tampabay.com

Tip may solve '02 hit-run

Four years after a teenage bike rider dies, a man is charged.

By JONATHAN ABEL
Published December 6, 2006


BUSHNELL - Every night before bed, Stephen McKenney hangs his cross on the wall beside him and says good night to his dead son.

"I'm still looking," he tells Cory before he closes his eyes. "I'm still looking," he repeats upon opening them the next morning.

Four years ago tonight, Cory McKenney was killed while riding his bicycle on a dark road in Sumter County.

The driver fled the scene, leaving behind a mangled bike, a few paint chips and a dead 15-year-old boy.

When an arrest isn't made in the first few days after a hit-and-run, making a case gets much harder. The vehicle disappears. The witnesses move away. The case quickly grows cold.

But this August, the Florida Highway Patrol got a tip about the driver's identify. On Nov. 18, the patrol arrested Justin W. Fletcher, 30, in Spring Hill, and charged him with leaving the scene of an accident with death.

Stephen McKenney, 44, always knew it would end with a tip out of the blue.

"If you do something like that, I don't care if you run away from it, you've got to tell somebody," he said.

A disabled veteran from Pinellas Park, McKenney was ruined by the accident. He sank into depression, turned to alcohol and medication and couldn't stand anyone around him - ever.

Deana McKenney, Cory's mother, at first thought the driver would never get caught. The investigation slowed nearly to a halt, but the 46-year-old never could get Cory's death out of her mind.

When she closes her eyes and thinks back on that night, she's back following the ambulance all the way from work to the crash scene. She's standing above the ditch, looking down on her dead son.

The anniversary of Cory's death always hits her hard - she said her life feels empty. But this year, at least, Fletcher's arrest brings some hope.

"Anything they do to him is not going to bring Cory back, but it helps to know that someone is going to answer for the wrong they did," she said.

* * *

Born on April 1, 1987, Cory Adam McKenney took his middle name from Adam Walsh, the son of America's Most Wanted host John Walsh. Adam Walsh was abducted in South Florida in 1981 and murdered, his severed head was all authorities found.

"That touched us so much that's why we named him in honor of Adam," Stephen McKenney said. "Then turn around and that's what happened to him. We discussed that. Did we curse him?"

Stephen and Deana McKenney divorced a few years before Cory's death. Their son split time between Pinellas Park and Bushnell. He loved the ocean - particularly dolphins - and was talking about going into the Coast Guard or becoming a marine biologist.

The crash cut everything short.

On a Friday about 10 p.m., Cory was riding his Mongoose bike to a friend's house, when a pickup hit him hard, according to the Highway Patrol.

The boy was thrown 160 feet into a ditch and left for dead, his father said. The impact broke the bug guard on the pickup and destroyed Cory's bike.

After the collision, someone apparently got out to pull the bike from underneath the pickup, before driving on, Stephen McKenney said.

That's what bothers him.

"It wasn't just that he'd been killed but the way he'd been killed," he said. "Like a squirrel on the side of the road."

A retired paramedic came upon the bicycle that night and got out to look for the rider. Meanwhile Cory's older sister, Shannon, came looking for him. When she saw the paramedic standing over her brother, she thought he was the one who killed him.

He explained that he'd only just found the boy. There was nothing either one of them could do; Cory died on the scene.

In the days after the crash, authorities asked for the public's help finding a silver car or truck with front-end damage - that's what the paint chips pointed to.

No one came forward.

Relatives and friends drove through Bushnell looking for the silver vehicle with no luck.

The case stayed cold until August, when a tip pointed to Justin Fletcher.

"Victims' families get discouraged when it goes so long," said Trooper Larry Coggins Jr. "But this was a prime example where people's conscience weighs on them and they come forward and turn themselves in or give us the tip we need."

No one will say where the tip came from.

Reached by phone, Fletcher said he'd "love to talk" about the case but referred questions to Peyton Hyslop, his attorney.

Hyslop said Fletcher didn't even own the pickup back in 2002 - it belonged to a family member. He added that Fletcher's family has an extensive criminal history.

Many details of the case have not been revealed, as the Highway Patrol investigator on the case is not allowed to talk with the media until it goes to trial.

But Stephen McKenney said he couldn't wait until then - his son's death had been "shoved too far under the rug" for too long.

McKenney still keeps his half of Cory's ashes in the room where he sleeps; he can't put them to rest until the driver is brought to justice. Jail time is not what he wanted at first.

"If he'd been man enough to look me in the eye and apologize to me," he said. "I wouldn't have gone into court and said, 'Give him life.' I wouldn't have wanted him to go to prison. I would just want to look in his eyes and make sure he had as many sleepless nights as I did. I would have said, 'Judge, just give him a chance.' "

But no one stood up.

"So now I pretty much don't care what they do to his a--," he said.

Fletcher's arraignment is set for Dec. 20.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or 352 754-6114.