FHP backlog leaves families waiting for justice

By Lauren Sweeney, Special Projects Producer, lsweeney@clickorlando.com
Published On: Nov 26 2013 11:15:00 PM EST
Updated On: Nov 26 2013 11:00:00 PM EST

A backlog of traffic homicide cases at the Florida Highway Patrol is leaving families who've lost loved ones in crashes with a long wait for justice. Drivers found at fault in the crashes could remain on the road and not be arrested for as long as a year after the crash.

ORLANDO, Fla. -

John Townsend was on his way home from work last April on County Road 13 near Bithlo when he came upon an accident scene.

A van had been completely mangled by a large pickup truck ejecting a small boy from the van and leaving his mother with life threatening injuries.

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As Townsend approached his heart sank as he realized that was his van, and the driver was his wife Kathy and their little boy, JT, had been thrown through a fence into a retention pond.

His daughter, Emma, was also in the crash, and she would be the only member of the family to survive:  Kathy and JT died at the hospital the next day.

"A person without a care in the world for human life ran a stop sign at such a high rate of speed that it destroyed the van to where I didn't recognize it," said Townsend, who has been waiting more than 7 months for the Florida Highway Patrol to finish their investigation into the crash.

Until that happens, the driver who killed his wife and son continues to drive and will remain behind the wheel without incident.

That driver, Thomas Gilbert Lee II, is the grandson of TG Lee-the local farmer who built a Central Florida dairy legacy.

The younger Lee has his own legacy of Orange County traffic tickets and fines for speeding, running stop signs and was even cited a month before the crash with the Townsend family for reportedly watching a satellite television mounted on his dashboard while driving.

Lee told Local 6's Erik Von Ancken that the crash was "a terrible accident", and an attorney who is representing him in pending civil action said his client did not want to comment further until that case is resolved.

But that civil case cannot begin until it's determined whether or not Lee can be charged with any criminal actions.  A vehicular homicide, or VHOM, arrest cannot be made unless it's proven that Lee was operating his truck in a willful, wantful and reckless manner according to the highway patrol.

Townsend and his attorney believe he was, but months later they are still waiting for an arrest.  

"It terrifies me because if someone I know and love is hurt by someone who is flagrantly violating the rules and it is a criminal infraction I know there's a good chance they may get away with it," said James Vickaryous, the attorney representing the Townsend family in civil action against Lee.

Townsend, like dozens of other families who've lost loved ones in crashes,  is at the mercy of the traffic homicide investigators at the Florida Highway Patrol.

The challenge, according to FHP, is proving a VHOM case which can take time and resources.

The agency actually downsized traffic homicide investigators, or THI's, in 2011 because there had been a five year low in traffic homicides. That coupled with older THI's retiring has left existing investigators with a large stack of cases.

For instance, the Corporal assigned to the Lee case has 17 other cases that she is working. 

Those include a crash from January where a Lake County father and his three children were killed and a crash in St. Cloud back in July that killed a pregnant woman.

For Orange, Osceola, Lake counties and any crashes that happen on the Turnpike there are just 11 investigators to share the workload.

According to the Lieutenant in charge of Volusia, Seminole and Brevard investigations there are just 10 THI's for those those counties for 52 open cases.

FHP said they have the funding to hire more investigators to hopefully ease the workload, but hiring can be difficult and training takes up time and resources.   

The right candidates for the job have to be very intelligent and have a knack for mathematics, which is needed to properly estimate rates of speed and other factors that go into traffic investigations.

On top of that, it can be a thankless job.

"Every time you get called, you're going somewhere where someone's deceased. There are some people that's not what you want to do everyday," said Lt. Robert Asbill, who supervises all the THI's in Volusia, Seminole and Brevard counties.

Before making an arrest for vehicular homicide, FHP said they have to build a good strong case and that can take months or even over a year.

"It's frustrating, but like I told some of the victims, we would rather build a strong case and get a conviction, than build a weak case and not get a conviction," said Asbill.

So far this year, FHP has worked a total of 236 fatal crashes in Orange, Osceola, Lake, Seminole, Brevard and Volusia counties as well as the Turnpike. And on top of that they still have a handful of cases open from 2012.

In addition to the uphill battle against resources, FHP said it's often lab results that hold up their investigations.

In hit-and-run crash investigations, DNA evidence is often needed to prove a driver was behind the wheel of a vehicle at the time of a crash.

The results are processed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and they could take up to six months to process.

For instance, when a tractor trailer truck ran over and killed a deaf couple who were changing a tire along a stretch of Florida's turnpike in Fort Pierce, the story made headlines all over the state.

FHP later identified a truck driver from Sanford as a person of interest in the case because his vehicle was seen at a nearby toll plaza close in time to the crash.

But until troopers can prove his truck hit them and he was behind the wheel with DNA evidence they cannot make an arrest.

In other cases if the driver of the crash is suspected of being intoxicated, FHP relies on blood tests which according to Asbill can take up to two months to get back.

Then investigators often struggle with interpreting CDR's, or black boxes, that give data readouts about speed and the manner in which the vehicle was being operated.

In the Townsend crash, a witness estimated that Lee appeared to be driving around 50 miles per hour as he drove through the stop sign. His actual speed would have been recorded in his truck's black box but until recently the THI assigned to the case was not trained in reading that data.

FHP said they hope to finish their investigation in that case by the end of the year.

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