The pictures tell a story.
What they say, according to traffic accident reconstruction experts, is that a deputy for the Polk County Sheriff's Office caused the accident that killed 16-year-old Miles White.
For six years, the Sheriff's Office has maintained that it was a single-car crash, the fault of an 18-year-old drunken driver. They say he ran his Volkswagen Passat off a back country road into pine trees, killing his passenger.
Deputy Scott Lawson, who it turned out was a sexual predator, had chased the boys in his unmarked Crown Victoria for 15 miles at speeds averaging 105 mph, without ever using his lights or siren. Though his accident report was laced with lies and though he witnessed the accident, investigators never questioned him.
But the St. Petersburg Times has obtained photos of the crashed Passat, including closeups inside the rear bumper. The photos, in concert with other evidence, prompted experts not connected to the case to conclude that Lawson hit the Passat.
Said forensic engineer Miles Moss: "These pictures are indisputable physical evidence that the Passat went off the road from being hit.''
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When the Times was preparing to run a previous story that questioned the impartiality and conclusions of the investigation, sheriff's attorney Hank Campbell wrote the newspaper that any suggestion that the accident was not fully investigated and was other than a one-car accident was "pure and obviously malicious fiction."
The story raised numerous issues, based on police and court documents and sworn testimony:
- Lawson had a colleague remove his vehicle from the crash scene before investigators arrived, a violation of department policy. An undamaged car, reportedly Lawson's, surfaced five days later.
- Among the lies in his report: Lawson said dispatch and a deputy told him the Passat was stolen, actually they said it was not stolen; he said he never exceeded 70 mph, actually he averaged 105 mph; he said he quit "surveillance'' 2.7 miles before the crash, actually he was there, shouting "oops'' into his radio, then immediately reporting that the Passat crashed.
Despite the obvious lies, and despite Lawson being an eyewitness, sheriff's investigators said higher-ups at the Sheriff's Office told them not to interview Lawson.
- Two weeks before the crash of May 31, 2002, according to records and witnesses, a mother had told the Sheriff's Office that Lawson had made her 15-year-old son strip naked, without reason. Lawson had done so on duty, using his unmarked car to take her son in.
The crash left the Sheriff's Office in a potentially disastrous legal situation. Told that one of its deputies had engaged in illegal sexual activity with a teen while on duty, the agency had left the deputy on the road. If it could be proven that on duty, in his unmarked car, he caused a crash that killed a teenager, a wrongful-death lawsuit could have cost Polk County millions of dollars.
As it turned out, the Polk Sheriff's Office absolved Polk sheriff's Deputy Lawson of any part in the accident. Investigators said the driver of the Passat, Adam Jacoby, was "solely responsible.'' He was charged with DUI-manslaughter and vehicular homicide.
Prosecutors lost a key element of their case when a judge ruled that the state had improperly obtained Jacoby's blood alcohol level, which was just over the legal limit. He was offered a sweet plea deal: six years' probation, no record of a conviction if he completes probation, and he got to keep his driver's license.
Because Jacoby took the plea and the case ended, the photos that defense investigators had taken of the Passat were never made public. Until now.
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Jacoby's attorneys had the photos in storage until recently, when Miles White's parents asked if they could get copies. The Whites then shared the photos with the Times.
"These photos tell the story that the Sheriff's Office didn't,'' said John Bell, the forensic engineer who supervised the photography for Jacoby's defense. "They're the supreme tattletale."
Bell, a transportation engineer with a doctorate in ergonomics, has been a board-certified accident reconstruction analyst for 13 years.
The newspaper asked two forensic engineers with no connection to the case to review the photos. What they show is not as obvious to the layman's eye as a bullet wound in a murder case, but these experts said, they are just as telling.
"We are using the laws of physics to determine what happened here because Lawson is in prison and won't talk, and Jacoby is on probation and won't talk, either,'' said Miles Moss, who has been analyzing accidents for 38 years. "So we look to the physical evidence, and that tells us Lawson hit the Passat in the rear and knocked it off the road.''
He cited five areas of evidence in the pictures:
- "Markings on a rear plunger (shock absorber) that show it was depressed from forward force applied to the rear of the Passat.
- "The metal plate that connects the plunger to the under rear bumper is deformed from impact.
- "A scrape on the inside of the outer rear bumper shows that force caused the bumper to move up and down, the result of rear impact.
- "Crumpling under the undamaged tail light shows the car was hit from the rear by something other than trees.
- "Collapsing on the driver's side of the car near the rear is induced damage, consistent with the left rear being hit."
Moss said the evidence is overwhelming, then played devil's advocate: "What could someone arguing this say? That there is so much trauma to the car from hitting trees it's difficult to see what caused what. But all of the tree damage is sideways trauma.
"The photos of the plunger, the deformed plate, the scrape inside the outer bumper, the induced damage and the crumpled blue metal under the tail light are caused by rear-to-forward trauma, which is very good, solid evidence that Lawson hit the car."
Forensic engineers consider photos in conjunction with other evidence. Moss, for example, noted that the sheriff's diagram of the accident says the tire marks begin off the road. Moss said that shows that Jacoby made the curve before "something had to have hit the rear bumper and knocked him off the road.''
Lawson said he injured himself pulling Jacoby from the car after the accident, but Moss said Lawson's injuries are consistent with the impact of his body against the steering wheel in a rear collision.
Moss said everything fits, down to the radio tape catching Lawson saying "Oops'' and then reporting the Passat had crashed.
Said John Bell: "We forensic engineers like to have some degree of certainty. We like to be at 90 percent, and I think we are with all of the evidence taken in its entirety. I do not believe this was a single-car accident. I believe Lawson caused it."
Joseph Wattleworth also reviewed the photos at the newspaper's request. He is engineering professor emeritus at the University of Florida, where he directed the Traffic and Transportation Engineering program for 27 years. He said he has testified in court as an accident reconstruction expert more than 200 times - half the time for plaintiffs, half for defendants.
His conclusion: "The rear of the Passat was impacted. This damage couldn't have been caused by hitting trees.
"When you put everything together in this crash, you can see that the Polk County Sheriff's Office shouldn't have investigated itself. You look at this and you smell a rat."
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Lawson has declined to talk about the accident. Charged with more than 70 crimes connected to sexual abuse, he got 15 years in prison for guilty pleas to sexual battery and practicing medicine without a license.
The Times wanted to go over the photos with the Polk Sheriff's Office. A spokeswoman there referred questions to attorney Hank Campbell.
Campbell previously told the Times that he "retained independent accident reconstruction experts whose analysis confirmed in all material aspects (the sheriff's crash) investigation and its conclusions." But he would not make that analysis available.
In a letter Thursday, Campbell said the Times lacked objectivity and was trying to "champion the cause'' of a party to a lawsuit. He said that he regretted that in the newspaper, unlike in court, he could not address the "purported experts' apparently baseless opinions.''
Nor did he respond to a question about what appeared to be a discrepancy in the Sheriff's Office 19-page official accident report.
In that document, the investigator pointed to evidence that showed the Passat had not been struck from the rear: "Inspection of the rear section (of the Passat) was conducted. On the rear foam section, bumper area, I observed no apparent damage."
But, Bell, the defense investigator, said that he examined the bumper, as well, but found no lining. Nor was there any lining or undamaged foam section in the photos taken by the Sheriff's Office at the crash scene.
"If it existed and was important evidence for the Sheriff's Office, where was it?" Bell asked.
According to the Volkswagen parts catalog for the 2000 Passat sedan, and according to two Volkswagen parts managers in the Tampa area, the 2000 Passat sedan did not have a rear foam section lining the bumper.
Meg Laughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8068.