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MY VERO: Charge is dropped, but police still owe apology

I’d like to tell you justice was served last week when the State Attorney’s Office dropped a hit-and-run charge against Richard Gibula, the 81-year-old Moorings resident who was involved in a car-versus-bicycle crash in January.

But it wasn’t.

“He should never have been charged,” Gibula’s attorney, Mike Kessler, said after being notified that Assistant State Attorney Patrick O’Brien would not continue to pursue the case against his client. “He did everything the law requires him to do.”

Yet the Vero Beach Police Department, after conducting what proved to be a shabby investigation into the mid-afternoon accident near St. Helen’s Catholic Church, somehow acquired an arrest warrant and forced Gibula to defend himself against a felony charge of “leaving the scene of a traffic crash involving personal injury.”

It didn’t matter that the 31-year-old bicyclist, Joseph Lomba III, caused the Jan. 5 accident at the intersection of 20th Street and 20th Avenue, and was later issued a traffic citation for the pedestrian version of running a red light.

Or that Lomba, after the crash, picked himself up and carried his damaged bike to his Vero Beach Avenue home before deciding he was injured enough – he claimed to have bruised ribs and a slight concussion – to report the incident to the police.

Or that at-the-scene witness Karen Frey contacted the police shortly after Gibula was arrested and told them it wasn’t a hit-and-run accident, saying the driver stopped, asked Lomba if he was hurt and didn’t continue on his way until the bicyclist waved him off.

Instead, the police built their bogus case on:

“It wasn’t like he knew he did something wrong and was trying to get away,” Frey told me days after Gibula’s arrest. “He was as nice as could be. I heard him ask the guy on the bicycle if he was OK. I couldn’t hear the guy’s response, but he seemed fine.

“The only thing the driver did wrong, I guess, was leave,” she added. “But honest to God – in that busy intersection, with all that traffic – if the guy on the bicycle said he was OK, I probably would’ve done the same thing.”

Frey was so upset by the Press Journal’s four-paragraph account of Gibula’s arrest, in fact, that she called the police the next day to tell them what really happened.

The police, though, refused to budge, even when there was far more reasonable doubt about what had happened than probable cause that Gibula had committed a crime.

Handcuffed and booked into the county jail after turning himself in, Gibula was required to post a $5,000 bond to regain his freedom.

He then needed to hire an attorney to plot his defense.

The bond money will be returned, now that the case has been dropped, but the cost of Kessler’s legal fees will come out of Gibula’s pocket.

And that’s wrong.

Not only does Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey owe Gibula a public apology for the damage done to his reputation, but the case was so fatally flawed that Currey’s department also should reimburse Gibula for the money he was forced to spend to defend himself.

“Unfortunately, it’s really hard to sue the police,” Kessler said, adding that his client is “very relieved this is over.”

Actually, Gibula is more than relieved.

He said the experience, despite the initial shock and tumult that accompanied his arrest, had an uplifting effect on his life.

“I was in a daze for a while, especially when they put the handcuffs on me,” Gibula said. “That had never happened to me before. But then, when your article first appeared in Vero Beach 32963, I heard from so many of my friends and neighbors, and everyone was so kind and so supportive.

“There were also the witnesses who came forward and gave their depositions – good people who don’t get enough credit,” he added. “So many good things were happening that it made me feel everything was going to work out.”

It was the June 16th depositions of witnesses Frey and Gloria Huitron, as well as the failure of Lomba to show up to give his sworn testimony, that left O’Brien with no choice but to dump the case against Gibula.

Together, Frey and Huitron left no doubt that:

“Honestly, he quickly got up, got his bike, responded to the man in the car and was off,” Frey testified. “So, I mean, he didn’t appear injured to me in the least.”

Huitron testified in broken English that she didn’t hear exactly what Lomba said to Gibula, but that Gibula “two times” offered to help and Lomba indicated he was “fine” by saying “with the hands” for him to “go.”// By the way, Frey said that when she gave her version of the accident to police and expressed empathy for Gibula, she was told, “Well, he should have called the police.”

And, given what happened to him afterward, maybe he should’ve.

But unless Lomba was injured – and by all accounts, except his, he wasn’t – Gibula wasn’t legally bound to do so.

As Kessler put it: If a driver is involved in an accident, regardless of fault, and someone is injured in that accident, then the driver is legally required to “stay on the scene, exchange information and render aid if aid is needed.”

Therefore, with no reason to believe Lomba was injured and in need of aid, Gibula fulfilled his legal obligation before departing the intersection.

In other words: He did nothing wrong.

But in a wildly irresponsible and entirely unnecessary rush to judgment – given Gibula’s age, reputation and place in the community, the police should’ve done more investigating and sought out more witnesses before requesting an arrest warrant – he was treated as if he had just knocked off a liquor store.

He was arrested, handcuffed and booked into jail.

He was publicly humiliated, accused of a felony, his name appearing in at least two local newspapers.

He was forced to post a $5,000 bond and pay thousands of dollars in legal fees.

And he didn’t come close to committing a crime.

That should trouble you.

We all should be troubled by a local police department that was too willing to jump to a wrong conclusion, charge an innocent man on shaky evidence and then let the State Attorney’s Office sort it out, with no regard for the impact of the arrest on the accused and his family.

Truth is, the police should’ve been suspicious of Lomba’s story from the start, knowing that he didn’t report the accident until he got home and called back the next day after taking himself to the hospital.

Is it possible Lomba, shaken by the crash, didn’t realize he was injured until he arrived home?

Of course.

Is it also possible Lomba, as he walked home with his damaged bike, realized he was hit by a 2014 Lincoln MKZ driven by a seemingly well-to-do older gentleman?

As you ponder that one, consider this: Kessler said Gibula was contacted after his arrest by an attorney claiming to represent Lomba.

“I don’t know what his motives were,” Gibula said, “but it didn’t work out the way he wanted it to.”

Not only did Lomba not show up for his scheduled deposition at the State Attorney’s Office – that won’t help any civil lawsuit he might be considering – but his driver’s license was suspended on June 15 because he hadn’t yet paid the traffic fine assessed for causing the accident.

As far as Gibula is concerned, however, the matter is closed. The charge has been dropped. He has been vindicated.

“It was an unpleasant experience,” Gibula said, “but with everything that happened afterward, it did restore my faith in people.”

Somehow, this unhappy story has produced a happy ending.

Make no mistake, though: Justice won’t be truly served until the Vero Beach Police Department apologizes for botching the case and reimburses Gibula for the cost of defending himself against a felony charge that never should’ve been made.

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