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By Rebecca Catalanello and Michael Van Sickler, Times Staff Writers
Published March 2, 2008
[Edmund D. Fountain | Times]
The last restful night of sleep for Hugh and Jill McGinley ended 10 years ago with a knock at the door.
A Florida Highway Patrol trooper told them their youngest son, Kevin, had been killed in a hit-and-run crash.
The news on that brisk morning of Feb. 13, 1998, devastated the British couple, ending an idyllic life they had created at their beachfront Indian Shores hotel.
The McGinleys at first had no reason to doubt what they were told. As time passed, though, troubling evidence emerged suggesting Kevin's death on a Tampa highway was more sinister.
Two people told authorities they heard that Kevin had been pushed to his death. Two more said they knew who did it.
The McGinleys came to suspect someone killed Kevin - and that he was still out there.
But the FHP wouldn't budge from its original conclusion that Kevin had been in the highway of his own free will, that no one pushed him.
So the McGinleys embarked on their own investigation. The mother viewed painful crash scene photographs, careful to block out images of her son's lifeless body. The father filed dozens of public records requests to find out whether his son had been beaten or stabbed, drunk or sober.
They spent a decade and a half-million dollars trying to uncover what happened. At almost every step, forces combined to thwart their efforts: A witness who couldn't be trusted. An investigator who rested his case on that witness, missing or dismissing other clues. And a criminal justice system unmoved by new evidence.
With each passing day, the McGinleys see the truth slipping away forever. Too many clues uncollected, too many witnesses now dead. They feel abandoned in their adopted homeland, their faith in American law and order shattered.
"My boy went out for a pint of beer, he gets killed, and no one cares," Jill McGinley said. "Animals get better treatment."
This is the most terrible day of our lives. Rest in peace, baby.
Jill McGinley's diary, Feb. 13, 1998
Thursday was "Sink or Swim" night at Empire nightclub in Ybor City - pay a cover and drink all you want. Kevin McGinley and his friend Michael Lipp had been planning this night out for some time.
The two 21-year-olds were fairly typical of that demographic of students, waiters, store clerks and hairdressers that clock out and head en masse to the neon glow of Seventh Avenue.
Of the two, Kevin was more low-key, friends say, into fitness and Newcastle beer, Pink Floyd and shooting pool. He delivered Chinese and pizza, attended St. Petersburg Junior College and thought about going into fitness training or the hotel business like his parents.
Fifteen when his family moved to the States from Great Britain, Kevin was called "England" by his classmates. His car had a Union Jack license plate on the front.
By contrast, Lipp had something of Hollywood about him. An aspiring model with a baby-face and blue eyes, he always seemed to have girls around.
At Empire they drank and danced. Lipp flirted with a slender blond with ivory skin named Tabitha Brown.
At closing time, kids poured onto Seventh Avenue.
The two friends left in Lipp's 1992 Honda Accord. At a stoplight on 22nd Street, someone in a green Plymouth Voyager shouted an insult. Lipp yelled back.
The light changed. They headed for Interstate 4 with the van in pursuit.
Who knows exactly what happened in the moments before they stopped on Interstate 275. Within minutes, both vehicles pulled over, and men were throwing punches. In 10 years, no single witness has provided a consistent answer for why strangers on a highway would to do this, other than bruised ego, alcohol and bad judgment.
Nearly 20 people saw the spectacle unfold. Headlights of hurtling cars and trucks revealed a fight in the middle of the highway - or, some said, a scuffle to the side.
Just then, a UPS 18-wheeler crested the hill.
The car in front lurched hard to the left, revealing a sight no trucker wants to see:
A man, falling.
At 55 mph, the UPS driver slammed on his brakes. "I was too late," he wrote later. "I knew I had run over him."
Within hours, the UPS driver was released to his company, without giving a written or recorded statement to police.
It was only the first of many missteps in Florida Highway Patrol case No. 798-03-09.
We've pestered the life out of everybody out there and they've ignored us . . . If they can do this to us, who is next?
Jill McGinley, Feb. 13, 2006, interview
A telephone call at 4:08 a.m. woke Cpl. Dennis Jetton, an FHP homicide investigator, in his Thonotosassa mobile home.
