Families dismayed that arrest not made in boating crash that killed two

Judy and Jim Dowd’s daughter, Corey Vincent, and her friend Joe Battista were killed in a 2005 accident while riding a personal watercraft near John’s Pass.
Judy and Jim Dowd’s daughter, Corey Vincent, and her friend Joe Battista were killed in a 2005 accident while riding a personal watercraft near John’s Pass.
Published Dec. 26, 2012

TREASURE ISLAND — On a sunny afternoon in 2005, a boat barreled through the waters near John's Pass and collided with a personal watercraft.

The two people aboard the craft, Corey Vincent, 19, and Joe Battista, 23, were killed.

The boat's driver, Miguel Alvarado, sped off until another boater chased him down.

On Alvarado's boat, police found about a dozen empty beer bottles. He refused a sobriety test but investigators noted he had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and stunk of booze.

Instead of arresting him, investigators let him go home.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission then carried on a seven-month investigation, after which officers obtained warrants charging Alvarado with manslaughter and leaving the scene of a fatal crash. He faced up to 35 years in prison.

By then, Alvarado had fled the country. Today, the FBI lists him on its website as one of its most wanted fugitives.

Vincent's mother and stepfather, Judy and Jim Dowd, blame law enforcement for letting Alvarado get away by not arresting him immediately.

"For the life of me, I couldn't understand it," Jim Dowd said. "This whole case stinks."

• • •

Battista had been in Florida only about an hour when he and Vincent hopped on the Sea-Doo watercraft at her parents' Madeira Beach home.

He had flown from Clinton, Conn., where he and Vincent grew up, and where he worked as a paramedic. In a way, he was the opposite of Vincent, whom he had once dated.

She was a rebellious teen, but had recently turned things around at Pinellas Technical Education Centers, where she was an honor student. She wanted to be a physical therapist.

The Dowds hadn't wanted their daughter to drive when they moved to Florida about two years earlier. They thought the roads were too dangerous. So they bought her the Sea-Doo.

That afternoon, clad in life-jackets, the two friends headed toward Boca Ciega Bay.

About the same time, Alvarado was dialing a tow boat on his cellphone. He had spent the day cruising the Intracoastal Waterway on La Guaira, a 29-foot catamaran powerboat named for his hometown in Venezuela. With him were his girlfriend and her sister-in-law.

In Boca Ciega Bay, La Guaira got stuck on a sandbar. The tow boat arrived and pulled him free. The catamaran then surged toward the docks near the mouth of John's Pass. Vincent and Battista had no time to react.

"This guy was going really fast," said Carl Rennell, who saw the crash from his 21-foot Osprey. "He basically jumped over them like they were a ski jump."

The impact killed Vincent instantly. Battista, who was clipped by an engine propeller, died at the hospital.

Rennell watched as Alvarado's boat veered right and pressed on. He coasted alongside La Guaira, hollering at Alvarado to stop. After 400 yards, he finally did.

• • •

After the crash, Alvarado told FWC investigator Baryl Martin that he drank two or three beers, the last one two or three hours before the crash.

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Authorities took two blood samples from Alvarado. They impounded the boat.

Thirty-three days later, Martin received a report showing Alvarado's blood alcohol level was 0.07 and 0.05 percent in samples taken three and four hours after the crash. Experts later estimated his blood alcohol content at the time of the crash was between 0.11 and 0.12 percent, exceeding the point where law considers a driver impaired.

Nearly six months after the crash, Martin completed arrest affidavits on charges of leaving the scene of an accident. Warrants were issued three days later. He went to Alvarado's business, M & A Tire Service in Tampa. Alvarado wasn't there.

He went to Alvarado's home in Wesley Chapel. The house had been sold.

A month later, two manslaughter warrants were issued ordering that Alvarado be held on $1 million bail. Court records show that on June 29, 2005 — about five weeks after the crash — Alvarado had transferred his general power-of-attorney to his sister, Luz Marina Lewis, an Orlando real estate agent. She then sold his home.

Alvarado fled to Venezuela.

• • •

Authorities say the way Alvarado's case was handled was routine. People suspected of manslaughter by drunken driving or boating usually are not immediately arrested.

"For us, it's standard investigative procedure," Martin said. The same is true for other agencies. "In the vast majority of cases — 99 percent or better — people are arrested after the whole case has gone through an investigation," said Sgt. Steve Gaskins of the Florida Highway Patrol.

