Deputy's loyalty vexes DUI case
By CARY DAVIS and RYAN DAVIS
Last September, Sean Gendron became a witness in a criminal investigation of his friend and fellow corrections deputy Kyle Hughes.
Over the next several months, Gendron had to choose between his loyalty to Hughes and his obligations as a citizen and a member of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
According to prosecutors, there's no question about where Gendron struck the balance.
About 3:15 a.m. on Sept. 9, Hughes crashed his Chevrolet pickup through a fence, wiped out a mailbox and nearly uprooted a tree. Prosecutors say he had been drinking.
Gendron was in the passenger seat, prosecutors say. He suffered an arm injury. Depending on how badly Gendron was hurt, Hughes faced a potential charge of "driving under the influence with serious bodily injury" -- a felony.
Gendron was also the state's most important witness. According to prosecutors, here's how Gendron acted:
Twice he failed to show up to give a statement, delaying the case for months and forcing prosecutors to subpoena him.
When he finally showed, prosecutors asked if Hughes had been driving the truck. Gendron refused to directly confirm even that.
On the crucial question of the seriousness of his injury, Gendron swore on Feb. 5 that his broken arm was "not that bad," prosecutors said. What he did reveal was that he had yet to return to his corrections duties. He had spent more than three months on medical leave. Even today, nine months after the accident, Gendron still has not been able to resume his original duties and faces surgery.
Based in part on Gendron's testimony, the State Attorney's Office chose not to pursue the felony charge. Hughes would not face prison time.
Bruce Bartlett, second in command of the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney's Office, said complete candor on Gendron's part "would not necessarily have affected the outcome." Bartlett said he decided that Gendron's broken arm did not fit the legal description of serious bodily injury. He charged Hughes with two misdemeanors.
But Bartlett said that Gendron's "lack of cooperation" contributed to his decision. The prosecutor did not want to conduct a felony trial against a corrections officer with a witness hostile to the case. Gendron made it clear "that he didn't want anything to happen to his good buddy," Bartlett said.
But what of Gendron's responsibilities to the law?
"It's understood that you should be truthful in all matters," said Kevin Doll, a spokesman for Sheriff Bob White. "We don't have a general order for a lot of things because it's generally understood what your response should be."
Taxpayers pay for delay
The case against Hughes dragged on for months, delayed, Bartlett said, by Gendron's conduct and inaction by prosecutors. Meanwhile, Hughes has been getting paid even though he's not working. In fact, he has gotten two raises since the accident.
Hughes, a corrections corporal, was out of work on sick leave for a month after the wreck. Then he was placed on administrative leave. By the time he has his first court hearing next month, he will have collected $29,131.20 since being placed on leave.
The Sheriff's Office is waiting until the conclusion of the criminal case before it begins an internal investigation into Hughes.
Gendron, who swore that his injuries were "not that bad," has never returned to his original duties. He has been on and off medical leave, for which he drew $8,713. He has been on desk duty and faces surgery, Doll said. He said Gendron does not face an internal inquiry.
For that to happen, the State Attorney's Office needs to file a report against Gendron.
Hughes and Gendron, both 28, declined to be interviewed for this story.
'Don't call the cops'
T.J. Sawyer's ranch sat on a sharp curve on Bellamy Brothers Boulevard near Dade City.
The sound of screeching tires drew Sawyer from his bed early on Sept. 9.
"I got up and looked out there, and they were in my field," Sawyer said.
Sawyer said the driver pleaded: "Don't call the cops." Sawyer did anyway.
Nearly 12 weeks after the wreck, the Florida Highway Patrol finished amassing evidence. It included a blood-alcohol test conducted on Hughes at the hospital shortly after the crash. The test showed his blood-alcohol level to be 0.187 percent. Florida law presumes impairment at less than half that level.
In late November, FHP Trooper Terry Sims suggested three charges against Hughes. Two were misdemeanors, careless driving and drunken driving. The third was a felony, DUI with serious bodily injury.
A reluctant witness
Gendron was first asked to make an appearance before prosecutors on Oct. 26. He didn't show up, but neither did the FHP's Sims, prosecutors said. Another appointment was scheduled for Nov. 27. Gendron skipped that one too, prosecutors say.
Prosecutors set another appointment for Feb. 5. This time, they issued Gendron a subpoena to ensure he would show.
He did and was placed under oath. But according to prosecutors, Gendron was "not cooperative" in helping prosecutors get at the truth.
He "refused to say who was driving" and "played the I-don't-remember game," Bartlett said. Prosecutors became concerned that Gendron's allegiance to his friend might be hindering their pursuit of justice, Bartlett said. So they subpoenaed Gendron's medical records.
