The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office plans to meet with the mother of sheriff’s deputy Jonathan Wallace, who was killed in a 2007 Pahokee crash, after newly released documents show a lead sheriff’s investigator blamed a sheriff’s corporal for the crash.
But that corporal, Greg Fernandez, was never charged.
Fernandez also was never disciplined for the Nov. 28, 2007 crash that claimed the lives of deputies Wallace, 23, and Donta Manuel, 33. Instead, Wallace and Manuel were blamed for the crash along State Road 715 that happened while all three were trying to catch a suspected car thief. Wallace and Manuel were trying to remove tire deflation devices called stop sticks when Fernandez barreled down the road and crashed into them.
Draft reports, obtained this week by WPTV-Channel 5, were written by sheriff’s lead vehicle homicide investigator Troy Snelgrove. The documents show Snelgrove recommended Fernandez be charged with two counts of vehicle homicide. But Ellen Roberts, who helped create the state attorney’s traffic homicide unit and was the unit’s lead prosecutor at the time, said while she knew Snelgrove was going to recommend charges, she was never given a report saying so. She said to her surprise, and without her input, then-State Attorney Barry Krischer decided charges would not be filed against Fernandez.
“The last six years of our life is a nightmare for us,” Wallace’s mother the Rev. Patricia Wallace told The Palm Beach Post by phone Friday. “All we ask for is the truth and we never got it. This gives me hope.”
Wallace said she’s never stopped working at getting the full story of what happened the night of the crash and now she hopes current State Attorney Dave Aronberg will give it a second look.
The draft reports were requested from the sheriff’s office by WPTV in October. The sheriff’s office took the news station’s owner, Scripps Media, Inc., to court and fought the request until late December, when the sheriff’s office voluntarily dropped the case and released the documents. The Palm Beach Post also requested the documents.
A sheriff’s spokeswoman was out of the office Friday and was unavailable for comment.
On the night of the crash, several deputies were chasing Ernie Daley Jr., then 19, who was fleeing in a stolen 1990 Toyota Camry around 1:20 a.m. on State Road 715 near East Morgan Road. Fernandez, a police dog handler, was speeding to get ahead and lead the other responding deputies. Fernandez was driving the 2004 Ford Crown Victoria as fast as 115 mph when he crashed into Manuel and Wallace, who were trying to remove the stop sticks.
The deputies were blamed for improperly deploying and removing the tire-deflation device.
“For whatever reason, these two deputy sheriffs decided to enter that roadway, and that was a judgment call that led to their demise,” Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said in 2008 while announcing his conclusion of who was to blame.
But Snelgrove’s draft report blamed Fernandez, called his driving reckless and said warnings were given through radio transmissions for the deputies to slow down because the sticks were still in the road.
“Fernandez drove his vehicle in a willful and wanton reckless manner with disregard for the safety of persons on the roadway,” the draft says. “This reckless driving resulted in the death of Jonathan Wallace and Donta Manuel …”
Snelgrove still works for the sheriff’s department.
Recommendations made by the traffic investigator usually go up the chain of command, likely to the sergeant in charge, who reviews it and, after finalizing it, sends it to the traffic homicide prosecutor, Roberts said. She said this particular case went through someone higher up the chain.
Roberts, who retired from the state attorney’s office in 2012, said while she reviewed every traffic homicide case since 1993, she wasn’t given that one. She said it went straight to Krischer.
“By the time I knew about it, it was over,” said Roberts, who agreed with Snelgrove’s findings. “I’m just surprised that somebody didn’t come to me and say ‘let’s talk about this.’ I was just totally cut out of it.”
Krischer could not be reached for comment Friday.
State attorney spokesman Mike Edmondson said the office plans to set up a meeting with Wallace “as soon as possible.”
She said she’s been in touch with Manuel’s family since the wreck and hopes they can join her at the meeting with Aronberg.
“We always felt that the information they revealed was not the truth, we just had no way of proving the truth because they had all of the evidence,” said Wallace.
She said she thinks her son would be proud to know she never gave up.
“He would say that’s my mom. That’s my mom,” Wallace said. “He’s that child that believed his mother could do anything. He loved his mommy and his mommy loved him. I could not stop. I could not forget him by letting go. It’s about justice.”