By 4:48 a.m., he was at the scene. He found Kevin's body covered by a yellow sheet near the Howard-Armenia on ramp. The UPS truck and its driver were there, but the crowd that had been there was long gone.
A former Army drill sergeant, Jetton had been with FHP for almost 13 years, winning praise for investigating crashes. That would change in years to come, and another case would be his undoing. Now, though, he was well-regarded.
Jetton surmised that another car struck Kevin, knocking him into the truck's path. One problem: His eyewitnesses didn't back up this theory.
The trucker saw only what lights illuminated as he topped the hill. The only other driver who remained at the scene had a more distant view of the crash. Neither told the FHP they had seen a car hit Kevin first.
Around 5 a.m., a witness caught Jetton's attention. The figure slouching against his patrol car had bloodshot eyes and slurred speech. He said he was Kevin's friend and had been there when he died.
It was Michael Lipp.
Thiswas the first of several meetings that would lead Jetton to build his case around Lipp, a move that would shape - and in the eyes of the McGinleys, doom - the investigation.
Had funeral today. He had wonderful friends. They did him proud.
Jill McGinley's diary, Feb. 18, 1998
Lipp was the star witness, no doubt. There when Kevin died, he should have provided investigators with all the information they ever needed to determine what happened.
Yet from the start, Lipp acted unpredictably.
With Kevin dead in the road, Lipp abandoned him and drove 20 miles to the St. Petersburg home of the woman he had pursued all night,Tabitha Brown. The 19-year-old waiter told investigators she barely knew Lipp. But there he was, banging on the door.
She and her mother, Linda, tried to make sense of his hysterics.He kept saying that Kevin had died and it was his fault, Linda Brown later told police. He repeated the refrain:
Kevin was pushed.
Lipp said "one of the guys hit Kevin and pushed him into the road on the oncoming traffic and a car came and hit him," Tabitha would later tell the police in an interview.
After hearing Lipp's story, the Browns called 911 and put Lipp on the phone. AnFHP trooper drove him to the scene.
Still emotional, Lipp gave an entirely different story, according to Jetton's report.
Lipp said Kevin had been driving and pulled over to fight after the Plymouth van bumped the car.
Most important, Lipp said that after the fight, Kevin stepped back from the shoulder of the road and into the path of an oncoming vehicle, before a truck roared through, killing him.
He didn't mention any push. But his flip-flop gave Jetton an eyewitness to back his theory that another car struck Kevin before the semi.
Kevin's friends and family initially sympathized with Lipp, but doubt percolated. How could Lipp have left a friend dead in the road? What about the inconsistencies in his story?
The McGinley family shared its concern with Jetton, who tried to interview Lipp again, only to have him cancel two appointments. Finally, 13 days after the crash, the trooper read Lipp his Miranda rights, a step usually reserved for suspects.
Lipp fessed up. Kevin hadn't been driving. Lipp drove, he said, and lied because his license was suspended.
Jetton told Lipp he appeared to be the only person who could be charged with a crime for leaving the scene. Asked why he left, Lipp said, "I just freaked out."
"That's understandable," the investigator replied.
"You were pretty rattled and the alcohol that you consumed made you pretty intoxicated," he said in a recorded interview. "It wasn't a very good statement; and that's why you're here now."
In the months that followed, Jetton relied upon Lipp to uphold his premise that the crash was an accidental death.
In a recent brief interview, the now 31-year-old Lipp said he has always told the truth. "I didn't lie about a thing," he said from his home in California. "It just didn't add up to them about what happened."
Channel 10 came and spoke with Hugh, he moaned that FHP not doing enough.
Jill McGinley's diary, March 17,1998
Two months after the crash, Jetton's investigation was a muddled mess. One of his supervisors noted "most of the information (Jetton) was getting was of no value to his case. The person named Lipp gave several versions."
Saddled with conflicting accounts of the crash, Jetton sought guidance from the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.
Prosecutor Wayne Chalu said pushing someone into traffic would have been a crime. The problem, he said in a recent interview, was "(Jetton) did not have enough facts, evidence or witnesses to back that up."
Jetton missed FHP's standard 60-day deadline for closing a case. Then, five months after the wreck, he caught a break.
