Sleuthing pays off with arrest of couple
By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- After three months of dogged police work and a few lucky breaks, Clearwater police have arrested two people in connection with a fatal hit-and-run crash.
Dennis M. Lynn, 41, and Roseanne Merkle, 44, were arrested at their home in Holiday Thursday night. The couple, who married earlier this month, have been charged with evidence tampering, a third-degree felony.
Police say the couple first hid -- then dumped -- a green and white Mercury Cougar that struck and killed Barbara Anne Molochnikov, 56. She was walking across Sunset Point Road when the speeding car ran a red light on the night of June 3.
The car was traveling at least 50 mph, 10 miles over the speed limit. The impact threw Molochnikov about 100 feet. The car took off into the night.
Though police believe either Lynn or Merkle drove the car that night, there isn't enough evidence to charge them with leaving the scene of a fatal crash. However, police built the evidence tampering case with an array of evidence, including tire prints and cell phone records.
"We lived and breathed this thing for the last 31/2 months," said Lt. Steve Burch.
After the crash, police began a thorough search for the car.
Investigators peeked in back yards and cruised behind businesses. Officers called auto repair shops and junk yards to see if anyone had brought in a car with body damage. Nothing panned out.
A break came eight days after the crash. Police received a call from Clearwater attorney Edward Liebling, who said he represented Merkle. Liebling told officers that they could find the car -- registered to Merkle -- in a field in Pasco County. Liebling also said Merkle would not cooperate with police, Burch said.
Investigators headed out to the field, following directions Liebling had provided. They found the car parked behind a construction site. Investigators thought the car had been dumped the night before.
The car had severe damage to its front and windshield. There was blood on the car.
But the most important piece of evidence was on the ground: tire tracks.
Investigators believed the car was dumped by someone who had been given a ride from the scene by another party. Pinellas sheriff's forensic technicians took photos of the tire tracks, then sent them to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Investigators began investigating Merkle, though Burch said they kept a low profile. State Attorney's Office prosecutors subpoenaed Merkle's cell phone records, which led them to Lynn.
Investigators suspected Lynn had been with Merkle when the car was dumped. They also suspected the tire tracks they found belonged to his tan and brown 1985 Chevy Blazer. But they didn't have enough evidence to seize and inspect the tires.
Meanwhile, investigators pieced together Merkle's life on the day of the hit and run. Examining cell phone records, they determined she called Buster's lounge on State Road 580 during the evening of the crash. Staff members there told police they believed Lynn had been at the bar that night.
Then came a twist in the case that Burch said was "just pure, dumb luck."
Burch was working on the night of July 30 when he responded to an unfounded call of shots fired in the north Greenwood area. As Burch got ready to leave, he saw a brown and tan Chevy Blazer go by.
Burch wondered if it could be Lynn. As he followed the Blazer and ran the tag number, he saw the driver toss an empty wine bottle out the window.
Then the tag came back: It was Lynn's Blazer.
Burch pulled over the Blazer. Lynn was behind the wheel. He did poorly during a field sobriety evaluation and had a blood alcohol level above the limit at which Florida law presumes impairment. Burch arrested him on charges of drunken driving, littering and driving with a suspended license. He added a charge of drug possession after finding 14 pieces of crack cocaine in the Blazer.
Lynn refused to talk to police.
Police seized the Blazer and sent the tires to the FDLE lab, which determined they matched the tracks in the field where the Cougar was dumped.
Police then began more aggressively talking with friends and family of both Lynn and Merkle. Lynn's mother, who lives in Clearwater, told investigators that she saw both Lynn and Merkle with the damaged car about an hour after the fatal crash.
Cell phone records, which also record what tower is used to complete a cell phone call, showed that Merkle had been in Clearwater that night, then traveled to Pasco County. Police believe the couple hid the car at their home in Holiday.
"Our case was becoming very solid for tampering with evidence," Burch said. "We have no doubt that one of them was behind the wheel."
At about 9 p.m. Thursday night, Pasco deputies and Clearwater police went to the couple's Holiday home and arrested them. Police asked for a high and got it: $25,000. Merkle and Lynn were awaiting a transfer to the Pinellas County Jail Friday.
Merkle has no criminal record in Florida. Lynn's criminal record includes previous charges of drunken driving and careless driving.
They could face up to five years in prison if convicted of evidence tampering. Liebling, Merkle's attorney, declined to comment Friday.
"I'm happy with the work the police department did," said Molochnikov's sister, Suzanne Beall. "It was tough waiting, but I know they had to cross all their t's and dot all their i's to make sure it stuck. I'm still in shock that somebody could do this and think they could get away with it."
Now, Burch is hoping anyone who may have seen the car that night will call police. He also hopes Merkle or Lynn talked about the crash.
"There's no one else who could have been behind the wheel of that car," Burch said. "The question to me is which one?
"Everybody gives up something," Burch added. "Did they leave as many tracks as we would like? Probably not. (But) they left enough."
-- Chris Tisch can be reached at (727) 445-4156 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone with more information about this crash can call Lt. Steve Burch at 562-4161.
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