BARTOW — In the dead of night six years ago, a Volkswagen Passat ran off a dark country road, hit a pine tree and split in two.
The 18-year-old driver, with alcohol in his system, survived. The 16-year-old passenger, Miles White, was killed.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office concluded that it was a single-car crash, the fault of the 18-year-old drunk driver.
But a Polk sheriff's deputy — who, it turns out, was a sexual predator of young men — had chased the boys at more than 100 mph. The St. Petersburg Times has found information that indicates the deputy's cruiser hit the Passat before it crashed.
The death of a teenager chased by a reckless deputy was bad enough. But there was more. Two weeks earlier, according to records and witnesses, a mother had told the sheriff's office that the same deputy had made her 15-year-old son strip naked, without reason. He had done so while on duty, using his unmarked car.
Now, with the accident, the sheriff's office was faced with a potential legal disaster.
According to their own reports, they had been warned about a deputy preying on a teenager. But they had left him on the road, he had chased two young men, and one had been killed.
If investigators determined that the deputy caused the crash, legal experts say, a wrongful death lawsuit could have cost Polk County millions of dollars.
As it turned out, the accident investigators for the Polk sheriff's office never investigated the deputy's possible culpability in White's death. They did not even interview him — though he had chased the car and was right behind it when it crashed.
• • •
In 2002, Sgt. Scott Lawson had 11 years with the Polk Sheriff's Office. His specialty was bad boys. At night, in an unmarked Crown Victoria, he roamed the back roads, looking for young men up to no good.
He had a reputation as an "adrenaline junkie" who went to great ends to reel in troublemakers.
On May 16, 2002, police reports say, a woman complained to the department that Lawson had brought in her 15-year-old for punching a hole in a wall. The mother said the deputy took her son to a back office and, for no reason, strip-searched him.
Two weeks later, in the early morning of May 30, Lawson brought another young man to the back office. In his unmarked car, Lawson had followed 19-year-old Mike Pellegrini for about a mile, stopped him and searched his car.
At the office, Lawson threw away the rolling papers he found in Pellegrini's car and said he wanted to get to know him better, according to Pellegrini. Lawson drove Pellegrini home in the front seat of his police vehicle, gave him his card and told him to stay in touch.
Said Pellegrini: "It was creepy. ... He was overly friendly.''
• • •
That same day, May 30, with school out for the summer, 16-year-old Miles White spent the morning in his room, writing, drawing and listening to Bob Dylan and Louis Armstrong.
Miles had the fluid, easy line of a professional cartoonist and a great sense of deadpan irony. He added a frame to a cartoon series he was working on that he titled, Enter: Dogfaced Boy. He drew a caricature of himself for a campaign poster for junior class president and under it wrote, "Weekly haircuts, smells nice and reads to small children."
A straight-A student at Lake Region High School, Miles was the middle child between 18-year-old Cameron and 14-year-old Addison. Dad ran a business designing and marketing RV accessories. Mom had a massage therapy business. They lived east of Winter Haven in small-town Lake Hamilton, in a 1927 bungalow with huge oaks in the yard.
The family sat down to Miles' favorite dinner, a homemade spinach and feta pizza, before Miles headed out for band practice with his trio. The group consisted of Adam Jacoby on guitar, another friend singing and Miles on drums. Their style of music, according to Miles: loud.
After band practice, Miles and Adam went to a yard party in Winter Haven, with kids standing around, many drinking beer. Adam stepped on someone's foot, the kid punched him and with Adam on the ground, other kids started kicking him. Miles' brother, Cameron, got Adam to his car, a dark blue VW Passat. Miles jumped in the passenger seat and they took off.
It was after 2 a.m.
Deputy Lawson had been itching for action. At midnight at a 7-Eleven, he had told an FHP trooper that he hoped "to get into something." He messaged a dispatcher that he was trying to get a chase, "but sure is dead." Around 2 a.m. he called a cop buddy and said he was "trying to get into a pursuit."
