Slow investigations torment those in grief
By COLLINS CONNER
© St. Petersburg Times,
They occupy the desolate inner-circle of a sorrowful society.
Their greatest misfortune was the deaths of their children on state highways. Then, when they most needed information and closure, the Florida Highway Patrol caused them more pain.
In a series of cases reviewed by the St. Petersburg Times, grieving families said patrol investigators treated them with indifference, if not heartlessness. The patrol wouldn't answer their calls. Investigations, some loaded with mistakes, dragged on interminably, while the patrol made excuses.
Wayne Kettlety, whose son Danial was killed by a hit-and-run driver, became so frustrated, he hired a private eye to chase down leads the patrol had ignored.
"We get nothing from the highway patrol," he said, "other than excuses for how underfunded and overworked they are."
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The patrol told her -- and the South Florida media -- that her 23-year-old son Maurice Williams drove the wrong way on Interstate 95 and slammed into the car of an FBI agent.
Williams and his brother Craig Chambers died in the November 1999 crash near Lauderhill; Special Agent David Farrall was injured.
Ms. Thompson insisted that the patrol was wrong. Williams was a youth minister, Chambers a church choir member and a scholarship student at Florida Atlantic University. They were headed north to the university late that night, not south, as the patrol said.
Highway patrol investigators quickly decided they had it backward -- it was Farrall who had been driving the wrong way, with his car lights out. But they were slow to set the record straight.
Patrol officers didn't talk to Farrall at the accident scene or check to see if he had been drinking. (His blood-alcohol level was later shown to be nearly twice the legal limit.) They let Farrall's fellow FBI agents remove items from his car without finding out what was being taken.
Twice the patrol investigated its handling of the case and apologized for its mistakes -- without taking any action against officers.
Ms. Thompson suspected the patrol's blunder was based on race: her black sons versus a white FBI agent. The Rev. Jesse Jackson got involved.
The stink reached Tallahassee.
Gov. Jeb Bush called in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which detailed blunders by three officers. A special prosecutor who reviewed the FDLE investigation urged "significant measures and changes in (patrol) staffing and policy."
The agency ordered more crash training for officers and changed its policy on investigating the accidents of other cops.
After four investigations, the highway patrol got around to disciplining a corporal (five-day suspension without pay), a sergeant (five-day suspension without pay) and a lieutenant (a written reprimand).
Farrall was charged with vehicular homicide; his defense attorney is taking advantage of the patrol's sloppy investigation. During one hearing, the lead highway patrol investigator acknowledged that he made multiple misstatements in sworn affidavits.
"I have to wonder what is true and what isn't when he testifies," said Circuit Judge Marc Gold.
Gold tossed out two of the alcohol-related charges against Farrall; the trial is on hold while prosecutors appeal that ruling.
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The patrol's handling of the South Florida crash is not typical; some prosecutors praise the quality of patrol investigations. What they do not praise is their timeliness.
According to the highway patrol's rules, traffic homicide investigations should take no more than two months. Last year, 68 percent of homicide reports came in late.
In Miami, 10 of 14 investigators regularly took four months to finish their homicide cases. For two investigators, the median completion time was more than a year. In the Gainesville-Ocala area, more than a fourth of the cases went past six months. Even in the Tallahassee troop -- right under the nose of patrol headquarters -- 81 percent of the homicide cases weren't done on time.
That wouldn't happen if supervisors rode herd on their investigators, said retired Maj. Ed Hagler, a former investigator. Letting homicide cases drag for a year "damn near warrants an investigation of the supervisor," he said.
Highway patrol homicide officers average fewer than a dozen cases a year. Many require only minimal investigation.
Typically, the patrol blames the FDLE crime lab for long-delayed homicide cases.
That's what patrol spokesman Ken Howes blamed last March when he was asked why charges hadn't been filed in a November crash: "Still awaiting the FDLE blood test results."
Not true. The test results had been in the patrol's hands for months.
At first, Citrus County prosecutor Donald McCathran gave the same excuse for why an August crash report wasn't done until March: "The FDLE takes a while for blood tests."
Not true. The FDLE's turnaround time for patrol requests last year averaged 40 days.
When McCathran was asked to look at the file, he saw that highway patrol investigator Earl Frazier got the lab results six weeks after the accident -- nearly five months before Frazier's report was completed.
Frazier is the brother-in-law of Col. Charles C. Hall, who retired as highway patrol director on June 30. Frazier's cases regularly exceed the agency's time limit. One of his cases crept along for six months last year, though he did just one interview -- a telephone call that took eight minutes.
In another case, Frazier's sole interview took place 28 weeks after the crash; it lasted nine minutes. His report took seven months.
Frazier did not respond to a certified letter from the Times. Both people Frazier interviewed praised his courtesy.
In written answers to the newspaper's questions, the patrol said it "has recognized the delays in submitting traffic homicide investigations" and is implementing a tracking system to correct the problem. It said flawed investigations are the exception, not the rule.
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As with many areas of the patrol, there is little consistency in the performance of its homicide officers. Consider the opinions of two former prosecutors turned defense attorneys.
Robert Heyman of St. Petersburg said his "experience with FHP homicide investigators has been very good," so much so that he has used retired highway patrol investigators as crash experts in defense and personal injury cases. "I think they are very thorough."
Larry Hart of New Port Richey has the opposite experience. He said patrol officers are "right down there at the bottom when it comes to the quality level they bring to their cases."
"There's this aloofness ... this, "We are the highway patrol. We're right, simply because we can't be wrong.' And, of course, all too frequently the sad irony is they aren't even close to right."
Linda Avino, whose daughter was killed in a 1998 crash, said the patrol's seeming disregard is a common complaint at Pasco and Hernando county meetings of Compassionate Friends, a support group for grieving parents.
At the crash scene where Karolyn Avino died, troopers let relatives of the driver pick through the car and remove items, Mrs. Avino said. During the investigation, she said, the patrol has been difficult to reach. "I leave messages, and no one calls back."
Another parent in that support group, Phyllis Doughtie, said that during its nearly yearlong investigation into her son's death, the patrol wouldn't return her calls. The investigator waited months to send evidence to the lab.
Mrs. Doughtie eventually learned that the first trooper called to the scene had an affair with the suspect in her son's death.
Battered by her experiences with the patrol, Mrs. Doughtie, a schoolteacher, lost faith in the system.
"Now, every day, I stand in my classroom and put my hand on my heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance," she said. "And when we get to the part where it says, "and justice for all,' it doesn't come out of my mouth. It's a lie. I won't say those words.
"I will not put my hand over my heart and say those words ever again."
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From the Times state desk
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