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Quick action key to solving hit-and-runs

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of June 14, 2012)
Photos: (top) Deputy Ron Bair with Sydney Sanders. (Bottom) Benjamin Harvey.

Deputy Ron Bair of the Indian River Sheriff’s Office caught a dispatch June 4 on his radio at 1:59 p.m. about two people injured in a hit-and-run crash.

His first thought: “Not another one.” His second: “I need to get there.”

In 2011, deputies from the sheriff’s office went to 121 hit-and-run crashes. A 32963 investigation found 11 victims suffered injuries. In those cases, just four suspects were ever arrested.

The low number of arrests raises the issue of whether deputies are doing enough to find and apprehend hit-and-run drivers.

An in-depth look at the hit-and-run crash investigation last week provides answers.

Within 10 minutes, Bair was at 54th Avenue and 16th Street in Vero Beach where a bleeding young woman and young man had crawled into a driveway after being knocked off their moped on 16th Street. Paramedics, having arrived just before Bair, hovered over them.

As fire rescue took them to Indian River Medical Center, Bair questioned the neighbors. One described the hit-and-run car as a sandy-colored boxy sports utility vehicle and said the windshield was broken when she saw it back up and speed away.

Immediately, Bair put out a county-wide BOLO (be on the lookout) alert with a description of the car. Not only did it go to all deputies, it also went to Vero Beach police officers.

“I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to get a vehicle description out there right away,” said Bair.

“That first hour is so important. The more time that passes, the less likely it is  you’ll get a suspect.”

Of the cases in 2011 that yielded no suspects, questions arise about the thoroughness of the search for witnesses. In other cases, the question arises why BOLOs with identifying information didn’t go out immediately.

Bair then went to the hospital to check on and interview the victims.

Since December 2010, when Beverly Kennedy, 82, died nine days after she was run over by a hit-and-run-driver in the parking lot of Carrabba’s Grill in Vero Beach, deputies have made a point of going to the hospital to check on victims the same day of the crash.

In Kennedy’s case, no one did, making her death a surprise to the investigating deputy, who suddenly had a homicide on his hands and a huge amount of lost time.

When Bair arrived at Indian River Medical Center, Sydney Sanders, 19, was still in the emergency room with skin scraped off most of her back. Her boyfriend, Benjamin Harvey, 28, had been air-lifted to Lawnwood in critical condition.

While getting 20 inches of stitches and staples in her back and a cast for a broken ankle, Sanders told Bair what happened.

“The car that hit us was a beige Honda CRV driven by a white female with light brown hair. She wore sunglasses with white frames,” said Sanders.

Bair immediately sent out a second BOLO with more specific car and driver description, then continued questioning Sanders. She said the impact threw Harvey and her onto the hood of the CRV. Sanders’ head went through the windshield before she went flying onto the pavement. 

She pointed to a bald spot on her head where a clump of her reddish-blonde hair was torn out. Drifting in and out of consciousness, they tried to drag themselves off the road.

The moped was stuck to the front of the CRV, said Sanders, prompting the driver to back up abruptly to dislodge it.

Sanders remembered that a sporty black vehicle behind the CRV honked. As the CRV sped past Sanders and Harvey bleeding in the road, the female driver in the white sunglasses waved and smiled. 

“She’s not stopping,” Sanders said she thought. “There’s no one to call 911. We’re going to die out here.”

The sporty black car drove off behind the hit-and-run CRV, but neighbors, who had run out at the sound of the crash, called 911.

While talking to Sanders at the hospital, Bair got a call from Sgt. Kenny Barrett of the Vero Beach Police Department.

“I’m working a crash with a vehicle that matches the one you’re looking for,” said the sergeant.

Barrett had seen the BOLO and car description right before he had been called to an accident at Vero Beach High School less than an hour earlier.

A young woman driving a beige CRV had veered off the road and crashed into a mailbox.  She  kept going through a hedge and hit a silver Mazda in the high school parking lot. The windshield was broken on the passenger side, said Barrett, which had nothing to do with the crash he was investigating.

“She’s at IRMC emergency,” he told Bair.

Bair found Miranda Dean, 20, right around the corner from Sanders.  Her lip was cut and swollen.

Were you driving on 16th street earlier? he asked her. No, she said. Did you hit a black moped?  No, she said again.

No moped, no crash on 16th. Dean said she didn’t know what he was talking about. Was she wearing sunglasses that day, the deputy asked. Yes, she said, white sunglasses.

Bair left the hospital and went to the tow yard where the CRV was.

The first thing he noticed was a clump of reddish blonde hair stuck in the jagged glass of the broken windshield.

Then, he saw blood on the hood of the car and skin.  “DNA,” he thought.

He put a hold on the car so no one could remove it and went to Lawnwood to check on Harvey, who couldn’t talk.  Next, he went after search warrants.

At 1 a.m. Tuesday morning – 11 hours after the hit and run accident –  Miranda Dean walked into the lobby of the sheriff’s office with her mother and younger sister.

Crying, she said she had come to turn herself in.  A receptionist called Deputy Richard Henson to come out and talk to her.

“For what are you turning yourself in?” Henson asked.

“For a crash. I did it on 16th Street,” Henson said Dean told him. “Two people on a scooter are severely injured because of me.”

Henson told her he didn’t have the facts of the case because he hadn’t been involved in the investigation.

He couldn’t make an arrest because he didn’t know what to ask.

“I talked to another deputy at the hospital,” Henson recalled her saying. “I lied to him about the crash.”

Henson said Bair would contact her the next morning. She left sobbing.

On Tuesday, Bair called Dean several times but didn’t get an answer. On Wednesday, he went to Dean’s house. Her father said they had hired a lawyer who had advised her not to talk. He walked Bair to his motorcycle, repeating how sorry they were for the victims.

Since then, Benjamin Harvey has had a titanium plate embedded where his collar bone was crushed. He has a broken ankle, broken ribs and is wearing a neck brace.

Sydney Sanders keeps seeing the driver’s face: the smile, the wave and, finally, her speeding away.

Almost more than her injuries, she is pained by the baffling indifference. “I can’t believe she had the heart to leave us bleeding in the road,” she said.

The suspect’s father told Bair that he didn’t think his daughter was drinking or on drugs or pills. He couldn’t explain what happened. He worried aloud that she might have some undetected illness.

“We’ll know soon enough,” said Bair.

Dean has been ticketed before for running a red light. She took a defensive driving course.

This week, the hair, blood and skin from the CRV’s broken window and hood will be sent to a lab for its DNA to be compared to mouth swabs taken from Sanders and Harvey. If  there’s a match, an arrest should be imminent, said Bair.

What made this case different from hit and runs in the past year?

Bair moved quickly and thoroughly in the hour after the crash. He immediately knocked on doors to see what neighbors saw and heard.

He got enough information to send out a BOLO on the car. He enhanced that information by going to the hospital and questioning Sanders, which led to a revised BOLO and a vehicle match. Getting to the vehicle while forensic evidence still was available was crucial.

“In this county, those of us in law enforcement take hit and runs with injuries very seriously,“ said Bair.

“But at the Sheriff’s Office, the traffic units are understaffed and overworked. So, you get different levels of quality when it comes to accident investigations.”