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Death, drama and indignation

Police call a drowning a tragic accident. Relatives suspect a cover-up. They have sued Paul Skipper and his son.

By PAUL SWIDER
Published April 23, 2006


ST. PETE BEACH -- "That's the way Joey is," his mother said, gazing at her favorite picture of him. "Not was, but is."

Joey Turner drowned off St. Pete Beach almost two years ago, but for his mother, Colleen Turner, and her sister, Deborah Edney, there is no closure.

Dissatisfied with the results of investigations into his death, the women have turned themselves into detectives, scouring every record they can find and interviewing officials in hopes of finding out why Joey died.

"We haven't even started to grieve," said Edney, who takes the lead because, she says, her sister is too emotionally involved. "When Joey died, we were walking around like we're in another world."

The police report shows different versions of events from various people involved. The lack of clarity opens the door for the women's suspicion. The story is thick with dark irony and melodrama.

It was July 4, 2004. Joey Turner was out with friends, including Lance Skipper, son of prominent St. Pete Beach developer Paul Skipper, who had an almost paternal relationship with Joey. Lance, 19, and Joey, 20, were part of a group that spent the day partying at Shell Island.

According to police reports, people mingled, met others, jumped in and out of boats and groups. Alcohol was involved, though stories differ as to how much. As night fell, Lance and Joey headed off alone in Lance's boat to the Gulf of Mexico somewhere just off St. Pete Beach.

The plan was for Lance to pull in close and Joey to hop off the boat and swim to shore. There he would meet friends, or a girl, at a beach bar or a hotel, and watch the fireworks, which might already have started. He jumped off the boat and was apparently hit on the head by something while swimming, causing him to drown. His body was found the next day.

St. Pete Beach police investigated and found his death to be a "tragic accident." They concluded that a blow to the head led to Joey's death, but there's no way to know what hit him. The Skipper boat showed no sign of damage in photos taken after the incident.

Edney and Turner say that explanation is too easy. They have picked through every speck of information they can find. They see discrepancies in stories as evidence of a police cover-up. They find culpability in Lance's description of seeing something splashing in the water but still leaving the scene.

As the reports indicate, after Lance met up with the others, they asked about Joey, to which Lance replied, laughingly, that Joey drowned. What might have been innocent teenage humor makes the women think Lance knew what happened.

Edney insists that errors in identifying Joey's body - he was initially described as a black man - were an effort to buy an extra day and a half for boat repairs.

An autopsy showed Joey's blood alcohol content as 0.16, twice the legal limit for driving. Edney, a trauma nurse, thinks the test was done incorrectly and shows too high a level.

The women contend that police acted at the behest of Paul Skipper to protect his son from harm. They think Skipper's wealth and political connections prevented a thorough investigation. They filed a federal wrongful-death lawsuit in January against Paul and Lance Skipper and the Beach Boat Co., their family business, but the women insist they are not seeking money, merely truth.

Paul Skipper said he cannot comment because the matter is in litigation. He did say he thinks it is all about money. He added that his son is broken up about what happened.

Joey, who spent his high school years living with his grandmother on St. Pete Beach down the street from the Skippers, hung out with Lance and went on Skipper family trips, Edney said. He looked up to Paul Skipper.

Police Chief David Romine said his department would not alter an investigation because of political pressure. He said the women's questions drove him to request a review of the investigation by both the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pinellas County State Attorney's Office. All investigations drew the same conclusion: There's no way to prove what hit Joey or if anyone knew it happened.

"It was a horrible, tragic accident," Romine said, "but there's nothing to lead us down the road to foul play. It's a question of them facing reality."

Edney said she and her sister just want to know the truth. She said they'd be satisfied if Lance would take a polygraph test and answer two questions: Did he know he hit Joey and did he know Joey was drowning? The police say they have no evidence that the boat is what hit Joey.

"If he can pass those two questions," Edney said, "then we're done."

The women are on their fourth set of attorneys. Edney said the others dropped the case when they recognized Skipper's connections. She also said she refused to settle, even when there were supposedly millions of dollars on the table, so the attorneys might merely have been avoiding a trial.

Edney moved to the beach from Orlando to help her sister look into Joey's death. Joey's mother sold her Orlando home to support their search and also moved to the beach. Edney said all they want is a fair investigation by an impartial party so they can know exactly what happened.

"We are determined," she said. "We want to go to court. We don't know what happened."

Edney said the women have given no thought to what they would do if they lost in court. It could take a year or more just to get to trial. If the unthinkable were to happen, she worries most about her sister.

"I'm not sure my sister will survive all this," she said. "She said she doesn't want to live in a world that is so corrupt."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.

[Last modified April 23, 2006, 10:47:55]


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