Sheriff should clear the air in Palm Coast case

The death of Palm Coast resident Francoise Pecqueur continues to raise troubling questions about law enforcement in Flagler County.

This newspaper is pursuing answers to those questions, first and foremost, because a woman died under murky circumstances. Three months later, the case remains under investigation, inviting public interest and concern about the outcome. Finally, Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming’s friendship with the husband of the woman who authorities say was driving the car that hit Pecqueur also has stirred public interest in the sheriff’s handling of contacts with his friend in the wake of the accident.

On Nov. 10, Pecqueur, 76, was struck by a car and fatally injured while walking along Columbia Lane in Palm Coast. The Florida Highway Patrol has said that Jamesine Fischer, the wife of Flagler County School Board member John Fischer, was driving the car that struck Pecqueur. However, the investigation still hasn’t yielded any charges.

The case undoubtedly was complicated by the puzzling lack of a prompt, on-the-scene investigation by law enforcement. Flagler County Sheriff’s Office deputies didn’t check out the incident until almost six hours had elapsed from the time a passerby reported that Pecqueur was lying in a swale, bleeding from the mouth. According to the Sheriff’s Office, dispatchers sent an ambulance — but no deputies — because they thought it was a medical call.

Sheriff Fleming’s own role in the case raises some perplexing questions. He has described John Fischer as a longtime friend, and reported that he had phone conversations with the School Board member the day after the Nov. 10 accident. But the sheriff’s account of his phone contacts with Fischer doesn’t square with phone records obtained by The News-Journal.

In a letter to the editor that appeared on The News-Journal’s Feb. 2 opinion page, Fleming wrote that he had “two telephone conversations with Mr. Fischer in connection with this incident.” The first came in a phone call John Fischer made to the sheriff around 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 11, Fleming said. In that call, according to the sheriff, Fischer said his wife had been involved in an accident in Palm Coast, “where she thought she had hit an animal.”

Later that day, Fleming said he “reached out to Mr. Fischer” and called to ask if he had followed up on reporting the accident.

But records for a county-issued cellphone Fleming furnished to The News-Journal show that he called Fischer three times on Nov. 11. Those records also show calls from John Fischer’s cellphone to the sheriff on Nov. 13 and Nov. 14.

Fleming hasn’t given reporters an explanation for the records showing other calls to and from Fischer besides the two the sheriff mentioned. And he has declined to release his personal phone records for the day he received a call from John Fischer about Fischer’s wife’s possible involvement in an accident.

The sheriff said his personal cellphone is exempt from Florida’s public records law. But if he received calls related to official business on that phone, the calls are the public’s business, said attorney Jon Kaney, general counsel for the First Amendment Foundation.

As the county’s top law enforcement official, Fleming shouldn’t stand on legal definitions — he should release the records and clear the air about his contacts with Fischer.

This is a sensitive death investigation that involves the wife of a prominent official in Flagler County. The sheriff should try to dispel any appearance that he treated the incident involving his friend’s wife any differently from other cases.

Although FHP took over the investigation of Pecqueur’s death, Fleming still needed to exercise great caution in his personal contacts with the spouse of a potential target of the probe. The public should be fully informed about how the sheriff dealt with this delicate situation.

The public needs to have confidence that law enforcement officials will handle cases connected to high-profile people — or people who are friends of the authorities — with appropriate professional detachment. Sheriff Fleming hasn’t done enough to reassure Flagler residents that his friendship with John Fischer didn’t affect his judgment and performance as a law enforcement official. In truth, his responses to questions about his phone calls have further clouded the issue.

But he still has the opportunity — through full disclosure and a more thorough discussion of his contacts with Fischer — to clarify the record and demonstrate his commitment to openness and transparency when he is the subject of public scrutiny.

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