‘They got away with murder:’ Why hit-and-run crashes often go unsolved


It’s been more than a year since the driver of a Honda Civic slammed into Scott Matesky as he was crossing Atlantic Avenue, tossing him into the air like a rag doll and then racing away from the scene, leaving the 39-year-old man on the roadway with critical injuries.

Two weeks after the April 15, 2017, crash, Matesky died.

Despite the release of surveillance-camera video that shows the horrific moment when Matesky was struck, Delray traffic homicide investigators have been left with no leads or witnesses. A grieving family wonders if someone out there has gotten away with “murder.”

 

“One of the hardest aspects of this is that my dad has dementia,” said Lonny Matesky, Scott’s 43-year-old brother, whose parents live part of the year in Delray Beach. “He still asks about Scott and can’t understand why my brother is not coming around. He doesn’t remember the burial. My mom will tell him that Scott is dead and he’ll remember and go through his grief all over again.”

Time diminishes the chances of bringing charges against the driver who killed Matesky, but the clock isn’t justice’s only enemy.

Prosecutors and investigators say that gaining convictions in hit-and-run cases, especially those like Matesky’s where there are no witnesses, can turn difficult for a couple of reasons.

First, prosecutors must prove that a particular person was behind the wheel of a vehicle at the time of a hit-and-run, even if the vehicle is owned and normally operated by a particular driver.

“If it’s a family vehicle, then you might have multiple people that could have been driving,” said Dan Cramer, a Delray Beach police traffic homicide investigator for 15 years. “That complicates things.”

Since 2015, prosecutors have faced another difficult challenge following a Florida Supreme Court decision that the state must show a driver knew they were in a crash. Prior to 2015, state attorneys only had to prove a person should have “reasonably known” they hit somebody.

“That’s an impossible task, almost,” said Ellen Roberts, a retired Palm Beach County prosecutor who ran the county’s traffic homicide division for two decades.

Those two factors increase the likelihood that a driver involved in a fatal hit-and-run will find the wiggle room to escape charges.

Take the case of Arnold Metellus, a 59-year-old Road Ranger and father of three from Boynton Beach, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver on October 26, 2014, as he assisted a motorist on the east shoulder of northbound I-95, south of Palmetto Park Road.

The Florida Highway Patrol named a Broward County woman -- Sarah Jennette Linares -- as a person of interest and served a search warrant at her father’s home in Southwest Ranches, where they found a Jeep Grand Cherokee with front-end damage hidden between two other vehicles.

Kenneth Michaelis, Linares’ father and the owner of the Jeep, refused to cooperate with investigators and Linares also kept quiet.

With FHP unable to place a driver inside the Jeep at the of the crash, the case remains unresolved more than three years later.

That’s frustrating not only for prosecutors, Roberts said, but especially for the survivors of a victim.

Roberts recalls a case in suburban Boca Raton where investigators painstakingly canvassed a 10-mile area looking for the owner of a vehicle involved in a fatal hit-and-run. The likely owner was narrowed down to one person, but the investigation could not prove that person was driving.

“It depends on the facts and the evidence, but yes, hit-and-run cases can be a little more difficult to prosecute,” Roberts said. “If you find the driver two blocks away behind the wheel and under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that’s not a difficult task. “But when you have somebody that takes their car home, parks the car where you can’t see it and we don’t find it until months later, then you have a difficult time. DNA or anything like that is not going to do you a lot of good. You have to put him behind the wheel at the time of the crash.”

Roberts said a bigger hurdle for prosecutors is proving that a driver knowingly left the scene of a hit-and-run crash.

2017 hit-and-run facts

Some facts about statewide hit-and-run crashes in 2017, collected by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.


Of the 177 cases of hit-and-run fatalities in Florida during 2017, more than 100 involved pedestrians and bicyclists.
Men were charged in fatal hit-and-run crashes 70 percent of the time.
About 95 percent of those crashes involved in-state drivers.
The DHSMV says that a driver left the scene in 25 percent of all crashes during 2017.


