Public has a right to know what the sheriff knew, and when

BY PAT RICE, NEWS-JOURNAL EDITOR
 February 19, 2012 12:05 AM

It was near dusk on Nov. 10 when a car struck 76-year-old Palm Coast resident Francoise Pecqueur as she walked with her poodle, Molly, along Columbia Lane.

Pecqueur died two days later.

The driver of the car that struck Pecqueur was Jamesine Fischer, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. She is the wife of Flagler County School Board member John Fischer. Fischer is a friend of Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming.

Less clear is what happened in the minutes and hours and days after Pecqueur was struck. It’s like looking into a mud puddle after someone has stirred it up with a stick.

That murkiness is at the heart of the public’s high interest in Pecqueur’s tragic death. It is also the reason why The News-Journal has sought phone records from Sheriff Fleming that might help clarify what happened when.

Here’s what we do know.

On Nov. 10, Pecqueur left her boyfriend’s home at about 5:15 p.m.

At about 6 p.m., a passer-by, Jules Prockter, saw Pecqueur sprawled in the swale near Columbia Lane, about 700 feet from the home of Pecqueur’s boyfriend. Prockter said he saw another woman standing near Pecqueur but the woman said she hadn’t called 9-1-1. So Prockter called 9-1-1.

A woman who lives near where Pecqueur was hit, Kathy Kasprzak, said the woman standing near Pecqueur kept saying, “she fell down.” Kasprzak said FHP later showed her a driver’s license photo of Jamesine Fischer, and she identified her as the woman standing near Pecqueur.

A recording of the 9-1-1 call indicates Prockter initially told the emergency dispatcher: “It’s dark, ma’am. I think, I think she’s just passed out on the street here.” Then he added: “She’s got blood coming out of her mouth.”

Emergency dispatch sent an ambulance to the scene, but not a deputy. Pecqueur was transported to Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, where she died.

Neither Flagler County deputies nor FHP were made aware of the possibility that Pecqueur was struck by a car until about six hours after she was struck. A deputy didn’t arrive at the spot where Pecqueur was struck until early in the morning of Nov. 11. In Flagler County, the fact that a woman is found on the ground near a road with blood coming out of her mouth isn’t necessarily an indication of the immediate need for law enforcement.

Weeks passed. The FHP investigation moved forward.

Then, in January, when The News-Journal made an inquiry after receiving a tip, Sheriff Fleming confirmed he had received a phone call at his home at about 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 11 from John Fischer, who said his wife might have hit “an animal” and wanted to know what to do. That was nearly 12 hours after Pecqueur was struck.

Fleming told The News-Journal he directed John Fischer to call emergency dispatch, which John Fischer did a few minutes later. Fleming also said he hadn’t seen any reason to make that phone call known to the public, and hadn’t told FHP — the agency investigating the crash — about the call.

“Why did it need to be made public for?” Fleming asked News-Journal reporter Frank Fernandez. “I’ve had no contact with FHP whatsoever.”

 

The revelation that Fleming had received a call from Jamesine Fischer’s husband and not told FHP about it led The News-Journal to make an initial request for Fleming’s cellphone records for the week after Pecqueur was struck.

When the Sheriff’s Office released those records, it also released a letter to The News-Journal from Fleming in which he wrote that he spoke to John Fischer twice on Nov. 11 — at 5:30 a.m. on his home phone, and later that day “in a brief conversation to see if he had followed up on reporting the accident.” He also said he had given a statement to FHP about the calls.

But cellphone records indicated four calls between John Fischer and Fleming on Nov. 11, and two additional calls on Nov. 13 and Nov. 14.

Along with the call Fleming said he received from John Fischer on his home phone, that comes to seven calls, not two. Fleming has declined additional comment about those calls.

So, The News-Journal has asked for additional weeks of phone records from Fleming. We’ve asked for both department-issued cellphone records, as well as personal cellphone records and home phone records pertaining to Sheriff’s Office business in the weeks after Pecqueur was hit. The Sheriff’s Office on Friday provided The News-Journal with Fleming’s department-issued cellphone records, which don’t indicate any additional calls between the sheriff and John Fischer. But Fleming has declined to release home phone records or private cellphone records that involved Sheriff’s Office business, claiming they are exempt from Florida’s Sunshine Law.

I disagree. I believe a sheriff’s home and private phone records related to public business are notexempt from the Sunshine Law. Otherwise, it would be possible for a sheriff, or any public official, to conduct the public’s business in the dark simply by using a personal phone line.

Let’s be clear: The News-Journal is interested in examining all the phone records we’ve requested because we want to know all the details surrounding a tragic event. Yes, it’s intrusive. But releasing those records would be in the public’s interest.

Meanwhile, the FHP continues to investigate the death of Francoise Pecqueur.

Rice is the editor of The News-Journal. His email is Pat.Rice@news-jrnl.com.

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