Belleair mayor scolds police in hit-run
He says authorities used "poor judgment" in arresting a woman from an affluent family. She's accused of leaving the scene.
By LORRI HELFAND
Published August 1, 2006
BELLEAIR - To police it was a simple case of hit and run.
But to the mayor of this upscale town, police exhibited a "stunning display of poor judgment" by accusing 19-year-old Elizabeth "Callie" Raymond of leaving the scene after driving over a lawn worker's foot.
"The complaint was brought by a lawn service person who is, in my opinion, trying to scam a 'wealthy' Belleair family," Mayor George Mariani wrote the town manager in a July 12 e-mail.
The mayor's involvement has prompted criticism: Did he cross the line in blasting his own cops while defending the daughter of a wealthy family?
"An elected official should never be involved in an ongoing police investigation," Commissioner Gary Katica said. "It's not fair to the accused or to the police."
But the criticism does not faze Mariani, who says he's not trying to control the police investigation.
"I don't care what they think," he said.* * *
On July 7, Raymond was heading west on Ponce de Leon Boulevard when her 2001 Saab struck Paul George, 22, of Largo, police said.
George was doing yard work a couple of blocks from Raymond's home, according to the accident report.
Police say the Saab hit George's arm and ran over his right foot. George's attorney says the car struck his leg and foot but did not run over it.
Raymond pulled into a driveway, got out of her car, stood near her vehicle and then got back into her car and left, the report said.
Doug Prior, Raymond's attorney, said his client knew there was some contact between her vehicle and George or that he may have inadvertently struck her car when he was working.
"From her perspective, she was not aware that this gentlemen was in need of medical treatment," Prior said. He also said Raymond felt threatened "to some degree" because George was loud and profane.
If he yelled, it was because he was in pain and Raymond was far away, George's attorney, Dominic O. Fariello said.
And he said his client was on the ground when Raymond pulled into the driveway. George, who is wearing a calf-high brace on his right foot, has not filed a lawsuit against Raymond.
"He's nervous and he's scared," Fariello said. "He knows this is a young girl. It's an awkward scenario, and he doesn't want to get in the middle of political rhetoric."
Raymond, who attends the University of Texas, was arrested at her home four days after the incident. Her father, J. Paul Raymond, is a tax attorney in Clearwater with the law firm of Macfarlane, Ferguson & McMullen, P.A.
John Carroll, deputy chief in the Largo Police Department, which was overseeing the Belleair Police Department since its chief resigned, said it took officers a few days to trace the vehicle to Raymond because she had a temporary tag.
Raymond was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on a felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving injury. She was released about five hours later on $5,000 bail.
Despite Mariani's e-mail, Carroll said Belleair officers followed proper protocol.
"He can disagree but probable cause is probable cause, and unfortunately we needed to arrest the young lady," Carroll said.* * *
"I WANT A COMPLETE REPORT ON THIS ASAP," Mariani told the town manager in his July 12 e-mail.
Mariani wrote that there were witnesses who say Raymond did stop and dispute whether there was even an accident.
Mariani closed his e-mail demanding to talk to the Largo police officials who have run the Belleair department since former Chief Erv Hill resigned on March 24.
Mariani's e-mail is the latest bit of drama to hit the Belleair Police Department. Hill resigned amid accusations that he secretly taped a conversation with an officer he suspected of filing a complaint to the town manager.
The Belleair Police Department, has 11 full-time and two part-time positions.
Carroll, who called Mariani to discuss the mayor's concerns about Raymond's arrest, said he hasn't had to deal with similar demands from Largo officials.
"They may have a difference of opinion, but I've never had anyone try to influence or undo a decision we made," Carroll said.
Largo police plan to hand off running the Belleair Police Department to the Pinellas Sheriff's Office this week. Town officials are expected to decide whether to abolish the department and hire the Sheriff's Office permanently.
Mariani, president of Mariani Asphalt Co., in Tampa, supports getting rid of the department. Town leaders question his actions.
Deputy Mayor Stephen Fowler said he was disappointed that Mariani "thought it was necessary to get involved in police business."
Mariani denies using his office to influence the Raymond case.
"I'm hired as the mayor to answer complaints," he said. "The family are citizens of Belleair, and I would have done it for anybody that lives in Belleair, and that's all I'm going to say about it."
Times researcher Angie Holan and photographer Kathleen Flynn contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at 727 445-4155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.