episode," the report states.

Phillips, who has worked at the department since 2004, classified the incident as a welfare check in his report, which lists alcohol influence as unknown. No charges were issued.

• • •

O'Neill worked for New Port Richey for 35 years before becoming city manager in 2008. The stint was brief as he was forced under a retirement agreement to step down in May 2009. He became Port Richey's city manager in 2011.

O'Neill, 59, was charged with DUI in August 1996 and pleaded no contest, court records show. He was sentenced to six months probation, community service and DUI school.

New Port Richey police Chief Kim Bogart backed his officer's decision that night.

"(Phillips) decided potential for a medical emergency overrode the concerns about alcohol," Bogart said. "I can't in good conscience question his judgment."

He said he reviewed the report with Phillips and his supervisor.

"I don't see any additional things that we need to do regarding this particular incident," he said. "Whether there was alcohol in O'Neill's system or not, the officer didn't choose to go after that."

Reached in his office at City Hall on Friday, O'Neill said he arrived in the middle of the road late that night because he "had a need for medical attention" and that he was in the hospital again the following Wednesday because of similar medical complications.

"Those medical matters are between me and my physician," he said, "and I don't have much else to say."

Asked if he had been drinking, O'Neill declined to comment.

Defense attorney J. Larry Hart spoke generally about DUI cases, saying investigating officers have broad discretion in them.

"Keys in the ignition," he said, "are usually sufficient."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Jon Silman contributed to this report. Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

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