Former prosecutor Ellen Roberts questions whether justice was served in PBSO deadly deputy crash
High-speed crash killed two deputies six years ago
6:27 PM, Nov 26, 2013
11:59 PM, Nov 26, 2013
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Along a remote stretch of sugar farm country near Pahokee, stands two reminders of one night, and the questions that seemed to die with them.
"It was a very extensive scene, it was very gruesome," described former Assistant State Attorney Ellen Roberts.
In her first and only public interview about the case, Roberts is describing the scene on November 28, 2007. "It looked like a battle scene. I just kept thinking it can't get much worse than this," she recalls.
Now retired from the State Attorney's office, Roberts was chief of the traffic homicide unit there the night Palm Beach County Sheriff Deputies Donta Manuel and Jonathan Wallace were struck and killed by K-9 Corporal Greg Fernandez.
"All I ever fought for was justice and there was no justice here. I think this man got away with 2 counts of vehicular homicide," she told the Contact 5 Investigators.
The night began with a 9-1-1 call about a stolen car. Patrol units trailed the thief while 33 year old veteran deputy and father of three, Donta Manuel, and 23 year old rookie, Jonathan Wallace, were in the dark distance on foot, deploying stop sticks.
"Stop sticks in place, slow down, stop sticks in place," one of the deputies is heard saying over the radio.
Everything worked like textbook, until K-9 Corporal Greg Fernandez is ordered to lead the pack of patrol cars trailing the thief. With K-9 in the front position, once the suspect's car hit the stop sticks and came to a stop, if the thief ran, the K-9 would chase after him.
Corporal Fernandez sped up to get to the first position, going northbound in the southbound lane when he collided with Manuel and Wallace. Upon impact, investigators clocked his speed at 111 miles per hour.
By the time Roberts arrived, daylight exposed a typically desolate route 715, stained in human tragedy. "I thought, this is the worst I think I've seen," said Roberts.
A day after the crash, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw was on the record with an explanation. "Everything was working just right until the two deputies decided to go out and manually retrieve those sticks. Why they decided that, we don't know because we can't ask them," Bradshaw told reporters during a press conference.
"Blame them, just blame them, blame them, forget about the fact that this guy was going 111 miles per hour," said Roberts while describing her reaction to Bradshaw's explanation.
Then, State Attorney Barry Krischer, who now works as a contractor for the sheriff, would also question why the two deputies were in the middle of the road, before concluding in his close-out memo that the crash was "a tragic accident" and Corporal Fernandez's actions were not negligent, not careless and not criminal.
Click here to read the close-out memo.
Contact 5 Investigators: "What was your reaction?"
Ellen Roberts: "Had I not needed my job I probably would have resigned at that point."
Contact 5 Investigators: "This case meant so much to you?"
Ellen Roberts: "We've locked young kids up for years for drag racing and they weren't going as fast as this guy. And it just doesn't set, you know? It just doesn't set."
An officer going triple-digit speed on a pitch black road over a crime, Roberts says, was hardly worth the risk.
"What were they pursuing? A 17-year-old car with some kid that stole it? We're not talking about a kidnapping or a murder and somebody is trying to flee. We've got a kid that stole a car and that's worth driving 111-115-125 mph? No one can drive reasonably at that speed," she said.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office has refused to provide NewsChannel 5 with a copy of it, calling that document a draft, not a public record.
"We had all agreed, the investigators I spoke with, that charges needed to be filed and then they weren't," said Roberts. "This is the only traffic homicide that never made it to my desk."
Contact 5 Investigators: "Wasn't this your case?"
Ellen Roberts: "I certainly thought so."
Contact 5 Investigators: "Why did it go around you?"
Ellen Roberts: "That's a good question. I wish I knew."
Jonathan's mother, Reverend Patricia Wallace, still believes there is more yet to be told.
"The last response I received one year, one month, 6 days after his death was, it is, what it is," she said. All I wanted was the truth, I never got that truth. Can you imagine being deceived that you gave them a whole man to serve and protect the county then they gave you back pieces of a body?"
And the pain of believing justice never arrived.
Ellen Roberts: "Excessive speed equals vehicular homicide."
Contact 5 Investigators: "No doubt about it?"
Ellen Roberts: "No doubt in my mind. This guy got away with 2 counts of vehicular homicide."
Read the full statement from PBSO below:
This case was one of the most difficult and disturbing cases the Sheriff's Office has had to deal with in many years. We think of D/S Jonathan Wallace and D/S Donta Manuel every day. We honor their memory every year at our Fallen Deputy Memorial Ceremony.
The Sheriff's Office submitted all relevant investigative information and expert opinions to then State Attorney Barry Krischer. Attached you will find his final rulings on that case. The ultimate decision as to prosecution was solely his.