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Tragic death of ‘the kind of person people just gravitated to’


More than 70 people gathered on South Beach Sunday evening to celebrate the life of 57-year-old Michael Gianfrancesco who, with his terrier mix Molly, was struck by a speeding car and killed while walking along A1A near his home in The Dunes.

For a couple of hours, the good memories shared by family, friends, fishing buddies and neighbors – toasted with a shot glass of Scotch – eased the pain.

Former pastor of Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church Rev. Cliff Melvin, a family friend, described Gianfrancesco as being on top of the world prior to his death. “He retired a few years ago and everything he wanted was right here,” he said.

But Sunday night’s respite from the circumstances surrounding Gianfrancesco’s death was short. Huge questions remain.

The biggest one: Why has no one been arrested yet, despite a loaded gun and drugs being found near the car that struck Gianfrancesco, and the alleged driver of the vehicle in violation of his probation on felony charges?

Three Indian River County Sheriff’s Office deputies who worked that stretch of A1A in South Beach that evening described a devastating scene that quickly turned from a traffic crash with property damage to a vehicular homicide investigation.

Deputy Jacob Curby headed to the South Beach area in response to an alert that a Chevy Camaro related to a shooting at Pepper Park Beach – in St. Lucie County at the southern end of the island – was possibly headed north into Indian River County.

Driving south, Curby clocked three vehicles racing northbound on A1A which he captured on radar at 108 miles per hour. When he wheeled his K-9 unit around to pursue the reckless drivers, he noted the first signs of the unfolding tragedy.

“I observed a cloud of dust and that the second vehicle in the pack (a Chevy Impala) was crashed on the side of the road,” Curby wrote in an incident report. “As I pulled up on the crash, I observed bystanders removing a damaged road sign from the middle of the roadway.”

When he stopped, Curby discovered two Black males outside the vehicle, marijuana and a loaded .40 caliber handgun on the ground, and a passenger pinned in the front seat of the car due to heavy damage to the vertical support structure between the front and rear doors – known as the B Pillar – on the passenger side, requiring extraction by firefighters.

The men in the vehicle said they had only struck a sign, but “the heavy damage to the passenger B Pillar was unaccounted for,” Curby noted.

Curby examined the area to see what or who else the driver might have hit. “Just north of the entrance to The Dunes on the east side of the road, I could see tire marks in the grass where the vehicle left the roadway,” he wrote. “Near the tire marks I observed a small deceased dog, a broken leash and a pair of eyeglasses.

“Looking into the bushes directly east of the deceased dog, I observed a shoe. It was at this time that I informed Deputies to secure all occupants of the Impala and requested assistance for searching the woods for a possible victim,” he wrote.

Sgt. Doug MacKenzie located a deceased male “deep into the woods,” Curby said.  “The male was clearly deceased and had severe trauma which was consistent with being struck by a vehicle.”

Florida Highway Patrol was called in and became the lead agency handling the case. According to Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chief Milo Thornton, FHP will handle the filing of any charges and obtaining of any warrants directly with State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl’s office. When FHP showed up, that was the end of the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office’s involvement in the case.

When asked why no arrests were made on scene related to the firearm or the bag of marijuana, Sheriff’s Capt. Kent Campbell said, “FHP is the state agency and it’s FHP’s case. It’s their case and it has to be done their way.”

The second officer to file a report about the crash was Deputy Zachary Seldes, and his account provides additional details.

Seldes was present while firefighters extracted the trapped passenger from the Impala. After the passenger was removed, Seldes found blood on the front passenger window and handcuffed the driver and the rear passenger and put them in the back of patrol vehicles until FHP could arrive.

Seldes called paramedics to collect blood from the driver, 28-year-old Jamie Jarvonte Williams of Fort Pierce, who also consented to have a DNA swab performed.

When the state police arrived, those who had been detained were released.

“FHP instructed me to release Williams and Williams requested to be taken to the 7-11 just north of us on A1A,” Seldes wrote. “I dropped him off at the 7-11 and returned his property to him.”

Court records show that Williams is serving a sentence of 24 months’ probation after pleading no contest in July 2020 to carrying a concealed firearm, attempted tampering with evidence and resisting arrest.

Conditions of his probation include remaining in St. Lucie County, not possessing a firearm, not breaking the law and not associating with criminals.

The man in the back passenger seat suspected of tossing two bags of marijuana in the bushes, Joe Fletcher Bailey, has been convicted three times on drug charges. However, “Florida Highway Patrol did not desire charges for Bailey, and he was released at 7-11 at 1400 A1A,” Deputy Matthew Schwarz wrote in his report.

Schwarz had driven from 38th Lane and U.S. 1 to help Curby and the other deputies, traveling across the Merrill Barber Bridge and looking for the lead car in the racing group, a Camaro, on his way.

When he arrived at the scene of the fatal accident, Schwarz turned his attention to two vehicles parked across the street from the crash.

Schwarz got the names of the people in one of the cars, Sarina Jackson and Anthony Mathis, and issued a verbal warning for littering because “Mathis stated he pulled over to urinate and dumped a plastic cup and two paper towels on the ground.”

“I inquired about the shooting in Ft. Pierce which they said they acknowledged they were aware of but denied any involvement,” Schwarz wrote.

St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Public Information Officer Bryan Beatty said on Monday that investigators have found no connection between the Pepper Park shooting and the high-speed run northward that led to the fatal crash.

No reports from the crash investigation are available from FHP as of Monday, with the records department stating it could take months for the traffic homicide investigation to be completed. FHP Corporal Zion Todd did not return a call and an email as of press time.

Michael and Lisa Gianfrancesco spent time in both Vero Beach and New Jersey, but they had recently sold their Jersey home to live full-time on the island.

Among the attendees at the oceanfront ceremony was friend and neighbor Indian River Shores Town Manager Jim Harpring, who offered his condolences to Gianfrancesco’s daughter Nicole Fortin.

“I used to see your dad walking. We’d always discuss fishing, his wife, his kids and grandkids, but not always in that order.”

Fortin guessed that fishing probably was normally on the top of that list, and Gianfrancesco’s fishing buddy Jim Kerr sent out one final cast in honor of his friend during the ceremony.

“We’d be out here every fishable day,” said Kerr. “I’m going to just throw this out there for him. If he catches something, good for him.”

As the ceremony wrapped up, shot glasses of scotch were passed out so that everyone could share in the toast Lisa made to her husband.

In addition to wife Lisa and Fortin, Gianfrancesco is survived by his sister Michelle; his daughter Christa Youngerman; sons in law Matthew Fortin and Brett Youngerman; granddaughters Annie Fortin and Lina Youngerman, plus extended family.

Remembering her father, Fortin described how she will teach her daughter and niece who their grandfather was. “I’ll tell them that when their Papa walked into a room he filled it with infectious light. My dad was the kind of person people just gravitated to.”

For Fortin, one source of comfort at this time has been the knowledge that her father “spent his last years here in this

Place that he loved with my mother, his soulmate.”