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Tampa hit-and-run death stymies police as they fail to identify driver of vehicle

TAMPA — Three months ago, a driver in an SUV killed a woman crossing a South Tampa street and fled.

It happened Feb. 8, at 8:27 p.m. on a Sunday. Melissa Sjostrom, 33 and homeless, was limping across Hyde Park Avenue, when traffic caught up with her.

One driver said the collision sounded like a car ahead of him struck a garbage can. The impact knocked Sjostrom out of her shoes and hurled her 100 feet through the air.

Witnesses say the driver paused, then accelerated away.

Sjostrom died an hour and a half later while undergoing surgery at Tampa General Hospital.

Within hours, Tampa police had connected a red paint chip from the scene to a Nissan Murano with front end damage parked in front of a million-dollar Davis Islands home.

The paint flake from the crime scene fit "just like a jigsaw puzzle," an officer wrote in a report.

No one answered the door. Police impounded the car and set about trying to make a hit-and-run case. But in the three months since, they have hit a wall of contradictions and silence.

Sjostrom's mother, Connie Wheeler, 53, wonders if justice will ever be served. "You wouldn't leave a dog to die alone in a street like that," she said.

• • •

The morning after police impounded the 2007 Nissan Murano, a detective got a message from Robert Valdez, who owns the Davis Islands house.

According to the report, Robert Valdez said his 16-year-old daughter Jordan discovered that her car was missing when she went out to go to school. When her parents called police to report it stolen, they learned the car had been impounded.

Then, police say, the girl told her mother she had been in an accident. The father left several phone numbers for police to contact him. But when the detective called back, no one answered.

Detective Robert D. Powell wrote that he visited Valdez at work, and he said he'd hired attorney Ty Trayner, a veteran of traffic defense work who advised him not to say anything.

Powell said investigators used the SUV's Sunpass transponder to determine that the vehicle entered the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway in the Brandon area and exited at the Plant Avenue toll booth three blocks from the scene, minutes before the crash. Tinted windows on the SUV made it impossible to see the driver in toll booth video, but the car showed no damage.

Detectives subpoenaed the family's cell phone records, but found no calls placed near the time of the accident.

Then last month, Powell met with Trayner, the teen, and her father at Trayner's office.

Leaving the scene of an accident involving death is a first-degree felony in Florida. But Powell cited the teen with careless driving.

Trayner said he had suggested that resolution from the beginning. The evidence of who was driving was weak, he said, and he thought the case would be impossible to prove. But a ticket allowed Powell to complete the accident report and enabled the insurance settlement to kick in for the victim's survivors.

Jordan Valdez said nothing during the meeting, Trayner said. "She's never made a statement," he said, and the police never asked her to. "She would have taken the fifth anyway."

Trayner said the Nissan was the teen's "normally used car," but her parents had access to it. Valdez and her parents each have their own attorney. A hearing for the teen's traffic charge is set for today. She has pleaded not guilty.

"Nobody's acknowledged anything, period," Trayner said.

• • •

The police had witnesses, but that, too, proved frustrating.

Brandi Lynn Yardley told police she saw the crash from her porch. Sjostrom was three-quarters of her way across Hyde Park Avenue when an SUV with red or burgandy "fingernail polish quality'' finish and shiny rims hit her, traveling 45 or 50 miles an hour. The driver stopped, then drove across the Davis Islands bridge. Tinted windows hid the driver, she said.

Police say Rodolfo Padron told them he was several vehicles behind, but saw the collision. He described the car as a black SUV, possibly a Jeep Cherokee, and had the license number.

He also said he caught up with the SUV on Davis Islands. The driver, he said, was a "very nervous, 'tweaked out' young Hispanic male'' 20 to 30 years old, with short black hair. Detectives ran the license plate from Padron and found that it matched a Nissan in Jacksonville.

"At this point, there are no further investigative leads to be able to independently identify Jordan Valdez as the suspect driver,'' Powell wrote in his report. Police closed the case. "If we had the evidence to make an arrest, we would have made one," said police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. With new evidence, an arrest could still come. "We can prove the vehicle [was] used in the hit and run, but we can't prove who was driving the car," she said.

Detectives have learned that Jordan Valdez was coming back from cheerleading practice at the time of the crash, but so many things could have happened between then and the crash that it doesn't help pinpoint the driver, Davis said.

After the accident, Sjostrom's mother moved in with her sister, Lisa Mott, in Kentucky and battled depression. They want the driver to take responsibility.

"What started out as an accident, then turned into a felony, is now a hole in our hearts that will never heal," Mott said.

Freckled, red-headed Melissa "Missy'' Sjostrom had been living on Tampa's streets about a year and a half and was arrested twice — charged with cocaine possession and petty theft.

She slept behind a billboard on the steps at a church on Hyde Park Avenue. Sjostrom told her mother she had AIDS.

Autopsy results showed evidence that Sjostrom had used cocaine the day she died.

Two weeks after the Sjostorm died, a check for $100,000 came by mail to her mother from the company that insured the SUV.

Wheeler won't cash the check, she said.

Jordan Valdez, 17, is a student at Academy of Holy Names. She lives two miles from the scene of the crash, with her family, who own Manhattan Hairstyling Academy.

Police have returned the SUV to the Valdez family. When asked how the crash has affected Jordan Valdez, Trayner said "a lot."

She is in counseling, he said.

Asked why she would seek therapy if she had not been driving, he said: "Somebody died, and it's a very, very traumatic situation." Her parents are in counseling too, he said.

Tampa hit-and-run death stymies police as they fail to identify driver of vehicle 05/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 9, 2009 7:26am]
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