A man gave police a tip: He said his former roommate, Anthony Lloyd, came home Feb. 13 with a broken nose and an urgent desire to leave Tampa.
The tipster, Robert Brock, said that a week later in California, Lloyd told him he had been in a fight and punched a man, who fell back into traffic and was killed. Another roommate said she had heard the same thing.
Brock identified Lloyd from a police sketch and gave Jetton leads on the other two men in the van with Lloyd that night.
New names. New leads. It should have been good news.
Fingers crossed. This looks promising . . .
Jill McGinley's diary, July 22, 1998
Jetton found Chris Grubb, driver of the van in the chase, two days later. The 25-year-old said he'd been the designated driver that night.
Grubb recalled that during the fight on I-275, Lloyd realized Kevin had broken his nose. He exploded, taunting and cursing Kevin, demanding to fight again.
Kevin and another man started flagging down traffic, and a taxi stopped briefly, then left.
As Kevin stood in the middle of the road, a passing car clipped him on the hip, spinning him into a truck's path, Grubb said.
The investigator was at a critical juncture. Should he trust Brock, the tipster who voluntarily came forward but wasn't at the scene, or Grubb, an eyewitness who fled and didn't talk until he'd been tracked down?
Jetton went with Grubb, again bolstering his theory that Kevin's death was accidental. He did not charge Grubb with leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
Now 10 years later, Grubb sticks by what he told Jetton. But he doesn't rule out that Kevin had been pushed.
"Is there a possibility that something happened that I didn't see?" Grubb said in a January interview. "Yes."
God help us. The witness named two others but they lost them.
Jill McGinley's diary, July 31, 1998
Jetton issued a final report without ever questioning Anthony Lloyd, the man said to have forced Kevin into traffic.
"It is my conclusion that (Kevin McGinley) contributed to his own death," he wrote, basing this on the testimony of Lipp, Grubb and Timothy Schoenig, a passenger in Grubb's van who was interviewed for 15 minutes a year after the crash.
Jetton highlighted the one consistent detail in all three accounts - that Kevin had not been pushed - while overlooking many discrepancies that made the rest of their stories incompatible.
His report does not explain why he discounted testimony from four others who said they were told Kevin was pushed or battered into the road.
This selective approach led to a finding with few details: Kevin and his friend Lipp had improperly stopped on the interstate. Kevin got into a fight and was under the influence of alcohol - his blood-alcohol level at 0.10 percent, over the 0.08 level at which the state considers a motorist impaired.
"He was a pedestrian on an interstate highway in the travel lanes trying to flag down traffic, and stepped into the path" of an unknown vehicle that spun him in front of the UPS truck, Jetton stated in his final report.
It was dated March 22, 1999.
Despite acknowledging that mistakes were made, FHP stands by the finding.
Our poor Kevin's been gone 21 months. It doesn't seem anywhere near that, we miss him so much.
Jill McGinley's diary, Nov. 13, 1999
At the time of Kevin's death, Anthony Lloyd was 22 and had already served 14 months in New Jersey's correctional system on a robbery conviction.
Friends say that after the interstate incident, Lloyd withdrew and seemed to sink into depression.
He moved to California briefly, then back to Tampa, then to New York to live with his father on the Upper East Side.
The McGinleys kept pressing police to find him.
In 2000, case notes show that a New York warrant officer contacted Lloyd's father, who told him his son was "afraid of an issue in Florida."
Close to three years after Kevin's death, investigators cornered Lloyd in Las Vegas, where he had been picked up on an old warrant involving a drug charge.
Lloyd demanded a lawyer, ending the interview. He was never questioned about Kevin's death.
Four years later, he died of a drug overdose.
You're still in our thoughts Kev. Every minute. Every hour. Every day.
Jill McGinley's diary, November 1998, no day specified
The McGinleys' frustration grew with each setback.
In 2000, a private investigator from their hometown in England heard their story on BBC and made a trip to the States, becoming the first in a long series of experts to pick apart the FHP report.
Experts in lingusitics, polygraphs and accident reconstruction. Experts in law enforcement and the law. All had findings that fueled the McGinleys' doubts about the case.
Four years after Kevin's death, the McGinleys filed a wrongful-death lawsuit naming Lipp, Lloyd, Grubb and others.
