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Defendant in fatal crash was party guest of Hillsborough deputy

Records show that Paul Parks had a blood-alcohol content of 0.218 after a crash in December 2009 when his car hit a Jeep.

Special to the Times

Records show that Paul Parks had a blood-alcohol content of 0.218 after a crash in December 2009 when his car hit a Jeep.

RIVERVIEW — When Paul Michael Parks got charged with DUI manslaughter weeks after a Dec. 19 head-on crash, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office refused to say where Parks had been drinking.

But investigative documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times describe him drinking shots of tequila at the home of a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy.

Parks had a 0.218 blood alcohol content after the crash, Sheriff's Office records state — more than twice the limit at which the state presumes impairment.

Guests saw him put back two or three Bud Lights and several shots of Jose Cuervo before he drove off in his truck a couple of hours later, the records state. Deputies say his truck drifted into the opposite lane on a Riverview road and hit an oncoming Jeep at 70 mph. The Jeep's driver died at the scene.

The next day, party host Deputy Donald Hess heard about the fatal crash and called the Sheriff's Office. He passed along the names of his guests, and detectives interviewed them in the next two days.

Hess' statements have not been released by the Sheriff's Office, but detectives also interviewed 15 party guests. Some described Parks as "buzzed" and "bombed," yet no one stopped him from driving away.

• • •

Hess and his wife wanted to have a little dessert party at their Riverview home in December. They invited neighbors and families from their daughter's softball team.

They set out beer and wine, and Hess mixed margaritas and daiquiris in the kitchen. Even Parks, the softball coach, came.

With the kids on the porch, the adults drank, chatted and ate peppermint bark.

Parks talked about ABBA and Elton John and tried to get the women to dance with him. He groped one of the female guests, but she didn't make a big deal about it, the records state.

In interviews with detectives, several of the guests described Parks as "creepy," "weird" and "slow," but that might have been because he was a "chilled out country boy type," said guest Jennifer Conroy.

Several guests said he appeared normal and maybe only slightly affected by the alcohol, while others said Parks looked "buzzed." One partygoer said he saw Parks stumbling around.

At one point, Hess' wife, Christa Hess, told one of the guests that she wanted her husband, Don, to take Parks' keys away from him.

"I'm gonna go find Don and see if he'll get the keys from him," she said, according to guest Cindy Maher's interview with a detective.

But when Christa Hess returned, she told Maher that Parks had already left.

Several guests thought it was weird Parks would leave without saying goodbye. If he had, someone could have stopped him, said guest Jon Conroy.

"We would definitely done something … people have extra beds," he said.

One couple did see Parks leave. Leslie Sleepe and her husband went outside for a cigarette and saw Parks get into his truck, they told a detective.

"He looked around like to see if anybody was looking and he got in his truck and he drove away," Sleepe said in her interview.

Did it seem sneaky, the detective asked?

"Yeah … that's what it seemed to me," she said.

Through Sheriff's Office officials, Donald Hess declined to comment because the case hasn't gone to trial yet.

Hess has been deposed, though, and Parks' attorney Barry Taracks said the deputy did not recall Parks appearing drunk at the party.

Parks pleaded not guilty, and attorneys have been interviewing witnesses in recent weeks. The next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 21.

Attempts to reach Parks were not successful, and Taracks said he would not want his client to comment at this time.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon said the department has not — and doesn't plan to — launch an internal investigation into Hess' actions because he acted appropriately by calling the Sheriff's Office as soon as he realized Parks was involved in the crash.

He said the Sheriff's Office declined to share where Parks had been because detectives usually do not release that information in an ongoing investigation.

"Detectives are still tracking down witnesses and interviewing people," he said.

McKinnon said that each officer has the same moral responsibility as any other citizen to make sure their party guests do not drive away inebriated. But it's unclear, McKinnon said, if Parks had been drinking before or after the party.

One guest said Parks appeared "glossy-eyed" when he arrived — "like he had already been partying or something." And a Sheriff's Office report on the crash states that an investigator noticed "multiple empty beer cans/bottles in the bed" of Parks' truck.

Allowing a guest to leave a party drunk is not against the law, and Florida law even protects the party host. A host who furnishes alcohol to a person over 21 cannot be liable for injuries or damages caused by the intoxicated person. The only exemption is if the host knows that the person he's giving alcohol to is addicted to alcohol, a statute states.

Parks hasn't faced any other criminal charges in Florida, according to state records. His driving record shows that before December's crash, he's been cited two other times: Once in 1998 in Georgia for going 77 mph in a 55 mph zone and once in 1999 in Hillsborough County for going 77 mph in a 45 mph zone.

Hess joined the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in 2007. Before then, he spent two years in the Army as a military police officer and then joined the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office. His personnel file is filled with positive reviews and several thankful letters from county residents.

In his evaluation this year, his supervisor rated him highly in all areas.

"Deputy Hess is a very proactive deputy," wrote Sgt. Richard Shannon. "(He) works well with others and displays himself professionally to the public."

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

Defendant in fatal crash was party guest of Hillsborough deputy 09/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 11, 2010 6:19pm]
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