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Ex-officer in 1977 crash case has criminal past

A former Clearwater police officer who recently broke an almost 30-year silence about police involvement in a fatal car accident has an extensive criminal history and served time for DUI-manslaughter six years after leaving the force.

Edward Garner told the St. Petersburg Times in an exclusive interview Thursday that he doesn't think his past will taint his credibility, and he stands by everything he has said.

"We'll just have to wait and see what happens in court, won't we?" said Garner, 57.

As details about Garner's past emerged, members of a Tampa family told the Times they were the first witnesses to the accident on July 13, 1977, and they questioned the former officer's claims.

At issue is how Michael Scott Niesen, an 18-year-old Georgia resident, died on Clearwater Beach and whether police participated in a coverup to conceal the cause of his death.

Several state investigations over three decades have concluded that Niesen died from injuries he sustained in the crash. The accident also claimed the life of Officer Ronald Mahony, 21, who jumped into the truck's bed as Niesen sped away from a traffic stop.

Since the accident, Niesen's older brother, John, has said his brother was fine after the crash and that police later beat him to death. Niesen and his attorney, former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Del Fuoco, have spent the past couple of months collecting sworn testimonies from witnesses who support those claims.

The new information led Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein Tuesday to ask the U.S. Attorney's Office to review the case, specifically allegations of police misconduct.

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Roland and Bonnie Sanchez and their daughter Natalie D'Angelo told the Times Thursday that they would testify that they stood by a badly injured Michael Niesen and that no officers ever hurt him. The officers didn't necessarily help him either, they said.

"They didn't bother to work on him at first. ... I kept getting upset," said Bonnie Sanchez, 64.

The Sanchezes, who were driving west on Memorial Causeway, said they were stopped at the traffic light near Island Estates when they saw the initial traffic stop involving Niesen take place in the eastbound lane.

Roland Sanchez said Mahony jumped into the back of the truck and was standing as Niesen took off, "swerving pretty erratically, trying to throw him out."

"I saw the officer fly out and the truck roll over the top of him," Roland Sanchez said.

The couple were with their two daughters, Natalie and Karen, and a family friend. They had just finished a late dinner on the mainland and were headed back to an inn to spend another week vacationing on the beach.

While some details are hazy - such as whether Michael Niesen was bleeding - they all say the rest of their memories of the night are vivid.

"That kid went through the windshield, and when he landed, he never lifted a finger," said 67-year-old Roland Sanchez, a retired pastor at Bible Baptist Church in Lakeland.

Natalie, 13 at the time, said she walked up to Niesen to see whether he was okay.

"His chest wasn't moving. He didn't flinch," she said.

The family's accounts contradict what John Niesen and Del Fuoco are trying to prove happened.

Ex-officer's credibility could be a problem

Garner's credibility also could be a problem.

Del Fuoco has called Garner "one of the most important witnesses in the case," but said he wasn't aware of his past.

Garner was arrested several times from 1979 to 1983 on charges of passing bad checks, theft, violating probation and driving while intoxicated.

In November 1983, he was arrested after he drove his van into a garbage truck, killing a 22-year-old Odessa man, authorities said. The accident occurred in Holiday on Darlington Road, just east of U.S. 19.

Garner negotiated a plea and was given a 10-year sentence. He served 31/2 years and was released in 1987.

In a 30-minute interview with the Times Thursday, Garner reiterated that he felt Niesen was coherent and uninjured and said he even talked briefly with him before leaving to direct traffic.

Garner said the next day, "about 30 officers" met to put together a final report. He said he was "coached" on what to write and told he shouldn't mention that Niesen wasn't hurt. He doesn't recall who told him to do that.

Garner said he never wanted to come forward because he was worried about his career but also never had "enough proof."

Garner joined the Clearwater Police Department in March 1977 but resigned in April 1978 after he admitted abusing the city's sick leave by calling in sick "when, in fact, he was found to be drinking in a local bar," according to his employment records.

Garner refused to talk about his past, other than to say he left the department "while going through a nasty divorce - I couldn't concentrate. I just left. Period."

He later became a self-employed satellite television dealer.

While serving time, he sobered up, attending Alcoholics Anonymous programs, court documents say.

Del Fuoco defended Garner. "It's not like we have one witness we're relying on," he said. "We have multiple witnesses, and they're all backing each other up."

Two retired emergency medical technicians contacted by the Times have said Niesen was uninjured when they first saw him at the accident scene.

Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said the information about Garner's background would have no bearing on the decision to ask that the case be reviewed.

Officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office did not return calls seeking comment.

Times staff writer Thomas Lake and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Mike Donila can be reached at mdonila@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

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