His wish was granted when he spotted the Passat. Lawson pulled behind the boys in his unmarked Crown Victoria. The Passat sped up.
Chasing the boys, Lawson tore around corners and ran stop signs. He never turned on his police lights or siren or identified himself as an officer.
("We always believed that Adam and Miles thought the angry kids from the party were after them," says Gary White, Miles' dad.)
At 2:47 a.m., Lawson radioed dispatch that he was behind a black, sporty Volkswagen and was trying to get the license number to see if it was stolen. He didn't say why he suspected the car.
As Lawson raced through Lake Hamilton, a local patrolman fell in behind but could not keep up because Lawson was going about 120 mph. Officer Robert Platts would say in a police report that he could not understand why Lawson "didn't just activate his police lights and stop the car."
At 2:57, Lawson read the Volkswagen's license plate to dispatch. Within seconds came the reply, "Sarge ... it's clear,'' the car was not stolen. He continued pursuit.
At 2:59 he yelled to dispatch, "Oops!" Then, silence.
He came back on the radio, sounding excited. "They just signal 4'd (crashed) as I was turning around. ..."
He quickly added: "Give me fire and rescue ... and, oh, I was not 10-31 (in pursuit)."
He had chased the Passat for 15.8 miles, at speeds averaging 105 mph.
The VW ran off the road, hit a pine tree on the right side and split apart. The front section crashed into another pine tree, with Adam inside, injured but alive. Miles was killed, his body found among the trees.
Officer Platts arrived minutes later. Lawson's knee was banged up, both his arms were lacerated and bleeding. The two officers pulled Adam from the car.
Lawson asked a cop buddy who arrived on the scene to call another cop buddy at home to come take Lawson's Crown Victoria. The car was gone before accident investigators arrived.
Lawson complained that his knee and chest were hurting. He went into shock and fainted, according to police and paramedics. He was taken to a hospital and X-rayed for internal injuries.
He was painted as a hero. The Lakeland Ledger reported: "Sheriff's Col. Gary Hester said Lawson was resting at home Saturday and under heavy medication for injuries he sustained when he pulled Jacoby from the burning car.''
• • •
A few days after the accident, a woman called the Polk sheriff''s office to report that she had seen stories on Lawson and his photo and realized he was the same cop who had arrested her teenage son at a party two months before. She said her son told her that Lawson had become friendly and given him a groin exam. She wondered if there was a connection between Lawson's sexual activity and the chase that ended with Miles White dead.
Sheriff's sex crimes Detective Tom Page obtained a search warrant for Lawson's home. In a guest bedroom, the detective found rubber gloves, a stainless steel examination table and a video called Relax the Muscle, Please. He also found a list of names.
The detective talked to 18 males, ages 16 to 28. Most said Lawson had given them anal probes and genital exams.
Less than a week after he was the hero for rescuing Adam, Lawson was arrested on more than a dozen felony counts. He resigned.
• • •
To Lawson's good fortune, the accident investigators from his department never investigated his possible culpability. They charged Adam Jacoby with DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide in the crash that killed his friend.
In a deposition, Sgt. Mike Green, the supervisor, put it this way: "We approached this investigation based on the driving action of the at-fault driver … as a single-car crash.''
In their official reports, the investigators wrote that Lawson was conducting "surveillance." But in depositions in the criminal case against Adam, they acknowledged that Lawson was "in pursuit."
They did not question why Lawson had his Crown Victoria immediately removed from the scene — a violation of the department's accident investigation policy — or where the vehicle went for five days.
Deputy Chris Colson told sheriff's investigators he didn't "see any damage to Lawson's car" when he drove it back to a substation and didn't know what happened to it after that.
Eric Marlow, the sheriff's office fleet mechanic, retired last year. He told the Times he always wondered where Lawson's car went next. "But I knew better than to ask," Marlow said. "Then all of a sudden it reappeared and was put back in the fleet."