It never went to trial. Problems with attorneys led them to file after the statute of limitations had elapsed. But the suit did produce reams of records and new testimony that cast doubt on FHP's conclusion.
- Jetton and another trooper disagreed by about 150 feet over the point of impact, based on two sets of skid marks. A McGinley consultant pointed to photographic evidence showing that Kevin's body and blood were on top of the marks Jetton cited, which made it highly improbable, if not impossible for them to be the ones made by the UPS truck.
- Lipp flunked a polygraph when he was asked if Kevin had been forced into the roadway. Jetton had him retested without explaining why. Lipp passed the second test, but the data substantiating the result was not in law enforcement files examined by the Times.
- The UPS driver stayed at the scene, but Jetton didn't formally interview him. Instead, he accepted a statement the driver gave to a UPS investigator. Jetton incorrectly reported that the UPS driver saw someone lying in the road. The driver said the person he hit had been falling. Physical evidence on the truck also raises questions.
- Jetton cited broken mirror parts as evidence of a hit-and-run. The pieces were 158 feet from the body and 220 feet from where he says the car hit Kevin. Yet his report says the pieces were "just west" of the body.
-He didn't listen to the 911 tapes until about eight months after the crash. Three of those calls contradict Jetton's key witness, Lipp.
- A tanker truck driver who passed by the scene said he saw Kevin pushed to his death. Mark Allen, then 42, of Orlando, told four people this at various times. But his formal statement to Jetton says only that he saw a fight and exited the interstate before Kevin died. FHP officials and prosecutors said Allen had credibility problems. He died of a drug overdose in 2002.
Never, never, never any good news.
Jill McGinley's diary, July 25, 2001, after she learned the state attorney declined to file charges in the case
The more aggressively the McGinleys probed, the tighter the FHP seemed to close ranks. The FHP characterized the couple as relentless parents channeling their grief into blame.
When the McGinleys complained that State Attorney Mark Ober's office failed to step in, an FHP attorney posted an anonymous item on a law enforcement blog, accusing the McGinleys of trying to bribe a witness.
"Pray that the hate is lifted from your heavy heart, so you can remember your son in a positive way," she wrote, "and do something constructive instead of destructive with your time and money."
During a deposition, the attorney, whom the McGinley's learned was Laurie Beth Woodham, later apologized for her allegation of bribery.
Though Kevin's family wrote repeatedly to complain about Jetton, his personnel file doesn't mention the case. Instead, supervisors lauded his investigative skills.
As it turned out, the McGinleys were the least of Jetton's worries.
Sometimes, the huge great things are too big and no one will get involved, then a small thing comes along and brings a great big downfall. Corp. Jetton is in the paper today ...
Jill McGinley's diary, Feb. 14, 2007
Unknown to the McGinleys, Jetton's personal and professional life had been unraveling. By 2006, FHP was investigating him after prosecutors learned he'd had an affair with and married a woman widowed in a 1999 crash that he investigated.
Jetton left his wife of 32 years for the woman. He testified in court that his new sweetheart's husband had been killed by a drunken driver. The defendant went to prison for 15 years, and the widow was awarded a $600,000 insurance settlement.
When prosecutors learned of the romance, the defendant walked free.
Jetton's troubles gave the McGinleys hope that their case, too, would be re-examined. But Jetton resigned in 2007, his pension intact. And nobody revisited the McGinley case.
Jetton's former wife, Linda, says now that even though she feels betrayed, she blames that on the woman he met.
She said she has no reason to think he did anything wrong in the McGinley case.
"The only thing I remember he said about the case," she said, "was that McGinley was trying to bring him down."
She called Jetton at a Times reporter's request. He declined to answer questions for this story.
Meanwhile, the McGinleys, both now 59, awaken every day with more questions and an all-consuming conviction that their son has been denied justice.
"It just gets worse with every passing year," Hugh said a week after the 10th anniversary of the crash. "The more that comes out, the more it becomes clear that they've got to do something - and the more determined they become not to do anything."
Every other day Hugh checks to see that the flowers at Kevin's grave are fresh and watered, the grass neatly tended, the headstone polished.