In February 2015, the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling throwing out the conviction of a Broward County man who struck and seriously injured 15-year-old Nicolas Savinon, a Boca Raton High School honors student, after the boy fell in a crosswalk while skateboarding near the intersection of North Ocean Boulevard and Palmetto Park Road.

Zacariah Dorsett dragged Savinon under his pickup for 90 feet, but told police he was unaware that he struck a person because he was driving in rain with his windshield wipers activated and also had his radio and air-conditioning running. Savinon sustained a traumatic brain injury.

Dorsett was convicted of hit-and-run involving serious injury and was sentenced to two years in prison, but the decision was overturned in 2013 by an appellate court.

The Supreme Court agreed and ruled that prosecutors must prove in felony cases that a person knew what he was doing and “willfully” broke the law.

The decision caused the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office to drop a felony charge against Dorsett.

“If a driver hits somebody, runs over him and leaves, the common excuse is, ‘Well, I thought I hit an animal,’” Roberts said. “How can you prove that he didn’t?”

Hit-and-run crashes remain epidemic throughout the state and Palm Beach County.

Crashes in Florida have jumped 25 percent from 2013 to 2017, when 98,225 drivers fled the scene.

Matesky was one of 11 people killed -- the majority pedestrians or bicyclists -- by hit-and-run drivers in Palm Beach County during 2017.

A native of Baltimore who moved to Delray Beach around four years ago, Matesky was known as a portly, cigar-chomping, fun-loving guy who jokingly referred to himself as “Scotty too Hotty.” He worked at one time with Habitat for Humanity in Delray Beach and also volunteered, including at a local soup kitchen, his brother said.

“People ask me all of the time, ‘What’s going on with the case?’” Lonny Matesky said. “The truth is there are no solid leads. It’s frustrating.”

Without any witnesses, putting a driver behind the wheel of the Honda Civic that sent Matesky catapulting into the air won’t be easy. The surveillance-camera video released by police gives no clues to the driver’s identity.

Also working against investigators is the lack of evidence left at the crash scene.

“We follow up with different body shops,” Cramer said. “The more unusual the car is, the easier it’s going to be to find, especially if we have parts of the car on scene. We’ve solved cases with just the piece of a headlight before. This particular case, there was no vehicle debris at all.”

The driver that hit and killed Matesky will face certain prison time if found and convicted.

In 2014, state lawmakers enhanced the penalty for leaving the scene of a fatal crash to a minimum of four years in prison, regardless of whether the driver was impaired. The charge could result in as many as 30 years in prison, 30 years of probation and a $10,000 fine.

In comparison, a driver who is drunk and kills another person faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted of DUI manslaughter.

“The majority of the hit-and-runs I’ve dealt with ...one of the biggest explanations I get is that I was scared or I didn’t know what to do, so they fled,” Cramer said. “That’s never the right thing. Most people I’ve dealt with would not even have gotten arrested if they just would have stayed where they were.”

Roberts recalls a case in which an impaired driver hit and killed an elderly man who was jaywalking on a dimly lit street. The driver left the scene but was arrested a short time later.

Because the elderly man was not using a crosswalk and was hard to see, Roberts said the driver would have likely been charged only with DUI if he had remained. Instead, he faced years in prison.“People think they’re in trouble when, in reality, they really may not be in trouble or, at least, in less trouble than they think,” Roberts said.

One year later, Lonny Matesky is dogged by the thought that someone hit his brother and didn’t have the “decency” to stop and wonders if the outcome might have been different for Scott if that person had rendered aid. “This person is out there and they got away with murder,” Matesky said. “Why wouldn’t they do it again? They haven’t faced any consequences.”

Not yet anyway, according to Cramer.

“You may get away with it for a while, but we’ve solved cases before where guilted friends or family or lovers come back and say, this is who did it,” Cramer said. “It’s always possible.”



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