Alleged cover up places Hendry sheriff under eye of state investigators

LABELLE, Fla. – Accusations of a cover up involving a teenage girl, a man facing federal prison and a vehicle mirror has the Florida Department of Law Enforcement looking into how Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden handled the case, a WINK News investigation has unveiled.

A 15-year-old girl was walking to a bus stop along Nobles Road in LaBelle on Sept. 11, 2015 when she was hit from behind by the passenger side view mirror of a white Ford F-150.

She was knocked into a ditch.

The truck kept going.

The girl, bruised and swollen, still made it to school. A school nurse contacted her mother, who took her to a hospital.

Then the mother contacted the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office.

“The deputy who was initially assigned to the case did an excellent job of investigating the case for leaving the scene with personal injury, which is a felony in the state of Florida,” said Steve Ramunni, a Fort Myers attorney who is representing the teenager. She is suing the driver.

Hendry County Deputy Vernon Speak, in an Aug. 10 deposition, testified that he began an extensive investigation into the hit and run case.

A week after the incident, he went back to the scene.

It was there that he saw a dirty white truck with a brand new passenger’s side mirror.

The phone call

Speak initiated a traffic stop. The driver, Richard Carlton Smith of LaBelle, called Whidden while Speak checked his license.

“I did receive a phone call from this guy,” Whidden said in an interview with WINK News. “He said, ‘Hey, they’re trying to charge me, what’s going on?'”

Smith, 58, said he thought he hit a mailbox or a garbage can, Whidden said.

“He said when he reached his destination, he saw that his mirror was broke,” Whidden said. “He said, ‘Oh no, I must have hit something.’ He backtracked, he went all the way back. He said the only thing he saw on the road at that time was a school bus leaving, which led us to believe that he did come back. I said, ‘I don’t think it meets the elements of the crime.’ I said, ‘However, I said take everybody’s statements and lets forward it to the State Attorney’s Office.”

Ramunni was surprised the phone call even happened.

“To feel comfortable enough to call this guy at 6:45 in the morning is something like I’ve never seen before,” he said. “(Whidden) should have said ‘Okay. There’s really nothing I can do for you at this point.’”

Two weeks before the incident, Smith was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit offenses and defraud the United States. He was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison, and along with two others, must repay over $23 million to the federal government.

The Nobles Road incident happened prior to Smith reporting to prison.

Whidden described Smith as an acquaintance who he has seen at a few restaurants, adding that he didn’t know Smith was about to go to prison.

“I don’t even know where he lives,” he said.

Speak, the deputy, let Smith go on the condition that he would stop by the sheriff’s office after work that day.

Smith never showed up.

Passing blame

Speak, in his deposition, said he discussed the case with Whidden the next day.

“He’s a good guy,” said Whidden, according to Speak. “He’s in a bad position. He’s about to go to prison. There’s no reason to go after this case.”

Whidden claims otherwise.

“I guess I’m gonna have to talk with the deputy because that did not happen,” he said. “That absolutely did not happen…why, why would we forward it to the State Attorney’s Office if I told him that? If I told him that, there would be nothing sent to the State Attorney’s Office.”

A sheriff’s office lieutenant wrote in a report the next day that the case was closed and that all leads were exhausted, but Whidden said the department forwarded the case anyway.

Web extra: Deputy Speak’s first incident report related to the hit and run case.

“I told the deputy, ‘No, do the report, take everybody’s statements, let’s let the state attorney’s (office) decide because I’m not sure if it meets the elements,’ and that’s what we did,” Whitten said. “We did everything by the book.”

But state prosecutors tell a different story of how they found out about the case.

“The Hendry County Sheriff’s Office did not send us anything,” the office said in a statement. “We, the State Attorney’s Office, learned about the matter from a private attorney – Steve Ramunni. We then contacted the sheriff’s office and requested all materials it had on the incident.”

Whidden, while shaking his head, said that’s not true.

“Well, I’m not buying it…it sounds like the state is trying to throw blame elsewhere,” he said.

Web extra: Sheriff Whidden’s full interview:

 

State prosecutors reviewed the case, then forwarded it to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“The FDLE Office of Executive Investigations in Tallahassee received a complaint regarding Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden and we are reviewing the complaint,” the department said. “Note that it is not an investigation currently, our process is to review the complaint first.”

The department also requested an “Executive Assignment” where Gov. Rick Scott would appoint a state prosecutor from another county to handle the case if charges were filed.

Through his attorney, Speak declined to comment for this story. A request to speak with Smith, who is currently in federal prison for the fraud conviction, was not immediately returned.

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