BROOKSVILLE — A "wheel witness" has finally come forward. And the now the finance director for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office faces the possibility of criminal charges.
Hernando detectives have reopened the investigation of a single-car accident early Saturday, trying to determine whether Emily Vernon was driving drunk when she allegedly ran several cars off the road before crashing into a pole at Lake Lindsey and Daly roads, just southwest of Istachatta.
"We have witnesses that came forward, indicating that they saw Ms. Vernon behind the wheel," Sgt. Donna Black, spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, said on Wednesday. "Therefore, with the new information, we were able to reopen the case and undergo an investigation."
Vernon was not arrested in the accident Saturday because none of the witnesses at the scene could place her behind the wheel of her truck — a lack of what prosecutors and detectives call a "wheel witness."
That changed when another witness, Natasha Duncan, contacted the Sheriff's Office on Tuesday to say that she was sitting in a pickup with her boyfriend at Lake Lindsey and Daly roads when a 2004 Chevy veered off the road in their direction.
Duncan's boyfriend backed the truck out of the way, narrowly averting the oncoming Chevy, which then ran into a nearby road sign, she told a local newspaper. Duncan and her boyfriend watched Vernon get out of the truck and check the damage.
When other witnesses who had been tailing the Chevy arrived at the scene, Duncan and her boyfriend drove away from the accident.
Duncan could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
According to the accident report, when the other witnesses caught up to the truck, Vernon entered the truck but gave her keys to one of the witnesses after he asked for them. As Vernon walked across the road, she tumbled into a ditch, witnesses told a deputy. The report said Vernon was "dancing in the road'' at one point.
A deputy 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 accident.
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.
A supervisor approved Mulverhill's assessment and confirmed that deputies did not have to perform a field sobriety test on Vernon. Officials with the Sheriff's Office insisted that Vernon had been treated like any other motorist in a similar situation.
With the case now under investigation, Black could not comment further. It was unclear how the Sheriff's Office could conduct a DUI investigation so long after the fact with no evidence such as the results of field sobriety tests or blood-alcohol tests.
Black said Vernon, 39, who has worked at the Sheriff's Office since May 2006, will no longer face an internal affairs investigation now that her case has been reopened.
"That's the normal course of action," Black said.
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 754-6120.