Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

Tip, forensics work help father fulfill promise to son killed in I-4 hit-and-run

TAMPA — Kneeling beside his son's granite tombstone in a small-town cemetery in New Jersey, Jose Contreras made a promise.

Contreras vowed that whoever slammed into 24-year-old Joshua Contreras as he stood beside Interstate 4 one night in January 2015, then left him for dead, would be brought to justice.

Last week, more than two years later, Jose Contreras' cellphone rang. The Florida Highway Patrol sergeant on the other end had the news he'd been waiting for: The driver suspected in his son's death had been caught.

"I was jumping, just so happy," Contreras recalled Friday. "I was crying."

David Chase Tucker was driving a rented Nissan Altima west on I-4 near U.S. 301 when he swerved onto the shoulder and sideswiped Joshua Contreras as he stood next to a borrowed pickup that had run out of gas, according to the Highway Patrol. Contreras died at the scene.

Tucker, now 26, was arrested Feb. 24 at his mother's home in Brandon and charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving death and tampering with evidence.

The hunt for the driver led a Highway Patrol investigator to north Crystal Springs, south to Miami and finally back to Brandon. Along the way, forensics work and a crucial tip from an informant broke open the case.

• • •

It didn't take long for troopers to figure out what kind of car they were looking for.

A tire guard from the wheel well left behind at the scene had a serial number indicating the suspect's car was a 2014 Nissan Altima, said Cpl. Niles Daughtry, the traffic homicide investigator who worked the case. A piece of red bumper left behind revealed the color of the car.

Two nights later, Tucker and his mother, Teresa Reinhardt, reported that a Nissan Altima she'd rented from an Enterprise office in Brandon had been stolen. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office found the car partially burned in a pasture off County Road 39 in Crystal Springs.

No one made the connection right away. Enterprise sold the car to an auto auction company in Miami and that company sold it for scrap to a body shop in Hialeah, Daughtry said.

The case went dormant until mid April 2015, when the Tampa Police Department passed along a crucial tip: The driver in the hit-and-run was Tucker, an informant said, and he was driving an Altima rented by his mother.

Using that lead, Daughtry tracked down the Altima in Hialeah. He retrieved phone records that put Tucker in the area of the crash about 20 minutes before it happened. And he spoke to two witnesses who said they saw Tucker with the damaged Nissan after the crash.

Both witnesses said Tucker admitted to damaging the car, though he told one that he'd crashed into a mailbox and told the other the he'd hit a guardrail on Interstate 75, Daughtry said.

Then, another big break: A Florida Department of Law Enforcement laboratory analysis showed a paint sample from the recovered Nissan matched red paint found on Contreras' clothes.

"That gave me a 100 percent confirmation this is the vehicle involved," Daughtry said in an email interview.

Tucker's two roommates at the time said he used the Nissan as his primary means of transportation for about a month. Investigators ruled out his mother, Reinhardt, because her husband said she was home with him the night of the crash.

The interior of the Nissan had been set ablaze using a "paint petroleum-based substance." At the time of the crash, Tucker was working as a painter and is suspected of setting the fire.

Daughtry said Tucker has lied under oath throughout the investigation and denies any involvement in the crash.

Daughtry filed his report to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office in December 2015. Fourteen months later, the State Attorney's Office filed charges.

"Once we received the case, we continued to investigate and build on the hard work conducted by the Florida Highway Patrol until we had sufficient evidence to bring charges,'' said Rena J. Frazier, a spokeswoman for the state attorney's office. "Our assistant state attorney was gratified to call Mr. Contreras along with Cpl. Daughtry to inform him that charges were filed in his son's death."

Tucker was released from jail on $30,000 bail. Reached by phone Friday, he said he would call back a Tampa Bay Times reporter but did not.

Tucker was arrested during Hit and Run Awareness Month, a campaign by the Highway Patrol to encourage drivers to do the right thing after a crash. Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesman for the patrol, said the case highlights how important it is for witnesses to come forward.

"There's always a family out there grieving over the loss of their loved one," Gaskins said.

• • •

At first, Josh Contreras wasn't happy leaving his father's home in Passaic, N.J., to live with his grandmother in Tampa at age 22. Jose Contreras said he told his son he should head south where there was more opportunity.

But the younger Contreras warmed up to Florida. He worked a few different jobs and made some friends, said his cousin, Natasha Relegado of Riverview.

Relegado described Contreras as kind, happy, and humble. He loved playing basketball and video games. He was a fan of the Chicago Bulls and The Walking Dead. He was also a good listener.

"He was like my diary," said Relegado, 28. "I could talk to him about everything."

Contreras was living with friends in Temple Terrace. The night of the crash, Jan. 27, 2015, he'd borrowed a friend's 1993 Chevy S-10 pickup and, based on messages found in his phone, was planning to visit a friend before heading to his grandmother's house for the night, Relegado said. The truck ran out of gas about a mile east of 301.

Before he died, Contreras had been planing to move back to New Jersey, Jose Contreras said. Now he's buried in a cemetery in Clifton, not far from his father's house in Passaic.

Jose Contreras plans to visit the grave today. He will light prayer candles and tell his son that God and a Florida Highway Patrol corporal named Niles Daughtry helped him keep the promise he'd made.

"Now," the elder Contreras will say, "he's going to pay for what he did to you."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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