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New questions point to discredited trooper

By ABBIE VANSICKLE and REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published April 28, 2007


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photo
[Florida Highway Patrol]
FHP Trooper Dennis Jetton, an investigator forced into retirement after he had an affair with a witness in a traffic homicide trial.

TAMPA - In a living room that faces the Gulf of Mexico, a father picked up the newspaper. His eyes stopped on the familiar name of a former state trooper, and instantly he felt better. He knew it. He knew this investigator had let him down.

On the other side of Tampa Bay, a defense attorney recognized the name from a recent trial and wrote an e-mail.

In Riverview, a grieving daughter answered the phone. She, too, recalled the name.

The three have doubts about the quality of fatal crash investigations conducted by a now-discredited Florida Highway Patrol trooper.

Cpl. Dennis Jetton, a veteran traffic homicide investigator, retired in January while under investigation by his own agency. Evidence showed he had an extramarital affair with a woman widowed in a 1999 Tampa crash he investigated, Stacy McMullan. He testified against the other driver, helped win a DUI manslaughter conviction, then married McMullan, who got a $600, 000 insurance settlement.

Because Jetton's conflict tainted the case, a judge threw out the conviction.

Jetton, 55, left the state. An internal affairs report said he "brought discredit" to the agency. His ability to testify at trials - and to be believed by jurors - had been impaired.

At least two cases he investigated now await trial, one a vehicular homicide, the other a fatal hit-and-run crash. But Jetton will not be called as a witness because his credibility could be attacked, according to FHP Maj. Ernesto Duarte.

Tampa defense attorney Lori Palmieri doesn't think that response goes deep enough. She's compiling a list of cases in which Jetton testified.

"If Cpl. Jetton's actions rose to the level where his veracity is totally in question, once it's in question, it's in question in every case, " she said. "I think it opens a huge can of worms."

Hugh McGinley agrees. Jetton investigated his son's death.

Melissa Trost also agrees. Jetton investigated her mother's fatal crash.

Reached by telephone, Jetton would not comment on cases he investigated or respond to the concerns of people who spoke with the Times. He said he left the Highway Patrol because it was time to retire.

Duarte said there is no reason to think Jetton exhibited poor judgment or unethical behavior in other cases. The agency does not plan to review the dozens of traffic homicides he investigated.

"The entire thing was a result of him lying about an affair, " Duarte said. "The work product was reviewed and we found no inconsistencies with the investigation."

That doesn't stop others from asking questions.

* * *

Hugh McGinley's frustration is in his voice, his eyes and his hands as he flips through pages that document the tragedy that changed his life.

But when McGinley, 58, a hotel owner in Indian Rocks Beach, saw Jetton's name in the newspaper, he felt a twinge of hope.

Nearly a decade ago, Jetton investigated the death of McGinley's son, Kevin. On Feb. 13, 1998, the 21-year-old college student was headed home with friends after a night in Ybor City. On the way back, they quarreled with people in another car. A fight broke out along Interstate 275.

Somehow Kevin McGinley ended up in the road, where he was struck by a UPS truck.

Jetton's investigation found that Kevin McGinley wandered into the road. His parents believe he was pushed.

Over the years, the McGinleys met with prosecutors and Highway Patrol officials, and hired experts and attorneys. They set up a Web site - www.plea4justice.com - to post case documents. They spent so much at Kinko's, they bought their own copy machine.

They asked David Brill, a former instructor in major traffic investigation techniques, to review the case.

Brill said Jetton failed to follow basic procedures necessary in a fatal crash investigation: He didn't have the truck impounded. He failed to compare the tires with two distinct sets of skid marks on the road; he attributed incorrect skid marks to a semitrailer truck. He got the crash location wrong.

Hugh McGinley says he thinks the Highway Patrol covered up Jetton's incompetence. The parent plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit next month. He wants a new investigation.

"It's almost as if there's no justice system in Florida, " he said. "Our hope is when it goes before a federal judge, and he reviews the evidence, he'll be so horrified at what he sees that it will force some kind of new investigation."

The FHP has no plans to reopen the case.

"Our agency empathizes with the family, " Duarte said. "However, based on a review by different law enforcement agencies, based on all the circumstances, the testimony, the physical evidence, they felt that there was not enough evidence to bring charges."

* * *

Palmieri, the defense attorney, wishes she had known more about Jetton on Jan. 8, when one of her clients went to trial.

Jetton was listed as a witness in the 2005 case against Jeffrey Alan Butts of Wesley Chapel, accused of vehicular homicide and manslaughter. A jury convicted him of lesser charges.

Palmieri intended to question Jetton, but prosecutors told her he had retired and left the state. No one mentioned the internal affairs investigation, she said.

She didn't learn of Jetton's credibility issue until it was too late for the trial or appeal.

"I was flabbergasted, " she said.

She typed a scathing letter to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

Prosecutors said Palmieri took an extreme view. Assistant State Attorney Michael Sinacore said Jetton played a minor role in the Butts case. Sinacore said prosecutors disapprove of Jetton's behavior but see no pattern.

"Jetton was never found to be untruthful and did not commit perjury, " Sinacore wrote in a letter to Palmieri.

* * *

Melissa Trost, 37, met Jetton when her mother died.

Christa Ferrari was killed Sept. 28, 2005, at Bloomingdale Avenue and U.S. 301 in Riverview. It was unclear who was at fault.

When Jetton came to investigate, he was "helpful, " Trost said.

But in time, she doubted his thoroughness. His report contained errors, she said. Her mother's car faced the wrong way. Jetton had found no witnesses to a crash in the middle of the day at a busy intersection.

"All available leads exhausted, " Jetton wrote.

The family put up yellow fliers on trees in the area.

"Did you see this accident? Our mom was killed. Desperately seeking witnesses."

* * *

For much of his career, Jetton drew accolades.

A former Army drill sergeant, he joined the FHP in March 1985. Supervisors took note of his sensitivity, professionalism and accuracy, honoring him for preventing a suicide and saving a man from a burning pickup.

Internal affairs logged six complaints against him. The only one found to have merit was a 1991 claim that he took a camera from someone at a crime scene and removed the film.

In 2001, with his marriage on the rocks, Jetton scored praise for attending to victims:

"Corporal Jetton goes above and beyond the normal when dealing with victim's families. Keeps constant contact with families and keeps them abreast with the current case."

* * *

That's what Eckhard Schadow remembered about him.

Schadow met Jetton in April 1997 after a driver struck and killed Schadow's 14-year-old daughter, Valerie, of Seminole.

The driver didn't stop.

Jetton spent months digging into the case. He solved it by tracing a wiper blade to a guilty driver.

"Because he spent so much time on it - more than anyone else - he helped us and was available when we had almost given up that we would ever find the perpetrator, " Schadow said.

Jetton understood what it felt like to be a grieving parent. His youngest son, Jason, died at age 20, a bullet in his chest. His best friend squeezed the trigger during an argument with another man. Jason was a bystander.

Two men faced charges. Neither went to prison.

* * *

Jetton and his new wife now live in a modest home in the rolling hills of rural Sedalia, Ky. He receives Highway Patrol retirement benefits and a pension.

Back in Florida, the McGinleys' attorney prepares to file the federal civil rights suit.

Trost copes with her mother's death, dealing with insurance matters.

Palmieri works on her list of Jetton cases and shares her doubts.

Times researchers John Martin and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or 813 226-3373

The Times wrote about Cpl. Dennis Jetton in February. To read "Tell-tale heart unravels DUI case, " go to links.tampabay.com.

[Last modified April 28, 2007, 01:59:12]


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