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Inquiry's pace upsets injured girl's mother

Since November 1998, Brittany Micklo has slowly recovered from the accident that nearly took her life. The Port Richey girl, now 9, continues to battle the brain damage and anger that remain from the day she was hit by a truck outside Fox Hollow Elementary School.

Her mother, Victoria Cooper, has had her own anger to overcome. But her anger was directed toward the two men who she says raised money in her daughter's name and then kept all but $20 for themselves.

In a St. Petersburg Times story in April 2000, Ray Pennetti Sr. and Ray Pennetti Jr., once leaders of the now defunct Reazon II Roll car club, admitted that their club had raised money for the girl with the intention of spending some of it on the club itself. Both said the club gave Brittany's family a fair portion of the money though they disagreed on how much: Pennetti Sr. said it was $500; Pennetti Jr. said it was "a couple hundred dollars."

The article prompted someone to file a complaint about the situation with the Pasco Sheriff's Office, which led to an official sheriff's investigation.

But for Cooper, the investigation seems to have progressed more slowly than her daughter's difficult recovery.

"I've gotten basically nothing," she said recently about what investigators have told her.

Investigators didn't say much because they didn't have enough evidence to make any arrests, sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said. The agency questioned almost 40 witnesses, he said, but no one who gave money to the donation drive ever came forward as a victim.

Cooper and her child were not put out of money, so they aren't exactly victims, Doll explained. But he added that even if the people who lost their money came forward, it "wouldn't necessarily make a difference" in the case.

Detectives questioned the Pennettis early on during the investigation. Subsequent attempts at contact have not been welcomed, Doll said.

"The Pennettis have not made themselves available for further interviews," he said. "We have left messages. We have gone by their residences, and we have yet to make contact with them again."

The elder Pennetti has a clean criminal record. His son's record shows arrests in the 1990s on charges of fraud, grand theft and forgery. Records show he pleaded not guilty to a charge of passing a stolen check in 1995 and was put in a pretrial diversion program that resulted in no conviction. In 1997, he pleaded no contest to trying to cash a stolen check and received probation.

The Pennettis could not be reached for comment Monday.

When interviewed by the Times last year, Pennetti Jr. said, "The club earned it, the club raised it, so why not bring it back and put it into the club?"

Pennetti Sr. told the Times last year he would give $300 to Brittany's trust fund, but Cooper said Monday that never happened.

After months of investigation, Doll said the Sheriff's Office turned the case over to the State Attorney's Office in March.

On Monday afternoon, Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis would say only that the case was still under investigation.

That was news to Cooper, who said she hadn't heard from officials in six months. She is quick to note that she wants nothing to do with the alleged $1,500 to $3,000 the club raised through car washes in late 1998 under the guise of helping with Micklo's medical bills. Her daughter's medical expenses, totaling about $950,000, largely have been covered by insurance.

"If anything, the people should get their money back," she said.

Meanwhile, she struggles daily to help Brittany improve. The girl still has trouble with her balance. She is taking medication to fight the depression caused by her condition.

In August, she'll enter the third grade at Fox Hollow, where she attends classes for students who are learning disabled.

"It's slow going," Cooper said. "She's angry. Who can blame her?"

As for Cooper's feelings toward the Pennettis, "I'm pretty much past the anger part of why they did this to her," she said.

"Just an apology would have been nice."

_ Colleen Jenkins can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6232 or toll free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.

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