Tell-tale heart unravels DUI case
A decoy valentine unlocks the romantic timing of a widow and the man investigating her husband's death.
By JACOB H. FRIES
Published February 14, 2007
[Special to the Times]
Stacy McMullan, left, appeared with her husband, Jesse, on Ricki Lake five weeks after their 1997 wedding to discuss their marital troubles. In 1999, Jesse died in a crash on his way home to Clearwater.
The fake survey. It's an old ploy private eyes use to trick people into telling the truth. "We're in the neighborhood," they say, "and have a few questions for you."
Chuck Lukey had used the trick many times before. But this time, he wasn't investigating a guy cheating on his wife or faking a back injury. The information he wanted could get a man out of prison.
The case file read like a soap opera script, with a violent death, a trial, a $600,000 settlement, lies, betrayal - and love, that slippery thing that unravels so many lives.
Lukey's plan: use a Valentine's survey. A female investigator in a bright red blouse would carry a gift basket with a white teddy bear and a heart-shaped box of chocolates. She would slip the big question in among irrelevant ones.
"We got one chance," Lukey told her.
Jesse and Stacy McMullan got married in 1997. Five weeks later, they went on a Ricki Lake show about newlyweds whose marriages were already on the skids.
Stacy McMullan came on first. She wore a cotton-candy-colored suit, her dirty blond hair curled and poofy. She was 30, a sales clerk in Virginia. Jesse McMullan was 21, a plumber who, his wife said, had become possessive and demanding.
"He sunk his claws in me," she said. "We got into a fight in the kitchen, okay. He knew I didn't cook before I got married. Why would I start now? That's why my mother gave me a microwave."
Jesse McMullan walked on stage wearing a denim shirt and black jeans. The audience clapped and jeered.
"Do you feel like you own her?" Lake said.
"Well, for the most part," he said. "When I met her, she had nothing. She was in an abusive relationship. Her friends just used her and everything. I picked her off her feet, helped her out. I gave her a brand new vehicle to drive."
Lake brought up his fear that his wife might cheat on him. She had cheated in her previous relationship - with him.
"We went back three or four times," he said. "She would be with me. Then she would be with him. What am I supposed to think?"
Did Jesse think Stacy was having an affair?
"I don't think she's cheating on me," he said, "but I think she's capable of it."
The couple lasted two more years. Their marriage ended, not amid possessiveness or infidelity, but after an ill-fated trip down an unfamiliar road.
They weren't supposed to drive home that night. It was May 31, 1999. The McMullans had gone to Cocoa Beach for a sunset cruise, a second honeymoon of sorts, and planned to stay with friends.
But their hosts argued, so they headed back to Clearwater, where they had moved two months before.
It was already after midnight.
Fifty miles away in Orlando, Chris Niewiarowski, the son of Polish immigrants who worked at his parents' liquor store, also started home to Clearwater.
Niewiarowski, 29, had planned to drive home the next day, but he jumped in his van after learning that his fiancee might be cheating on him. It was a rash decision. He had consumed at least seven scotch and waters that night.
About 3:20 a.m., on Interstate 275 near West Shore Boulevard in Tampa, the McMullans were headed south in the center lane, and Jesse wasn't sure which exit to take. He woke Stacy.
"Get in the right-hand lane," she said. "You don't want to go over that long bridge. We've got to go toward Clearwater."
She closed her eyes.
Seconds later, Niewiarowski's Ford van clipped the rear of their Toyota truck, flipping it 2 1/2 times.
Jesse McMullan was thrown partway out the side window and was crushed as the truck rolled.
At 23, he was dead.
- - -
Florida Highway Patrol Cpl. Dennis E. Jetton Sr., a veteran traffic homicide investigator, was called to the scene.
He photographed the mangled vehicles, interviewed witnesses and went to St. Joseph's Hospital, where both Niewiarowski and Stacy McMullan were taken. His conclusion: Niewiarowski was impaired and speeding and had rear-ended the McMullans.
Based on Jetton's investigation, Niewiarowski was charged with driving under the influence with serious injury and DUI manslaughter. It was his third DUI arrest.
His trial started in April 2001. Jetton and McMullan were the prosecutors' key witnesses.
They testified that Niewiarowski caused the wreck. Tests showed his blood-alcohol content was between 0.229 and 0.23 percent, more than twice the level at which Florida presumes a driver is impaired.
Jurors found him guilty on both counts. He was sentenced to the maximum of 15 years in prison.
Niewiarowski's father, Wally, didn't give up. He took out another mortgage, borrowed money, worked 18 hours a day. He spent more than $700,000 on high-priced attorneys.
"I have to pay," he said later. "He's my son."
The new attorneys contended that Niewiarowski had inadequate representation at trial because he wasn't told to testify. If he had, their motion said, his lawyers could have brought in that Jesse McMullan had traces of marijuana in his system, raising doubts about who was at fault. The motion was denied.