FHP Trooper Fred Trim recalled that the Crown Victoria he saw Lawson driving the night of the accident was "dark bluish gray.'' Mike Pellegrini described the car Lawson stopped him in, earlier in the day, as "dark gray and kind of bluish.''
Five days later, accident investigators were given access to a dark green car they were told was Lawson's. It was undamaged.
That same day, Lawson turned in his report, with an array of lies:
• Dispatch told him Adam's car was stolen.
• He was never in pursuit.
• He never exceeded 70 mph.
• He quit "surveillance" 2.7 miles before the crash.
The report by the department's crash investigator, Detective David Hooyman, did not take note of Lawson's lies. But the judge presiding over Adam's criminal case did.
Circuit Judge Roger Alcott wrote in a pre-trial decision: "Hooyman testified he had several concerns about the veracity of Sgt. Lawson's report yet … accepted it as true."
Lawson, at minimum, witnessed the accident, yet investigators were told not to interview him.
Hooyman testified that he "was instructed by my supervisors at the sheriff's department not to conduct an interview with Lawson.''
Lt. Susan Newton testified that Col. Hester, then the department's chief of law enforcement, directed investigators not to talk to Lawson.
Hester testified that he didn't remember that, but it may have been because of Lawson's injuries.
Hester was among the sheriff's brass at "several meetings'' to discuss the investigation, according to Sgt. Green. He testified that "they talked about the civil side of it'' at a meeting that included Hester, then-Under Sheriff Paul Alley, the sheriff's attorney and Col. Grady Judd, who is now sheriff.
In the end, the sheriff's office determined that Lawson played no role in the accident but violated department policy by breaking traffic laws and not identifying himself as an officer.
He received no discipline because by the time the report was issued, he had resigned from the department.
The Times asked to speak with every member of the Polk Sheriff's Office named in this story, but Donna Wood, a department public information officer, said none would talk. She chastised a reporter for trying to contact some deputies at home.
• • •
Lawson faced 36 charges: nine counts of sexual battery, nine counts of battery and 18 counts of practicing medicine without a license.
About seven weeks after the accident he took a deal: He pleaded guilty to a single count of sexual battery and six counts of practicing medicine without a license and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Lawson, who is serving his time in Vermont, declined to be interviewed for this story.
At a hearing in Adam's criminal case, Detective Page testified that Lawson made "contact and exercised the giving of physicals while in uniform and using a department vehicle."
The detective started to investigate a connection between the sex crimes and the chase that ended in Miles' death, but he stopped his investigation.
His superiors have always held fast to the scenario that Lawson's sexual proclivities had nothing to do with his "surveillance'' of Adam and Miles.
Page declined to talk to the Times, except to say, "I left the sheriff's office because of how that investigation was done. I want to forget everything to do with it."
• • •
The sheriff's crash investigators, Detective Hooyman and Sgt. Green, had taken criminal justice courses from William Barge, a crash investigator with the Florida Highway Patrol. Because they respected Barge, they asked him to review their work on the Adam Jacoby case.
Barge said in a deposition that there was talk among Polk sheriff's investigators about whether the "deputy's car struck the defendant's car."
In a written report to the Polk accident investigators, Barge said after looking at photographs he could not conclude that the Passat had been struck. But he advised the deputies to take better photographs:
"Re-photograph the rear bumper of the crash vehicle along with the supports that hold the bumper in place. This would preclude the suggestion that the crash vehicle had been struck by the sheriff's department vehicle during the pursuit and prior to the crash."
But nothing in the public record shows that the sheriff's office took that advice.
Adam Jacoby's attorney, J. Davis Connor, hired an accident reconstruction engineer, who did just what Barge had recommended. He inspected and photographed the under bumper brackets on the Passat so he could say if it had been hit.
The conclusion: The brackets showed visible signs of impact.
