1. Archive

Jury clears defendant in hit-run

The case sounded simple at first.

The prosecutor said a boy on a bicycle was struck by a passing car. There were no real injuries, just a tear in one of the handgrips on the bike. The driver kept going, without so much as stopping to offer help.

Then things became more complex. The defendant in the case was Richard Riha. He and his wife, Judith, have been fighting to retain custody of two children, the young daughters of former Pasco murder defendant Jeffrey Crouch.

The alleged hit-and-run _ which the defense attorney described as a possible fabrication _ was reported during a four-day custody hearing in October pitting the Rihas against Crouch.

Friday evening, a six-member Pasco jury acquitted Riha of leaving the scene of an accident with property damage. However, the jury's decision came only after the complexities of the case were untangled:

Crouch was once charged with the 1987 slaying of Jean Crouch, who was his wife and the girls' mother. The Rihas, who are the girls' aunt and uncle, have had temporary custody since shortly after the slaying, but the issue of permanent custody still is pending. The murder charge against Crouch was dropped 16 months after his arrest, and the former shrimper has yet to prevail in his struggle to get the girls back.

The victim and main prosecution witness in the hit-and-run case were both neighbors of Crouch when the alleged incident occurred. Riha's attorney contended the whole thing was fabricated to harm the Rihas' bid for permanent custody.

In his opening remarks early Friday afternoon, Riha's attorney, Lawrence Liebling, tried to cast doubt upon the testimony of the two boys who said they were nearly run down by Riha on the afternoon of Oct. 23.

"What you're going to hear from the children is not coming from the children," Liebling said. "It's coming from parents and friends who want Mr. Riha to be convicted."

The boy who said he witnessed his friend's bike being struck lived next door to Jeffrey Crouch.

The boy's mother, Valerie Morrison, has been a friend and neighbor of Jeffrey Crouch's for about 11 years. She also was best friends with Jean Crouch, and since her death, Morrison has maintained a close friendship with Jeffrey Crouch.

Although she never has testified in the custody case, she has been called as a character witness for the case.

She testified in court Friday that she called the Port Richey Police Department after her 10-year-old son, Marty, told her that someone in a red car had struck the handlebar of the bicycle belonging to his friend, Scott Edwards, thus ripping the rubber handgrip and knocking Edwards to the ground.

But she was inside when it happened, so she didn't see or hear the accident, she said.

Although her son and the other children in the Port Richey neighborhood play in a clubhouse in Crouch's yard, Morrison said she didn't believe Crouch could coerce her son into lying about the accident.

"I don't think anybody talked to Marty to talk him into anything, if that's what you're trying to say," she told Liebling. "He's too honest. He's brutally honest."

Crouch's father, Richard, came from Key West to give testimony in the case Friday. He has been a staunch supporter of his son in the custody battle, both emotionally and financially, he testified. But Richard Crouch assured the jury that they hadn't concocted the accident in order to discredit Riha.

"I trust the courts to do the right thing," he said. "I don't hate the man. He's done nothing to me. I think he's doing what he thinks is right. . . . (A conviction) would not help his reputation at all. I don't want to see that."

Jeffrey Crouch also testified Friday, saying he and his father went to see another witness in the case, James Braden, to talk to him about the alleged hit-and-run accident near Crouch's home. Braden told the court he was at his unfinished home on the roadway when young Marty told him about the incident.

Braden then went back to his home in Hudson. The Crouches said they found Braden's address on a building permit posted near the construction site. But rather than giving the address to the police so they could contact Braden, they went to him and suggested that he call the authorities, Crouch testified.

Earlier that afternoon, Crouch said, he had seen Riha driving out of the courthouse parking lot in a red rental car. But he didn't actually see the accident.

Like his father, Crouch admitted that a conviction for striking a child on a bicycle would damage Riha's reputation. But he said, "It never entered my mind" that it would be advantageous in the custody case.

After about four hours of testimony, jurors took 10 minutes to render an innocent verdict. County Judge Marc Salton additionally found Riha innocent of police citations alleging that he had been driving carelessly and had left the scene of an accident with damage.

"I'm ecstatic about winning," Riha said after the trial. "I thought through the whole thing that we'd won the case, but I kept having doubts along the way."