Hughes' bosses at the Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, had begun to inquire about when the case would be resolved. A captain called prosecutors shortly after the accident to find out what was going on. In coming weeks, a major and Sheriff Bob White would also call, sheriff's spokesman Doll said.
The burdens of friendship
Friendship impacts people's decisions, both consciously and subconsciously, experts said.
"The bottom line is, clearly people are often torn in these situations," said Jay Corzine, the chairman of the sociology department at the University of Central Florida. "The situation is something that is faced by people from all different types of occupations."
And what might appear to be a lie or the truth isn't alway so easily defined, said John Nezlek, a psychology professor at College William and Mary who studies close relationships.
"People might be lying. There's always that possibility," he said. "But there's also the possibility the facts are not so obvious and right out in front so they're open to interpretation."
For example, sports fans rooting for different teams might see the same play and disagree about what happened.
'Serious bodily injury'
His decision to not pursue the felony charge was based in part on his interpretation of the Florida statute that defines "serious bodily injury."
Under the law:
The term "serious bodily injury" means an injury to any person, including the driver, which consists of a physical condition that creates a substantial risk of death, serious personal disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.
"I felt that a broken arm was not a serious injury," Bartlett said. Gendron's own testimony seemed to support Bartlett's conclusion.
Last week, upon learning from a reporter how the injury had kept Gendron out of work for so long, Bartlett said it's possible Gendron could be too injured to work as a corrections deputy, but still not have suffered a serious bodily injury.
Former Assistant State Attorney Bob Attridge said he understands how Bartlett could have reached that decision.
"When the state has an uncooperative witness, they have to consider that in their charging decision. ... I always thought that if a witness doesn't cooperate in the investigation stage, there's no reason to think he'll cooperate at trial," he said.
On the other hand, Attridge, now a defense attorney, disagreed with his former colleague on the seriousness of Gendron's injury. "Any broken bone," he said, "constitutes a serious bodily injury." And there are ways to prove serious bodily injury without the victim's testimony.
"You prove the element with a doctor's testimony and with medical records," Attridge said. "Could they prove it (the serious bodily injury element)? Yes. But why go forward when you've got an uncooperative witness?"
Six weeks passed from the time Bartlett settled on the charges Hughes would face and the day charges were formally filed at the courthouse, on May 31. Bartlett said the case was not treated as a high priority.
"We probably should have paid a little more attention because of who it was and the circumstances," Bartlett said. "We probably should have moved it a little more quickly to help the sheriff resolve this issue. We didn't and that's unfortunate."
Bartlett said Hughes did not receive any preferential treatment because of his job as a corrections officer.
"If we were going to show favoritism, we wouldn't have filed any charges. ... I pondered over this because I knew there was the potential for criticism."
Corrections deputy's DUI case still unresolved after nine months
SEPT. 9, 2001: Corrections Cpl. Kyle Hughes crashes car through fence. Hughes and passenger Sean Gendron, also a corrections deputy, are injured. Gendron goes on paid sick leave.
SEPT. 10: Hughes goes on paid sick leave.
SEPT. 17: Hughes gets cost-of-living raise to $17.21 per hour from $16.79.
SEPT. 19: Hughes gets longevity raise to $17.64 per hour.
OCT. 9: Hughes placed on paid administrative leave.
OCT. 26: Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Terry Sims and Gendron skip an appointment to present a case to prosecutors.
NOV. 27: Second scheduled appointment at State Attorney's Office. Sims shows; Gendron doesn't. FHP has tests that show Hughes' blood alcohol level at twice that at which the law presumes impairment.
NOV. 29: FHP says Hughes will be charged with DUI, DUI causing serious bodily injury, careless driving.
BEFORE DEC. 1: FHP gives citations for the three charges to State Attorney's Office.
DEC. 10: Gendron returns to work on light duty.
JAN. 2, 2002: Gendron leaves work for unpaid sick leave.
FEB. 5: Third appointment with prosecutors. Gendron says his injuries are "not that bad." He refused to directly confirm that Hughes was driving at the time of the accident.
FIRST WEEK OF MARCH: Prosecutors get Gendron's medical records.
APRIL 9: Gendron returns to work on light duty.
APRIL 10-16: Hughes' pay since being put on leave passes $20,000.
APRIL 11: Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett makes decision to charge Hughes with two misdemeanors, DUI and DUI with property damage, and not DUI with serious bodily injury, a felony.
MAY 31: State Attorney's Office formally charges Hughes with DUI and DUI/property damage.
JUNE 26: Sheriff's spokesman says Gendron will shortly need more time off for surgery.
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