Editorial: Hillsborough deputy’s fatal crash needs thorough investigation

Public interest in the accident that killed a 15-year-old pedestrian is high, and the sheriff’s office review should be transparent and objective.
Friends, family, and parents of Josiah Pinner, 15, gather at the site in Tampa where he was struck and killed by an undercover Hillsborough County Sheriff deputy vehicle on Jan. 11 [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Friends, family, and parents of Josiah Pinner, 15, gather at the site in Tampa where he was struck and killed by an undercover Hillsborough County Sheriff deputy vehicle on Jan. 11 [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published March 12
Updated March 13

Friends and family packed a Hillsborough County Commission meeting last week begging members to investigate the death of 15-year-old Josiah Pinner, who was struck and killed by a car driven by a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy in January. Commission chairman Les Miller hit the perfect tone, sympathizing as a father but making clear the commission had no jurisdiction over the sheriff. This is a matter for the facts and the law, not political interference. But it reflects the public scrutiny of the sheriff's office handling of the ongoing investigation.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Anastasia Dawson reported, Deputy Philip J. Montesi crashed into Pinner on Jan. 11 as the teen and his 14-year-old friend attempted to cross Florida Avenue near E 124th Avenue. Montesi, 29, was working undercover that night in a unit conducting mobile surveillance in the area, Sheriff Chad Chronister told reporters after the crash. A preliminary investigation found his Hyundai Elantra was traveling along Florida Avenue, in a 45 mph zone, at about 66 mph. Chronister also said in January that Pinner was crossing Florida Avenue north of a crosswalk and that the deputy had the green light, according to witness accounts and photographic evidence recovered from the scene.

Authorities have yet to complete their investigation into the crash and have released few other details. Once the investigation is complete, the case will be turned over to the sheriff’s Internal Affairs Division to determine if Montesi was following policies and procedures.

As frustrating as it may be for family, friends and the public, the investigation needs to follow its orderly course. But the outpouring to the county commission is only the latest cry for a more timely account of what happened. And it reflects the heightened awareness of this case and the public expectations on the sheriff to deliver a complete and credible report.

According to the sheriff's office, since being hired in 2013 Montesi has been behind the wheel in three accidents, including two involving a pedestrian. The deputy clipped a man with his patrol car’s side mirror in February 2017, causing minor injuries, records obtained by the Times show. Montesi told investigators he was briefly distracted by his in-car computer. A preliminary internal investigation determined the crash was "avoidable;" and while the victim was walking on the edge of a dark road instead of an adjacent sidewalk, he was wearing a reflective yellow vest that investigators said should have helped Montesi spot him.

But that finding was later overturned by the agency's crash review board, which ruled the accident "unavoidable." The victim in the case was issued a citation for failing to use a sidewalk. Montesi received no citation, even though data from the patrol car’s GPS reportedly showed that the deputy was traveling 41.4 miles per hour — about 16 mph over the speed limit. A sheriff's spokesman said the GPS data alone is insufficient for a citation. The review board was chaired by then-Col. Chad Chronister, who months later was appointed interim sheriff before being elected to the office in November.

The sheriff's investigation into Pinner's death appears to be in the final stages. The agency's findings, and its response, need to be complete and objective to maintain public confidence in local law enforcement.