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Like case, wounds are still open

"I want to know what happened,'' says a mom whose 10-year-old son was killed six years ago in a hit-and-run.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2000


DADE CITY -- Sarose Vinson always thinks about what her only son would have been like now.

Joseph Casmer Vinson would have turned 16 in January.

His mother wonders if Cass, as he was known, would be driving now. Certainly he'd be tall -- doctors told his mother he'd be about 6 foot 5 someday -- and thin as a rail.

But would he have a girlfriend? Would he have conquered the attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity that stunted his emotional and intellectual growth as a boy?

But more than anything, Vinson wonders how her son died. March 22 marked the sixth anniversary of Cass' death. He died, at age 10, about 12 hours after he was struck by a car earlier that morning while riding his bicycle along State Road 52 west of Dade City.

But details of the accident remain sketchy.

Investigators with the Florida Highway Patrol have made little progress on the case, but not because they haven't tried. They just haven't had much to go on.

The driver who hit Cass fled the scene, stopping briefly, a witness said, to pry the mangled bicycle from underneath the chassis before vanishing.

Vinson's life has never been the same. Never will be, she said.

She might begin to accept the tragedy, she said, if there weren't so many unanswered questions surrounding her son's death.

"I want to know what happened," Vinson told the Times last week. "And I'm sure there's somebody out there who knows something.

"I just wish they'd come forward, even if it's anonymous. I really want to know if it was (Cass') fault or someone else's."

Cass' last Christmas was his best.

His mother couldn't afford to buy Cass his first bicycle. She had been a certified nursing assistant but quit work and lived on welfare so she could stay home to raise her son and three daughters.

But Cass, a third-grader at Centennial Elementary School, had a Christmas sponsor. (Vinson said Cass was held back because he was deemed emotionally handicapped.)

The sponsor gave Cass a green 10-speed Schwinn. Vinson said the bike meant the world to her son. And the timing seemed perfect, almost like a reward for the progress Cass was making in school, Vinson said.

"He was really starting to straighten out," said Vinson, 50. "He was reading much better. ... The last three months of his life were his happiest."

Kids made fun of Cass, his mother said, because of his gangly appearance. He was 5 foot 5 and weighed less than 100 pounds.

But the ribbing from classmates didn't seem to faze Cass, Vinson said.

"He'd always say, "I'm rubber; you're glue. It bounces off me and sticks to you.' "

About 4:30 p.m. on March 21, 1994, Cass replaced the flat rear tire on his bike and pedaled east along the side of SR 52 to visit a classmate.

Three hours later, he hadn't returned, so his worried mother got in the car she had borrowed from a friend and drove down the street to get him.

She pulled into the classmate's driveway and told Cass to get in the car. But Cass, ignoring his mother, rode away on his bike toward home.

Vinson followed her son, honking the horn and yelling at him to put the bike in the car and climb in.

His response, according to Vinson: "I know where I'm going."

Those were the last words Cass would say to his mother.

Vinson was cleaning out her friend's car when her 14-year-old daughter, Nadine, ran up.

"I think Cass got hit by a car," Nadine, who had been walking home from the neighborhood convenience store, told her mother.

They grabbed some flashlights and left to find Cass.

Vinson found the bike first. It was lying in front of a crematorium about a hundred feet east of their house. The frame was badly mangled, the rear tire bent in a U-shape.

Panicked, she went back to the house, got in the borrowed car and drove along the side of the road, praying her son would appear, standing and maybe a little shaken, in the glare of the headlights.

Then she saw him sprawled in the grass, motionless. He was still alive, but barely. He was breathing and had a pulse. But he was unconscious, eyes shut.

"I told him, "Jesus loves you and Mommy loves you.' " He moved his eyes, a sign, Vinson said, that he heard his mother and understood.

That's when Vinson's search for justice, and her frustration, began.

She looked for the car that hit Cass. It was nowhere to be seen.

She walked into the middle of the road, screaming and waving her arms in hopes that someone would stop to help. For what seemed like an eternity to Vinson, nobody did.

Finally, an off-duty deputy -- Vinson never got his name -- pulled over and called for an ambulance. But it was too late. Cass was already brain dead.

The next day, doctors at Tampa General Hospital removed him from life support.

But before he died, Vinson fulfilled a final promise to her son.

Several months before the accident, Cass had seen a television program about a girl in need of a liver transplant.

"Call them," Vinson said Cass told her. "She can have mine."

From then on, Cass seemed obsessed with organ donation. He pestered his mother about what he wanted done with his organs if he died.

So when Cass was about to be unhooked from life support, Vinson knew what must be done.

Cass' heart went to a 46-year-old mother of three in Louisiana, his liver to a 14-year-old girl in Gainesville, his right kidney to a retired policeman in Kentucky.

Highway patrol troopers arrived two hours after the accident and began collecting evidence. But aside from an elderly woman who said she saw a man get out of the car and toss the bicycle onto the shoulder of the road, they had nothing but cold statistics.

Cass, they determined, was thrown 38 feet from the point of impact. A small sign that reads "Drive Safely" now marks the spot where he landed.

Troopers also noted that Cass's bike was dragged 507 feet before the car stopped and someone tossed it aside.

And, after examining the bike, they concluded that Cass was partly responsible for the accident. The bike did not have lights or reflectors, as required by law.

"The violations (Cass) committed did contribute to the crash and his own death," Cpl. Richard Kraus wrote in his investigative report.

From the limited evidence at the scene, Kraus wrote, "It does not appear (the driver of the car) violated any Florida Statute in regard to rear-ending (Cass)."

But, he added, "For some unknown reason, (the driver) failed to stop or remain at the scene."

Failure to stop after being involved in an accident that results in death is a second-degree felony.

In the weeks following the accident, Vinson repeatedly called investigators, wondering if they had new leads, something that might give her some hope that the driver would be brought to justice.

"They told me they were working on it," she said. "But they never had any good news."

A few people called the house after reading newspaper accounts of the accident. They supplied license plate numbers, descriptions of cars they had seen with front-end damage. But the tips were all dead ends.

Vinson said it's been several years since she last spoke with an investigator.

Kraus, who is still assigned to the case, did not respond to messages left by a Times reporter.

But Vinson hasn't given up hope. In fact, she thinks her own daughter Nadine, now 20, may hold the key to solving the case.

Vinson said Nadine may have seen Cass get hit by the car. And she is confident that Nadine knows more about what happened than she has ever revealed.

Nadine was severely traumatized by what happened to her brother, Vinson said. And she has repressed other memories of the days surrounding her brother's death, Vinson said.

Vinson, who got divorced when Cass was two and hasn't remarried, lives alone in the house where she raised her children.

A few pictures of Cass are displayed around the house, but everything else that belonged to him, or recorded his short life, has been given away to other kids or stored in two small suitcases that Vinson keeps in the attic.

Vinson is trying to move on with her life. But what she wants most, she said, her voice steeled with six years of frustration, is for the driver who hit Cass to come out of hiding and accept responsibility.

"I just want to piece together what happened. But that can only happen if someone gets a conscience and comes forward."

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