The engineer also disagreed with the sheriff's office finding that Adam lost control of the Passat when he took a curve too fast. Working from the sheriff's office diagram of the scene, the engineer said Adam completed the curve safely before something sent him off the road, onto the right shoulder, where the tire marks begin.
The location of the tire marks also was significant to a forensic engineer with no connection to the case. Miles Moss, who studied the diagrams at the Times' request, said the tire marks, which begin off the road, show that Adam made the curve before "something had to have hit the rear bumper and knocked him off the road, sending the car into a counterclockwise rotation."
The evidence that the Passat had been hit by another vehicle never came out in criminal court because Adam accepted a generous plea offer from the state. He pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of manslaughter and got six years probation and a withhold of adjudication, meaning he will not have a conviction if he completes probation. He also got to keep his driver's license.
The state offered the deal after a judge ruled that the prosecution improperly obtained Adam's 0.096 blood-alcohol level from the hospital and could not use the results in court. Also, Miles' parents asked that Adam not be prosecuted because they did not believe he caused the accident.
While Adam is on probation, neither he nor his attorneys will talk about the case.
Though the evidence the Passat had been hit did not come out in criminal court, the civil attorney for Miles' family said Adam's attorneys made it available to use in the federal civil rights lawsuit against Lawson and the sheriff's office. But the civil attorney, Gregg Goldfarb, decided not to use it.
Goldfarb says he wanted to base the claim solely on negligence because he thought that would let him get at the county's insurance, which could go into the millions of dollars. The family had turned down a settlement offer of $200,000.
Goldfarb reasoned that if he showed evidence that Lawson hit the Passat, that would make the deputy's actions intentional, not negligence on the part of the sheriff's office, and the insurance would not pay.
"It wasn't a direction I wanted to go in," Goldfarb said. "Besides, I thought we had a slam-dunk without the ramming evidence. There was Lawson's chase, his failure to identify himself as police, the violation of policy, the failure to supervise Lawson and the cover-up."
Several attorneys who specialize in wrongful death cases say they see it differently: The negligence claim still would have applied, because the sheriff's office was responsible for Lawson's actions.
As it turned out, the judge dismissed the case precisely because Goldfarb had not introduced any evidence that Lawson's car came in contact with the Passat.
U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara ruled: "Although Deputy Lawson's patrol car was removed from the scene and was not examined … until five days after the accident, there is no evidence at this point to suggest Deputy Lawson's patrol car ever hit Adam Jacoby's (car)."
Having lost in federal court, Goldfarb filed suit in state court, where the case is pending.
Last year, attorneys for the sheriff's office made Gary and Jamie White a settlement offer: $100.
• • •
Six years. Gary and Jamie White say the truth about what happened to their son has not come out, not in the sheriff's investigation, not in the courts.
Says Gary: "We always believed Scott Lawson caused Miles' death and the sheriff's office covered it up. Now we're certain.''
Says Jamie: "It feels as if someone went into my heart and cut a third out. The wound is still wide open. I say to anyone who knows what happened on that night: Don't be afraid to come forward. We lost our son. We have to live with that. All I'm asking is that you come forward."
She has a recurring dream: Miles, his face gashed and charred, walks in the house. She puts a cold rag on his face. When he removes it, the wound has disappeared.
I'm okay, mom, he says. I'm okay.
Then she wakes up.
• • •
Hank B. Campbell, attorney for Polk Sheriff Grady Judd, recently wrote the Times a letter: "The accusations you are apparently making that this accident was not fully investigated, that the allegations regarding Scott Lawson were not fully investigated, or that there has been some cover up ... are false and without factual basis.''
Should the newspaper persist with its "deeply troubling campaign of misinformation,'' Campbell wrote, his law firm would recommend that the sheriff take action "to properly communicate the truth.''
The Times then asked the Polk sheriff's office if it could inspect and photograph the rear of the wrecked Passat, which police are still holding.
The answer was no.
Times researchers Caryn Baird, Carolyn Edds and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8068.