INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — For Jessica Joy Dees-Feuerstein, a quiet September morning seemed like a good time to train for an upcoming 5K marathon.
But, as the 30-year-old jogger ran alongside the edge of the open road, there was unexpected trouble for the Vero Beach woman. Suddenly, Dees-Feuerstein was struck by a 2013 white Jeep Wrangler in the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 2018.
The driver took off, leaving the woman lying across the grass, according to a Florida Highway Patrol investigative report. By the time highway troopers pulled up to the scene at 12th Street near 54th Avenue, Dees-Feuerstein was already dead, officials said.
Today, a small white cross is propped up at the site for a roadside memorial.
Dees-Feuerstein was one of many victims of fatal hit-and-run crashes to occur in Florida in recent years. The highway patrol aims to reduce the number of these deadly crashes with the Hit-and-Run Awareness campaign, reminding motorists they should always stay at the scene if they are involved in a collision, whether minor or serious.
“You have a duty by Florida law to stay at the scene,” FHP Lt. Yanko Reyes said in a Wednesday news conference. “A lot of times, people get nervous and automatically feel they are guilty. You have to stay to render aid to that one person. You could be the one that might save their life.”
To make that point even further, state laws have beefed up to bring harsher penalties to drivers that flee from crashes.
“Let us do the investigation and put the puzzle pieces together to determine whether you were at fault or not. The consequences of leaving a crash can lead up to 30 years in prison and fines up to $10,000,” Reyes said. “We remind drivers to stay calm, make sure they are okay, make sure the other driver or pedestrian is fine and call 911 right away.”
The hit-and-run cases are not easy to solve. In Dees-Feuerstein’s case, investigators pieced together clues, repainting the scene and searching for the driver involved.
Troopers saw eye glass frames, two sneakers and a cellphone with earplugs attached laying in the northern grass shoulder, not far from Dees-Feuerstein’s body, the report shows. Dees-Feuerstein’s cell phone had several missed calls and messages from her husband, Dustin Dees.
Troopers noted there were tire marks and several broken vehicle parts in the road and on the grass. The vehicle that struck Dees-Feuerstein threw her 79 feet in a northwestern direction, officials said.
Investigators obtained surveillance footage of the crash site on westbound 12th Street, where the speed limit is 40 mph. Officials tracked down the Jeep Wrangler, which had right front-end damage, a few days later at a nearby home before questioning 25-year-old Michele Gazzara.
Gazzara, of the 6900 block of 12th Street, told troopers he was driving the vehicle when he “thought he hit a racoon,” officials said. Gazzara said he never stopped to check the damage and kept driving until he got home, reports show.
Investigators inspected the Jeep – which had small blood stains on the front passenger hood – and determined there were no mechanical defects that led to the crash. Troopers also noted the roadway did not contribute to the crash.
Time passed. Troopers filled out reports, but still no arrests. Then a year later, a breakthrough came.
Troopers were able to charge Gazzara with leaving the scene of an accident with death. Officials also issued Gazzara a traffic citation.
Gazzara pled not guilty and demanded a trial by jury, court records show. Gazzara, who was released from the county jail on $50,000 bond, was due in court at 1:15 p.m. April 29.
Hit-and-run crashes in Indian River
The number of hit-and-run crashes in Indian River County has increased within the last few years, according to data from highway troopers.
There were 393 wrecks countywide involving vehicles leaving the scene in 2018, reports show. Those incidents caused 114 injuries, including two deaths, troopers said.
For 2019, the number of these type of crashes jumped to 418 in Indian River County, data shows. There were 77 injuries that resulted, including one death, troopers said.
There have been 29 hit-and-run crashes so far countywide in 2020, reports show. Those collisions caused three injuries, including one death, troopers said.
Statewide hit-and-run crashes
The number of hit-and-run crashes has remained steady throughout the state, troopers said. Most of these crashes result in property damage, while others turn deadly.
In Florida, there has been more than 500,000 hit-and-run collisions – causing 1,037 deaths – between 2015 and 2019, troopers said. Troopers noted that most of the wrecks happen during dawn, dusk or nighttime conditions.
Last year, 81 percent of the 206 fatalities statewide from these crashes happened when it was dark outside, authorities said. Some of the causes for crashes – including hit-and-runs – are rough weather conditions and distracted or impaired driving.
Troopers noted the penalty for hit-and-run drivers changed July 1, 2014, under the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act. The legislation was named after Aaron Cohen, a 31-year-old bicyclist and father of two who was fatally struck in 2012 by a drunk driver that fled the crash site in central Florida, officials said.
The law requires a mandatory minimum of four years in prison for a driver convicted of leaving the scene of a crash involving a death. Those who have information on a hit-and-run vehicle or driver can contact Treasure Coast Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-273-TIPS or tcwatch.org.
“If you are involved in a crash, stay at the scene and call for help. It’s not just the law – you could save a life,” troopers said.