Master Trooper Christopher Wells was a paid volunteer firefighter working with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue in Lutz before joining the Florida Highway Patrol in 2001. He spent years as a patrol trooper before becoming a full-time hit-and-run case investigator for the Tampa Bay region through a program the patrol started in 2016.
He said the program has proved successful: Of an average 100 cold-case and recent hit-and-runs he investigates per year; 79 percent are solved with charges being filed.
Wells, 45, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about hit-and-run cases, what troopers want to see when they pull someone over, the danger of working on the side of the highway and more.
How are cold-case hit-and-run cases solved?
There’s a spectrum there, every part of the equation is involved. I’ve had people that have called my office and... wanted to turn themselves in. I will go out and redo interviews with the victims to make sure that in the initial investigation nothing was missed. We go out to intersections and look for cameras. … We’re a technology world and there’s virtually cameras everywhere. So a lot of times we have video footage of crashes depending on where they are and the time of day.
We have a collaborative effort with our insurance investigator partners that deal with insurance fraud. You’re required to have motor vehicle insurance, so… when claims are filed for property damage or personal injury, a lot of times the insurance (company) does an investigation on their own, which is completely separate from ours. So some information through the proper channels is obtained from insurance (investigators). … There’s multiple areas that we can focus on to try to bring justice for victims and try to bring people to justice.
It must be gratifying when you do catch the hit-and-run driver.
Well, it’s not necessarily gratifying to us, but it does help the victim. ... I had a case last year out on the Howard Frankland Bridge and we were able to do the investigation and identify the driver. And upon calling one of the victims, she was quite emotional. She was thankful. Because she was injured, she had some bodily injury that had to be addressed. She didn’t have any information (on) the assault vehicle.
When you do tell somebody, “... We didn’t forget you. We are working on your case,”… it brings a sense of relief to the victims. It’s kind of the ultimate goal.
What drew you to FHP as opposed to another law enforcement agency?
I think just the ability to make a difference, to help people when they were in need. I had done it with the fire department for nine years and (it was) just the interest of doing another side of the job, doing traffic enforcement, because I’ve seen the significance of severe car crashes as a fireman. We’ve responded to calls where there’s been a person deceased at the scene. So looking at the highway patrol, which is a traffic agency, to make a difference in that realm of enforcing traffic and trying to slow people down and trying to make a... safer environment for everybody, it just kind of drew my attention and I made the switch.
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When you pull someone over, do you experience any anxiety as you approach the vehicle? After all, you don’t know who is in there or what they might do.
I would say we never get complacent and never get comfortable with it. We just learn to work through it and to pay attention and ask the right questions of who we’re dealing with. … The patrol always pushes courtesy, service and protection, and we always respond in a courteous manner, and we just expect the same in return.
What do troopers want motorists to do when they are pulled over? Put their hands on the steering wheel? If it’s nighttime, turn on the dome light inside the car?
I would think those two would be good examples. … At nighttime maybe a dome light. Roll the windows down, because you know eventually when we get to either the passenger’s side or the driver’s side, we’re going to need to communicate with you. We’re going to need to let you know what’s going on, whether you might be driving a little too fast or maybe something as simple as letting you know, hey, you have a taillight out.... It should not be a horrible experience for anyone to be stopped. I’ve stopped drivers, I stopped one just the other day that was going a little too fast. And it was her very first traffic stop and she did quite well. The window was down, she was ready to communicate and had the license in her hand.
Your hands on the steering wheel, you’re never going to go wrong there. I think we would not like to see everybody reaching for different things. Just kind of sit and wait, because you don’t know what we’re going to need or what we’re going to ask for.
The law requires motorists to move over a lane or slow to 20 mph below the posted limit when emergency workers are on the side of the road. Yet many still blow by a few feet away at high speed, you say.
I myself have been out on I-75 speaking with a driver, and it’s a situation where I had to be on the driver’s side of the vehicle. To have a vehicle pass by you in that right lane at 70 miles is quite an experience. I’m only one of thousands of troopers or deputies or city police officers that have experienced that same situation. It’s very unnerving. Not only are we having to pay attention to the car that’s coming at us but, as well, speaking and dealing with whoever we have on the side of the road. … I’ve had my hat fly off my head before as vehicles go by.
Have you ever had to get in a scuffle with a motorist?
Not necessarily a scuffle; I’ve been in quite a few disagreements on the side of the road. … (We) speak to people in a very professional manner and a very courteous manner and a lot of time it is my goal to make sure when they do leave, or I am done with them they are no longer agitated; they’re no longer upset with me. … Communication is key, as well as… integrity, which is doing what’s right.