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City gets outfoxed by Fitzpatrick brothers

By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


People running from the law pick all kinds of places to hide. But the laundry room?

That's where Crystal River police found Pat Fitzpatrick last Saturday night after going to his house to investigate his possible involvement in a hit-and-run accident that evening.

Fitzpatrick's wife, after finally answering the police officer's repeated knocks on the door, gave new meaning to the phrase airing your dirty laundry when she pointed out her husband's hideout, somewhere under the pile of clothes.

Police say that Fitzpatrick, wobbly on his feet, slurring his speech and smelling of booze, eventually broke free from the towels that bound him. Explaining his apparently inebriated condition, the Crystal River banker said he had just been following orders from his big brother, Citrus County's uber-attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick.

Perhaps unknowingly, Spike is said to have paraphrased this famous line from gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson's book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: As your attorney, I advise you to drink heavily.

This might all be quite amusing if not for one thing: There is nothing remotely funny about drinking and driving.

Police and witnesses say Pat Fitzpatrick ran a red light on Citrus Avenue, banged off of a car that was legally crossing the intersection and injured a passenger, then roared off without stopping to see what had happened.

A witness to the collision says he chased Fitzpatrick north on County Road 495 trying to get close enough to write down the vehicle's license plate number. That was a dangerous mission as Fitzpatrick's pickup truck was topping 90 mph and weaving along the highway.

The witness finally got the information and returned to the accident scene to help police, who traced the tag number to Fitzpatrick. When they went to his home, they found the truck partly hidden in the woods, according to reports. Shortly thereafter, the officer had his clothes encounter with the suspect, who was hung out to dry by his wife.

There is some disparity between accounts from the Fitzpatrick brothers as to who said what when. Pat says he talked to Spike once he got to his house; Spike said Pat called after being returned by police to the accident scene.

The timing is significant because the I-started-drinking-when-I-got-home excuse that Fitzpatrick employed is a legally clever one. It effectively negates the results of any Breathalyzer test because police can't prove when you started drinking.

That's just one of the interesting bits of law enforcement knowledge this case has revealed. Another is that some days are better than others if you're inclined to try your luck with police in Crystal River.

Sgt. Mack Ballard, who collared Fitzpatrick in the laundry room, said one reason he didn't formally arrest the prominent citizen is that the paperwork involved would have tied him up all night. That would have left the security of the entire city that Saturday night in the hands of a single police officer, a rookie at that.

Well, that's certainly a comfort.

I wonder, just what was the threshold that night for crimes warranting an arrest? How many offenses were overlooked because, on balance, they weren't worth the effort to pursue? Obviously, the bar was set higher than drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident with injuries.

Ballard had his hands full that night, trying to keep the peace while severely shorthanded and dealing with a very touchy case. His reward was being outfoxed by the Fitzpatricks and then publicly criticized by his boss for not making an arrest that legal experts say wouldn't hold up in court.

It all sounds like a bad episode of the Dukes of Hazzard except for one thing: There is nothing funny about drinking and driving. And all of those involved know it.

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