Road-rage mom: I don’t know how my son wasn’t killed

Amy Clemente tries to not think about what might’ve happened if any of the stray bullets fired during the November road-rage incident on State Road 60 had struck her ex-husband’s SUV a few inches higher.

“I can’t,” she said. “I just can’t.”

Instead, the 35-year-old St. Edward’s School graduate and island resident prefers to believe in miracles – particularly the miracle that enabled her 3-year-old son to escape unscathed, despite the SUV being hit four times.

Her son was buckled into a child’s car seat in the middle of the SUV’s back seat, and photos show one of the bullets struck the vehicle just above the backseat door handle, only inches below the side window.

Another bullet hit an inch behind the door and was found next to her ex-husband’s bowling-ball bag in the trunk area. Clemente said the bullet was on a trajectory that put her son in the line of fire.

“When I saw the car and where the bullets hit, all I could think was: I don’t know how he wasn’t killed,” Clemente said. “If he wasn’t in the middle seat, if the bowling ball wasn’t there, if it were a different-type car . . .”

She stopped herself, knowing where her thought was headed. Then, after taking a deep breath to regain her composure, she continued.

“I’m just trying to be positive, be with my son and enjoy every moment,” she said, “because it really is a miracle that he’s here.”

Dennis Wayne Hicks isn’t.

That’s because he was fatally shot by Timothy Daniel Sartori at about 7 p.m. Nov. 20 at the intersection of State Road 60 and 53rd Avenue, where, according to sheriff’s office reports, an escalating road-rage incident erupted into gun play.

The reports say the incident began when Hicks, 38, became irate with an unidentified motorist – not Sartori – while driving along 58th Avenue.

With all three vehicles stopped at the traffic light at the State Road 60 intersection, Hicks began angrily honking his horn at the unidentified motorist. The three vehicles turned east onto State Road 60.

Hicks, of Vero Beach, and Sartori, of Sebastian, were stopped side-by-side at the traffic light of 53rd Avenue, in front of Applebee’s restaurant, when the shooting occurred.

Sartori, 29, told deputies that his window was down when Hicks pulled alongside, looked over and said, “What’s your problem?” By his account, Sartori replied, saying he didn’t have a problem.

It was then, Sartori told deputies, that Hicks verbally threatened to shoot him and appeared to reach for something, so Sartori grabbed his gun and emptied the magazine at the busy intersection. Sartori then drove into a nearby parking lot, calmly called 911 and gave his version of what happened.

During hours of questioning at the scene by deputies, detectives and Assistant State Attorney Steve Gosnell, Sartori claimed he had acted in self-defense under Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law – even though no gun was found in Hicks’ car and Hicks wasn’t available to tell his side of the story –and Sartori eventually was released.

Detectives continued to investigate the shooting, and Sheriff Deryl Loar has said publicly that Sartori should be arrested and charged, possibly with recklessly discharging a firearm in public.

“We can’t condone someone just discharging a weapon the way he did,” Loar told this newspaper in November. “It wasn’t like it was one or two or three rounds. It was 10 to 15 rounds. He emptied the gun.”

As of Monday, however, Gosnell still hadn’t decided whether to charge Sartori with a crime in connection with an incident that occurred 10 weeks ago.

The delay prompted Clemente and her family to launch last month a petition urging Gosnell to charge Sartori, saying the shooter’s “right to defend his own life did not give him the right to expose innocent bystanders to potential death or serious injury.”

The family also states in the petition that failing to charge Sartori “will set a dangerous precedent for our community.”

Clemente, who was driving to West Palm Beach when her father called to tell her about the shooting, said she’s not saying Sartori is guilty. She wants him to be charged and judged by our legal system.

“This was a very emotional event for me, and it took a while to process it,” Clemente said. “But after a month went by and nothing was happening – I kept reading what seemed like the same story over and over again in the newspapers – I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt we needed to do something.

“Someone died,” she continued. “With that many bullets flying around a very busy road at that time of day, someone else could’ve been killed, too. And why? Because some guy felt threatened?

“They keep talking about the stand-your-ground law, but you’re telling me there were no other options?” she added. “He was the first one at the light. He couldn’t have pulled over? Or run the light? Or did something to get away and diffuse the situation? Did he have to pull out a gun and start shooting?

“Someone needs to really look at this, because this person is still out there with a gun and I don’t want anyone else to get shot.”

Just so you know: Florida’s “stand your ground” law permits a person to use deadly force, with no duty to retreat, if he or she reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to themselves or others.

Therefore, if Sartori’s account of the incident was truthful – if Hicks verbally threatened him and made a move that could be reasonably interpreted as reaching for a weapon – then it was not an unlawful killing.

Of course, there’s no way to know exactly what Hicks said or did. All we have are the statements given by Sartori and his passenger.

Sartori, with a barrage of gunfire, made sure we’ll never hear Hicks’ version of what happened, but it is known that Hick’s was not armed, so Sartori was not actually in danger of being shot.

But it’s not that simple – which, I’m guessing, is why Gosnell is struggling to reach a decision.

Two laws are in conflict.

While one law gave Sartori a right to defend himself, another law prohibits him from recklessly discharging a firearm in public. And firing 10 to 15 shots into a car at a busy intersection, where four stray bullets struck another moving vehicle, might be considered reckless.

“If that child had been shot,” Loar said, “we’d be looking at a manslaughter charge.”

Miraculously, that child wasn’t shot. Nor was his father, who was driving the SUV and making a U-turn at the intersection when the shooting began. Hicks was the lone victim.

So which law takes precedence?

Does the “stand your ground” law provide a legal defense for someone who, acting in self-defense, recklessly discharges a firearm in public?

Does it matter if innocent people get shot? And should it?

Those are some of the questions, I’m sure, that Gosnell and other local prosecutors – including State Attorney Bruce Colton, who lives in Vero Beach – are trying to answer.

Something Gosnell’s team shouldn’t consider, though, is the Clementes’ petition.

The family’s cause might be just, but the online document should be given no weight in deciding whether Sartori should be charged.

Gosnell’s decision must be based only on the facts and the law – not on sentiment, not on politics. The last thing anyone here should want is for Sartori to be charged with a crime because of public pressure.

Knowing Colton as I do, I’m confident that won’t happen.

Yet, as Clemente put it: “There’s still a car with four bullet holes in it.”

And there’s a 3-year-old boy who continues to talk about the night his car was hit by bullets.

“The night it happened, they called me on FaceTime so I could see that he was safe, and he said, ‘Mommy, there are bullets in my car,’” Clemente said. “He talks about it quite a bit. Whenever I swerve, he says, ‘Mommy, we had to swerve when the bullets were hitting the car. It sounded like fireworks.’

“I still can’t believe something like that could happen, especially here.”

But it did and the more she thinks about it, the more she believes Sartori needs to answer for his actions.

“Everything is OK for us, but what happened isn’t OK,” Clemente said. “He shot because he felt his life was threatened, but his shooting was a threat to the lives of everyone around him. Isn’t that against the law?”

Yes, it is.

One of them, anyway.

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