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Tampa Bay area investigators struggle for leads in three hit-and-run cases

Three times in the past six days, Tampa Bay area rescuers have been summoned to crash scenes in which a pedestrian lay on the ground with traumatic injuries while the driver of the vehicle that hit him or her has left the scene.

Police have made no arrests in the three hit-and-run crashes, two of which resulted in pedestrians' deaths. The third pedestrian is in critical condition.

The crashes — two in Pinellas and one in Hillsborough — bring to mind a recent study that found the Tampa Bay area is the second-most dangerous place in the country for pedestrians. The nonprofit group Transportation for America issued the report in November.

The hit-and-run crashes frustrate traffic homicide investigators, who prefer solving cases quickly based on eyewitness accounts or day-after confessions from drivers. But when leads are scarce, they rely largely on forensic evidence and community tips to keep cases alive.

"No victim is forgotten, so to speak," said Largo police Sgt. George Edmiston, whose agency is investigating one of the hit-and-run crashes.

• • •

Harald Milde, 50, was a golf course groundskeeper in Germany. Each winter, when the snows arrived in his Bavarian hometown, he'd hop on a plane to America to spend his three months of vacation with his sister at her Tampa condo.

About 3 a.m. Wednesday, Milde was on his way back to his sister's condo after a night at PJ's Sports Bar & Grill when he was hit on N Dale Mabry Highway near W Humphrey Street, his family said. The impact severed his leg.

"He was a great guy," said Milde's nephew, Mike Heldt. "It's obviously a tough time."

Investigators had few leads as they looked for the driver. There were no witnesses. A passer-by noticed Milde after the crash and called 911. Milde was pronounced dead at the scene, troopers reported.

There was one piece of evidence left behind: a blood-splattered Volkswagen grille.

The Highway Patrol put out an alert to state law enforcement officers to look for a Volkswagen with damage to its front end and possibly damage to the windshield. Auto shops also got the alert.

Meanwhile, family members comforted Milde's sister, Margarete Heldt, who lives in the Whisper Lake Condominiums complex at Dale Mabry and Humphrey.

Her ex-husband, Larry Heldt, said Milde had been trying to get U.S. citizenship for years to no avail. The best he could get were the long vacations spent with his sister.

He always enjoyed Florida's pleasant winters, Mike Heldt said.

"Hopefully they'll catch the driver," he said.

• • •

Troopers also are short on leads in the death of Robin Anne Vallie, 58, of Clearwater. They know she was trying to cross the southbound lanes of U.S. 19, north of Fox Chase Boulevard in the Palm Harbor area, when she was hit by a black sedan with tinted windows — possibly a 2004 Infiniti.

That's about all investigators have. They will really lean on tips from the public in this case, said Highway Patrol Sgt. Larry Kraus.

The other Pinellas hit-and-run happened Saturday night in Largo. Darcee Jo Randall, 49, fell on the ground while crossing the street and was hit while trying to stand up, said Largo's police Sgt. Edmiston.

The impact sent her to a hospital with several facial injuries and broken bones, her son said. She remained in critical condition Wednesday.

After a few days with no leads, Largo police announced Wednesday that they had one — the year, make and model of the vehicle in the crash.

Detectives pieced together a headlight found at the scene, the lens of which belonged to a four-door, silver 2010 Lincoln MKZ.

Edmiston is encouraged because there aren't many of those vehicles registered in Pinellas County.

Using debris such as lights, paint chips and specific parts doesn't tell investigators who is responsible for the crash, but knowing the car certainly makes it easier, Kraus said.

Authorities also check in with local body shops in case a driver tries to repair a car. That is considered tampering with evidence, they said, and it only makes things worse for the suspect if he or she is caught.

Even though the drivers have left the scene of a crash — a felony charge if death or injury is involved — police still think it's better for them to come forward. At least that way, "you're holding yourself responsible for your actions," Edmiston said.

Edmiston said he has files on his desk containing information on hit-and-runs that happened as far back as 2004. The Saturday crash will have his attention for as long as Randall's family goes without closure, he said.

"She has a family who is suffering," Edmiston said.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Highway Patrol at (813) 631-4020 or Largo police at (727) 587-6730.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report.

Tampa Bay area investigators struggle for leads in three hit-and-run cases 02/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2010 9:15am]
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