Most suspects stick around and are easy to find when warrants are issued. But if they flee and can't be found, victims' families have no chance for justice.

To the Dowds, it makes no sense that if you get pulled over while drunk, you go to jail on a drunk driving charge; but if you kill someone, you're free to go.

Statewide, about 100 people today have active arrest warrants for charges of vehicular homicide or manslaughter by drunken driving or boating, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. FDLE officials said they were unable to provide a list of those people to the Tampa Bay Times, so it's impossible to say how many of these people fled like Alvarado.

Investigators say the delay is necessary. These aren't misdemeanor DUI charges, but cases in which someone lost their life and someone else could lose their freedom. With such high stakes, they must tread carefully.

The most commonly cited concern is the defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial. Once a person is charged with a crime, the state has 180 days to try them. Unless a defendant waives this right, authorities have a finite window to investigate what are some of the most complicated cases in the criminal justice system.

"If I'm not done, I don't have a case," Gaskins said. Legal experts concur. "An arrest starts all kinds of time limits ticking, and in complex cases they may run out before you have enough evidence to file charges," said Bob Dekle, a University of Florida law professor and former prosecutor.

The FDLE lab has an average turnaround time of 48 days for blood tests that show whether a driver was on drugs or alcohol, though if speedy trial becomes an issue, labs can fast-track testing. In Pinellas County, which has its own forensic lab, results can come back even quicker. In Alvarado's case, investigators had the results in about a month.

But it can take several more months to reconstruct the accident scene, interview witnesses and consult experts.

Despite the speedy trial concerns, police occasionally arrest someone right after a crash if authorities believe a person poses a danger to the public, if a case is particularly egregious or there are obvious signs the person is a flight risk.

Investigators didn't think Alvarado was a threat to the public when they let him go, or, apparently, that the case was that egregious.

He had been arrested once in Pinellas County before, in 1992 on a misdemeanor gun charge for which he was fined $150. He had no previous DUIs.

Investigators also didn't consider him a flight risk because he owned local businesses, owned a home and had family here.

• • •

Battista's mother, Sherry Battista, doesn't blame law enforcement for what happened. Her ire is aimed at Alvarado alone.

"To just take off and not take responsibility for what he did … does he not realize the way he affected lives and the pain he caused?" Battista said.

The Dowds blame Alvarado, but say authorities ignored their suspicions that he was going to flee. They also say enough hasn't been done to arrest him overseas.

"I knew right well, 100 percent, that he was going to take off," Jim Dowd said. "Unless he was completely insane, he wouldn't stick around to see what happened."

Both families wonder why investigators didn't arrest Alvarado right away on charges that he fled the scene, then add the manslaughter charges later.

But legal experts say all charges have to come around the same time or issues of double jeopardy can arise.

And even if Alvarado had been arrested for leaving the scene, the bail would be substantially less than for manslaughter. He could have bailed out and still fled.

None of it makes sense to the two grieving families. Nothing can assuage the seven years of pain they have endured — a never-ending affliction rankled by an absence of justice.

"Corey will never get married," Jim Dowd said. "Corey will never give us any grandchildren. It took a big chunk of our life away."

• • •

On Jan. 24, 2006, a federal court issued another warrant charging Alvarado with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. The FBI began looking for him. Interpol ordered him jailed if caught crossing international borders.

That paid off in June 2006 when Alvarado was arrested in Colombia as he crossed from Venezuela using an alias. The U.S. requested extradition. The Colombian government kept him in jail for a year, then let him go and refused to extradite him. The crash, they said, did not constitute a crime of the same magnitude under Colombian law.

"Obviously he knows now that if he travels abroad we have a stop on him," said Dave Couvertier, spokesman for the FBI in Tampa. "We're in a very challenging position at this point."

In 2008, the Dowds filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Alvarado. In depositions, attorneys grilled his relatives and friends about his escape.

Alvarado's sister, Luz Marina Lewis, testified that she sent her brother a check for the sale of his home in October 2005. Attorneys pressed her for specifics.

"Why is all this?" Lewis said to the lawyers. "Because when he did this transaction, he was free to go anywhere. They didn't have a warrant on him and anything.

"He was free to do whatever he wanted to do."