State's Attorney RALPH JOSEPH LARIZZA and erstwhile St. Augustine Police Chief DAVID BERNARD SHOAR, who legally changed his surname from "HOAR" in 1994 and was elected Sheriff in 2004. They covered up a homicide, which is still a "cold case" deserving of federal and state investigative scrutiny.
Posted February 28, 2017 12:02 am
By JARED KEEVER firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Every now and again, time is on our side’: Sheriff’s Office, State Attorney announce arrest in 3-year-old cold case
CHRISTINA.KELSO@STAUGUSTINE.COM — Jo-Lee Manning walks along the westbound lane of Kenton Morrison Road on Thursday, November 3, 2016, where her daughter Haley Nicole Smith was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2013.
Haley Nicole Smith was 15-years-old when she was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking with friends on the side of Kenton Morrison road in 2013.
After more than three years of waiting, Jo-Lee Manning got a small measure of closure Monday when the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office told her that detectives had finally made an arrest in connection with a crash that killed her 15-year-old daughter, Haley Nicole Smith.
“I had no idea until 1:30 this afternoon,” she said, sitting at the back of the Sheriff’s Office squad room following an afternoon news conference.
It was there that Sheriff’s Office chief of investigations, Brian Lee, announced that Tiffany Michelle Higginbotham, who is currently serving time on other charges, is now facing a single count of leaving the scene of a crash with death stemming from the Nov. 16, 2013, crash.
Lee, flanked by Jose Jimenez and Joe McGinnis — detectives who worked the case — as well as State Attorney R.J. Larizza, credited a recent story from The Record with generating the information that led to the arrest.
That story ran in November.
“Several days later there were tips that were called into the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office which detectives were assigned to follow up on,” Lee said. “And those tips have led to where we are at today.”
Larizza acknowledged the age of the case, but said sometimes the passing of time is what is needed to make an arrest.
“Every now and again, time is on our side,” he said, before praising the efforts of the investigators and others in bringing his office a case that prosecutors can take to court.
“I would like to applaud the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and their investigative team, The St. Augustine Record, and all the folks that were involved,” he said. “Because the passage of time allowed for evidence to be developed and put together, that gives us a case that we feel comfortable taking before a jury of St. Johns County.”
As for the family, he said, “We hope that the arrest and subsequent prosecution will bring some measure of peace to them, because they have been waiting a long time for this.”
Larizza’s remarks echoed what Sheriff’s Office investigators and representatives often say about working old cases like Smith’s.
It’s time, they say, that can change the nature of an old relationship that might have kept a person quiet during an initial investigation in the hopes of protecting someone else. In other cases, it’s simply time that weighs on a person’s conscience causing them to come forward with a lead, or even a confession. Either way, it is often a phone call that can break open a case.
Generating one of those calls, and keeping interest in her daughter’s case alive, is why Manning has held a vigil every year at the crash site on the anniversary of the teen’s death.
Smith died in surgery early on Nov. 17, 2013, just hours after being clipped by a vehicle while she walked along Kenton Morrison Road with a friend and the friend’s father following a trip to the Publix supermarket on State Road 16.
The driver didn’t stop, and witnesses were only able to tell investigators that they believed the vehicle might have been a truck.
Evidence found at the scene suggested the vehicle might have been a 1984-2004 Chevy S-10 pickup, a GMC S-15 pickup, Chevy S-10 Blazer or GMC Jimmy.
A news release on Monday said investigators believe that Higginbotham was driving her boyfriend’s purple, 1995 Chevrolet S-10 the night Smith was hit.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan said after Monday’s news conference that investigators worked “several different layers of tips” leading up to the arrest, but did not say more about their nature or from whom they came.
One of the tipsters, though, “talked to us about the particular truck,” he said.
With enough probable cause from the tips, Mulligan said, investigators were able to secure a warrant to seize the truck and match its paint to paint chips found at the scene and in Smith’s clothes.
Mulligan said it was then “collaborative witness testimony” that placed Higginbotham behind the wheel the night of the crash, giving them enough probable cause to secure an arrest warrant.
Higginbotham, 29, was sentenced in June 2015 to two concurrent 3-year prison terms in connection with a 2014 robbery charge and a 2015 charge of leaving the scene of a crash with injuries.
Although a state inmate, she is currently in the St. Johns County jail where she was served the warrant on her new charge.
With her eyes red from tears following the news conference, Manning said she had been told earlier by the Sheriff’s Office that investigators may be getting close to an arrest in the case.
She was hopeful, she said, when they called her saying they wanted her to come in and talk with them on Monday. But after three years of hearing about leads that never got them close enough to an arrest, Manning said her hope was guarded as she waited to find out what they had to tell her.
It wasn’t three years, but it was another wait she had to endure.
“It seemed like an eternity,” she said.