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A Times Editorial

FHP's faulty oversight revealed

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 2000

Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Danny Bowers has disgraced his badge.

And the agency for whom he works is tarnished, too, by its clumsy investigation of Bowers' conduct in the aftermath of a traffic accident that left a pedestrian dead, but the driver facing only a misdemeanor DUI charge.

As detailed Sunday by Times staff writers Collins Conner and Cary Davis, Bowers' record includes fraternization with a drug dealer, poor police work and carrying on a personal relationship with Melanie Bowie, the woman accused of drunken driving in the Sept. 14, 1998, death of pedestrian Louis Rapisarda.

The Florida Highway Patrol moved Friday to fire Bowers for his ties to Bowie, a long-rumored relationship that Bowers confirmed during a Nov. 15 interview with Davis. The agency said it had no concrete proof of the relationship until then. Why? Because investigators hadn't bothered to ask their fellow officer.

The decision not to confront Bowers directly is odd. With a previous attempt to terminate Bowers frustrated by the trooper's disability leave, an aggressive effort to determine the truth about his behavior should have been a priority.

The inattentiveness mirrors the sloppiness that has marred this traffic homicide investigation since its inception. Months after the crash, prosecutors said they couldn't move forward because FHP investigators couldn't supply basic evidence. In frustration, the State Attorney's Office brought a homicide investigator from the Pinellas Sheriff's Office to reconstruct the crash. Likewise, prosecutors said March 1999 calls and a letter to the FHP "to clarify pending discrepancies that we discussed" went unanswered.

At the time, Don Young, FHP's supervising investigator in Pasco, blamed those problems on the patrol being short-handed, an excuse trotted out seemingly every time the agency's performance comes under scrutiny. Rapisarda's family has other ideas. They suspect Bowers tainted the investigation. Bowers denies the charge.

Regardless, Bowie faces a misdemeanor charge instead of DUI-manslaughter in a trial scheduled to begin in January after a mistrial last month. Prosecutors said they filed the lesser charge because Rapisarda was walking the wrong way along the highway.

Bowers was the first trooper on the scene the night Bowie's truck slammed into Rapisarda as he walked with his back to traffic along the edge of Alt. U.S. 19 in Holiday. Bowie never braked and drove another 900 feet after the collision, until her truck stalled. Her blood-alcohol level measured 0.14 percent an hour after the crash.

Bowers said Bowie didn't appear intoxicated, an observation contradicted by two other troopers. He drove her home and said he later began a monthlong personal relationship with her.

Talk of the relationship was widespread. Bowie invoked her Fifth Amendment rights not to answer six times during a deposition in a civil court case filed by Rapisarda's family. Meanwhile, the prosecutor in the case against Bowie declined to use Bowers as a witness because of his credibility problems.

While the agency failed to investigate the allegations for five months, Bowers continued to collect disability pay from his $30,000-per-year job. The Highway Patrol's commander for Pasco and four other counties admits Bowers' conduct is embarrassing, but "the only person (Bowers) was hurting was Danny Bowers."

We disagree. Most notably, it hurt the Rapisarda family's belief in a fair system of justice.

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