Then, in May 2002, Jetton married Stacy McMullan, three days after divorcing his wife of more than 30 years.
What's more, McMullan received about $600,000 from Niewiarowski's insurance company as a result of the accident that her new husband had investigated.
A new lawyer, Denis deVlaming, learned of the marriage from prosecutors two years later. Confronted, Jetton insisted the relationship started after the trial.
DeVlaming didn't buy it. If the two had been involved during the trial, he could use that to undermine their testimony.
But how could he prove the trooper was lying?
DeVlaming called Lukey at Gator Investigators in St. Petersburg. Lukey had an idea.
- - -
For Lukey's plan to work, Ty Larkin, the female investigator, would need to give a convincing performance.
Lukey and Larkin decided to wait until Jetton left for work. They wanted to get Stacy Jetton home alone.
One afternoon around this time last year, Larkin knocked on the door of the couple's mobile home in Brandon. She said she was conducting a survey for a greeting card company. Everyone who participated got a Valentine's gift, she said.
Stacy Jetton invited her in.
The script was short. How long have you lived here? Do you have children? Are you married?
How long did you date before marrying?
About a year, Stacy said.
That was it. If Dennis Jetton and Stacy McMullan dated for about a year before they got married, they were dating around the trial. Larkin thanked her and made for the door.
Wait, Stacy said. Could you sign a petition?
She said her previous husband was killed in a wreck. The man responsible, she said, had been moved from maximum security to the general prison population. She wanted him put back.
Sure, Larkin said. She scribbled:
- - -
With the new information, deVlaming headed back to court. Meanwhile, another investigator tracked down a personal e-mail between Jetton and McMullan in 2000 - a year before the trial.
At a hearing on Oct. 3, 2006, prosecutor Kim Seace asked the court to vacate Niewiarowski's manslaughter conviction. Not because she didn't have evidence supporting the charge, but because Jetton had tainted it.
"Had the state known that that relationship existed, we would not have tried the case in the way that I tried this case," she said. "... Justice requires (the verdict) be set aside because it was unfair."
Judge Anthony Black agreed. After more than five years in prison, Niewiarowski went free.
"I'm not much for editorializing," Black said. "I just - I don't see that (Jetton) needs to be employed by the state given this scenario."
- - -
The Highway Patrol took Jetton off the road while it investigated him.
Rather than wait for the results, Jetton retired, effective Jan. 5. If he hadn't, he would have been fired, officials say. The agency found no errors in his investigation, but it said his "ill-advised relationship" with Jesse McMullan's widow brought discredit to the uniform.
Jetton and his wife have since moved to rural Sedalia, Ky. Contacted there this month, they were living with Jetton's sister in a modest double-wide amid rolling pastures and cornfields. They declined to answer any questions.
"It was time to leave the Highway Patrol," Jetton said, without elaborating.
Niewiarowski, meanwhile, works alongside his parents at Sunset Liquors in Clearwater. He is consulting attorneys on whether he can sue to recover some of the money his parents spent on his case. He says he's trying to start over.
He has begun dating again.
- - -
On a recent morning, Lukey, the private investigator, pulled out his file on the case. The memory of that day about a year ago, when they pulled off the Valentine sting, brings a smile to his face.
Ask Lukey about justice and he will shake his head. The courts, the lawyers, they decide what justice is.
As for love, he has seen it all: deception, cheating, lives ruined. But in the end, he says, for all the pain and heartbreak that love can cause, he's still a romantic.
May 31, 1999: Christopher Niewiarowski's Ford collides with a Toyota truck driven by Jesse McMullan in Tampa. McMullan dies, and his wife, Stacy, survives.
Aug. 27, 1999: Niewiarowski is arrested on charges of driving under the influence with serious injury and DUI manslaughter.
April 5, 2001: Jury finds Niewiarowski guilty of both counts.
May 7, 2001: Niewiarowski is sentenced to 15 years in prison.
May 9, 2002: Stacy McMullan marries Cpl. Dennis E. Jetton Sr., the trooper who investigated the crash.
June 19, 2002: Court denies Niewiarowski's petition for reconsideration of sentence.
March 31, 2004: Niewiarowski's attorneys learn that Stacy McMullan married Dennis Jetton.
Jan. 26, 2006: Private investigators conduct a fake survey, and Stacy Jetton tells them that she dated Jetton for a year before marrying him, meaning they were dating at the time of Niewiarowski's trial.
March 6, 2006: Case reopens.
Oct. 3, 2006: Judge vacates Niewiarowski's manslaughter conviction, freeing him from prison, because Jetton's pretrial involvement with McMullan tainted the evidence.
Jan. 5, 2007: With an internal investigation open, Jetton retires. If he had not, officials say, he would have been fired.
[Last modified February 14, 2007, 09:07:38]
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