Then he goes home, where a computer and fax machine are ready for the next letter, phone call, or update to his Web site, www.plea4justice.com.
Authorities have taken steps to try to answer questions.
In 1999, the FHP convened a multiagency review panel that included the State Attorney's Office, the medical examiner and the FDLE. Their conclusion: Everything that could have been done was done.
And the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office reviewed it more than once. In 2001 a homicide committee unanimously found "insufficient competent evidence" to support charges.
Yet internal memos from around that time show that an FHP lieutenant misstated key facts to his superiors. One of the biggest: He told them the UPS driver said a hit-and-run driver clipped Kevin. He didn't say that.
Just last August, FHP's then-director Col. Christopher A. Knight reiterated confidence in Jetton's work: "This case was thoroughly investigated by our agency," he wrote. "All inquires or investigations . . . have supported our original findings."
Knight's credibility took a blow when he resigned a month later for falsifying a memo to discredit a sexual discrimination claim. The FHP later settled with the female trooper for $525,000.
Hugh McGinley presses on, writing the attorney general, the governor, anyone with power and a post office box.
"It devours you," McGinley admits. "We've spent 10 years doing a job the police were supposed to do. . . Having done that, why won't they look at the evidence? We can't prosecute and be a court of law, too."
The McGinleys surviving children have seen the toll. Kevin's sister, Tracy McGinley-Brooks, 39, marvels that her father is still alive after all he has been through.
"For my parents, it's not a matter of choice. It's a matter of what is right, and there is not anything right about this case at all."
Three years ago, this mother of three awakened to learn that her own husband died in a car wreck. A few weeks later, she saw the crash report. The investigating trooper? Cpl. Dennis Jetton.
The doubts came flooding in.
"Life is strange," Brooks said. "Life is really, really strange."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3402.
About this story
Over two months, two St. Petersburg Times reporters interviewed 27 people and inspected hundreds of records, including files of the Florida Highway Patrol, Pinellas and Hillsborough circuit courts, and the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the McGinley family.
They reviewed notes, reports and depositions from investigators; 911 calls, witness statements; crash scene photographs and diagrams; and diaries, letters and notes of the McGinleys.
Scene and dialogue re-creations are based on case files and recent interviews. Several people involved in the case did not respond to voice messages, e-mails or notes, including Timothy Schoenig, Anthony Lloyd's parents and Tabitha and Linda Brown. UPS driver Gardy Gardana, and Dennis Jetton declined to comment. Former FHP Lt. Stephen Mauriello referred questions to the agency. FHP spokesman Ernesto Duarte said the agency would decline comment until after it completed a review of a recent McGinley complaint.
The McGinleys are represented by Thomas Reynolds, a partner in the law firm of Rahdert, Steele, Bole & Reynolds P.A., the same firm that represents the St. Petersburg Times.
Staff writer Rebecca Catalanello covers crime and breaking news in Hillsborough County. She joined the Times in 2003, covering K-12 education in Pasco County. Before that, she wrote about education for the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register and the Charleston (W. Va.) Daily Mail.
Staff writer Michael Van Sickler covers growth and development. He came to the Times in 2003 from the Palm Beach Post. He started in journalism at the Ledger in Lakeland in 1996 after earning a master's degree in mass communications from the University of Florida.
Who's who: Key players in the case
Tabitha Brown: St. Petersburg woman Michael Lipp ran to after the crash. She said he told her Kevin had been pushed to his death.
Linda Brown: Tabitha's mother.
Robert Brock: Told police his roommate, Anthony Lloyd, admitted he'd been in a fight and punched a man, who fell into interstate traffic and was run over.
Chris Grubb: With Anthony Lloyd and Timothy Schoenig that night on the interstate.
Cpl. Dennis Jetton: Highway Patrol traffic homicide investigator.
Michael Lipp: With Kevin when he died, a key witness.
Anthony Lloyd: Allegedly forced Kevin into the path of a truck during a fight.
Kevin McGinley: The victim, 21 at the time of his death.
Hugh McGinley: Kevin's father.
Jill McGinley: Kevin's mother.
Tracy McGinley-Brooks: Kevin's sister.
Timothy Schoenig: With Lloyd and Grubb at the crash scene.
[Last modified March 1, 2008, 21:57:47]