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He knew he hit something, but says he didn't know it was a man until next day.
By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 17, 2008
[Chris Zuppa | Times]
TAMPA - If Spencer Scott Smith had stayed silent, authorities may never have known how a man ended up dead in a ditch on New Year's Day 2007.
His words led sheriff's deputies to Patrick Jones' bloody body.
But prosecutors said Smith, a 24-year-old Seffner plumber with no criminal record, didn't speak soon enough. So Wednesday, he stood before a judge trying to explain what happened in the hours after his windshield shattered on a dark Plant City road.
He faced a charge that could land him in prison for decades.
* * *
Did Smith commit a crime?
After a New Year's Eve of playing Xbox 360 with a friend, Smith wanted beer. He says he drove off in his pickup just before 2 a.m.
He bought a case and headed back to the friend's house.
His route took him down U.S. 92. Right near the Sundance Bug & Buggy auto parts store, his truck hit something.
Smith pulled over. He didn't have a flashlight, and the street wasn't well lit. He didn't see anything in the road, he said.
"I had figured maybe it was a deer that had run on into the woods," he said Wednesday.
Early the next afternoon, Smith and his grandfather returned to the scene of the crash to look for missing car parts.
They found Jones' body instead.
"My fingers curled up. My tongue swelled up," Smith recalled. "I couldn't talk anymore. My heart was racing."
His grandparents put him in bed, and his grandmother called 911 to report the accident.
Seven months later, prosecutors charged Smith with leaving the scene of a crash involving death. Until then, the only blemish on his driving record was a 2000 citation in Iowa for driving without headlights.
Now he faced up to 30 years in prison, the same amount of time had deputies linked him to Jones' death on their own.
Bluntly put, Assistant State Attorney Kim Seace didn't believe Smith's story.
A reasonable person, she said, should have known he hit another person. Even if he wasn't sure, the law required Smith to alert law enforcement immediately, she said.
Human hair stuck to Smith's windshield. The truck's hood and windshield had "considerable" damage, Seace said.
"Any rational person would have known this wasn't a dog. It wasn't a deer," she said. "It was a human being."
Seace suspects Smith had been drinking before the accident. His friend said he had; Smith said he had not. A blood test taken more than 12 hours later didn't detect alcohol in his system.
The prosecutor offered a deal of a year in prison, which Smith refused. Instead he pleaded guilty - against his attorney's advice - and took his chances at sentencing with Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke.
The judge also had this to consider: Tests showed Jones, a 37-year-old former Marine and mechanic, had a blood alcohol level of 0.25 percent. That's three times the level at which Florida law presumes impairment.
Marie Pharo, 39, isn't sure how her boyfriend ended up on that dark stretch of road. He died 13 miles from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, where he had spent New Year's Eve with friends. He had planned to start the year by proposing to Pharo.
The nurse and mother of three has seen patients with head trauma survive. If Smith had called for help, she wondered, could Jones have been saved?
"He didn't have the benefit of 911," she said. "He was left there too long."
She heard Smith say that the accident had made him more diligent. He promised to pray for forgiveness from Jones for the rest of his life.
But Pharo didn't see remorse in Smith's eyes or hear sadness in his voice. She thought a little time behind bars would allow him to reflect on the depth of her loss.
"We forgive him," said her best friend, Elizabeth Lengyel. But "he should have stopped."
The women left court only partly satisfied.
The judge sentenced Smith to six months of community control and three years of probation. He can't drive for a year. He won't be considered a felon.
Half of his 100 community service hours must be performed at a trauma center. The women hope he will spend that time thinking of Jones.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3337.
[Last modified January 17, 2008, 00:22:10]