Author Topic: Big Cypress Wilderness Institute driver kills child in crash  (Read 17434 times)

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Offline cmack

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Re: Big Cypress Wilderness Institute driver kills child in c
« Reply #15 on: March 18, 2012, 02:22:59 AM » ... n-collier/

Special report: Driver in Collier 'Swamp Boys' fatal crash had undetected record

    Posted March 17, 2012 at 6 p.m.

Daniel Huerta

OCHOPEE — Trapped inside an SUV overturned in a creek, water gushing into the cabin, 16-year-old Joseph Wilson felt a tug at his leg.

Somebody was underwater below him.

Wilson plunged his hand into the icy water, feebly grasping for the passenger, trying to pull him up.

"His hand slipped," Wilson said. "And I knew right then that it was Daniel."

Seventeen-year-old Daniel Huerta drowned in December when a Ford Expedition driven by Johnson Atilard, a 25-year-old employee of a juvenile justice contractor, flipped into a small creek on an eastern Collier County road. Atilard also drowned, and seven other at-risk teens returning from a trip to Daytona Beach suffered minor injuries.

The fatal crash prompted a review of how officials at Big Cypress Wilderness Institute, an Ochopee-based juvenile justice center run by state contractor AMIkids, let Atilard behind the wheel despite at least 18 traffic citations since 2006.

In addition, a Daily News review of employee files and records related to the crash shows:

? Administrators knew of Atilard's extensive traffic record, once banning him from driving Big Cypress vehicles, yet he drove on company business at least five times. Atilard also failed to list a no-contest plea to selling alcohol to a minor on his job application, as well as his numerous traffic citations.

? Another driver on the trip, acting director of operations Frantz Lindor, also had a spotty driving record. His company driving privileges were once revoked, and he'd been subject to recent complaints of texting while driving in the Naples area.

? The night of the crash, Big Cypress' executive director, Daniel Washington, allowed eight juveniles to ride in Atilard's car, a violation of at least two state regulations.

Huerta's parents are suing Big Cypress and Atilard's estate, alleging negligence.

"What the Huertas are looking for is to make sure this doesn't happen again, that there should be standards for who drives the kids around," said the Huertas' lawyer, Steve Schwed. "The sad thing about this case is the parents don't have any say in who was driving, so they're totally trusting Big Cypress and AMIkids."

Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice is investigating the crash and looking at changing its transportation policies.

Shawna Vercher, spokeswoman for AMIkids, a Tampa-based national nonprofit with a three-year, $4-million contract to run Big Cypress, said officials are cooperating with DJJ and have made several changes. Following the crash, Lindor was fired and Washington resigned.

"This is a tragedy and it's unacceptable when something like this happens, so of course we're taking every step and every precaution to make sure it doesn't happen again," Vercher said. "We're just learning the answers that we need and we're taking aggressive measures."

A fatal ride

In separate interviews last month, two passengers in the vehicle — Wilson, the 16-year-old from Bonita Springs, and Luis Lopez Meza, 18, of Miami — provided matching accounts of the day Huerta and Atilard died. Their stories are supported by documents obtained from Big Cypress, the Florida Highway Patrol and DJJ.

On Dec. 8, 14 juveniles from Big Cypress, known locally as "Swamp Boys," left the Ochopee campus. They went to a flag football tournament in Daytona Beach, about 250 miles away, where they competed against teams from AMIkids' other Florida campuses.

After playing a few games that afternoon, the teens left in three vehicles, driven by Washington, Big Cypress' executive director; Lindor, its director of operations; and Atilard, a cook.

Near the end of the return trip, the vehicles stopped at a gas station. Some of the juveniles from Washington's vehicle piled into the SUV driven by Atilard. In all, the SUV had eight passengers. From the gas station, Atilard and Lindor drove to Big Cypress. Seven miles from campus, Atilard approached a 90-degree curve on Wagon Wheel Road at about 10:15 p.m.

While talking on a cell phone, Atilard couldn't control the vehicle and slid into the outside lane. The SUV then hit a sign, flipped onto its roof and landed in a creek.

The speed limit is 30 mph, and accounts of Atilard's speed vary from 35 to 50 mph. FHP troopers estimated it at 45 mph.

"Everybody told Mr. Johnson to slow down, and he said, 'No, I got it,'" said Wilson, who knew Huerta for about five years. "I guess he tried to drift the turn and he just didn't slow down. He was probably going at least 45, 50 (mph) when we hit the turn."

Lopez Meza, who was in the front passenger seat, started to escape from the partially submerged SUV.

"My side got in the water first," Lopez Meza said. "Everybody was crowded up in the back. It was super cold and already touching my feet. Then the water was already up to my legs and chest."

Seven of the vehicle's passengers escaped or were pulled out safely. They were hospitalized for a day or two.

Rescuers reached Atilard and Huerta, but both were pronounced dead within an hour. Autopsies concluded they drowned.

Checkered records

In the crash aftermath, attention turned to Atilard's driving record and a 2008 misdemeanor charge he didn't list on his job application.

Court documents show Atilard had accumulated at least 18 traffic citations since 2006, including four for speeding. The citations ranged from leaving the scene of a crash involving property damage to driving on a suspended license to making an improper turn.

On his April 2010 job application, Atilard said he had received traffic citations in the past three years, but when asked to explain, he only wrote "seat belt and window tints."

Big Cypress administrators later learned of Atilard's checkered driving history and banned him from driving company vehicles in February 2011, placing a memo in his personnel file. Washington, the executive director, signed the memo.

Despite the ban, driving logs show Atilard drove company vehicles at least four times before the fatal crash — twice in August, once in October and once in December.

"My understanding is that they were not aware of that being in his file," Vercher, the AMIkids spokeswoman, said of Big Cypress administrators. "Not that it's acceptable, but we believe that's what happened."

Washington declined comment and efforts to reach operations director Lindor were unsuccessful. At Lindor's North Naples address, a man who identified himself as Lindor's brother said Lindor didn't want to comment.

Further review of Atilard's background shows he didn't report on his job application a no-contest plea for selling alcohol to a minor, a misdemeanor. In August 2008, Collier sheriff's deputies caught Atilard selling a six-pack of beer to an undercover 20-year-old while he worked at a Naples gas station. The case didn't end in a conviction due to a deferred prosecution agreement.

A background check, however, didn't show the no-contest plea, and Big Cypress officials weren't aware of it until after the crash, Vercher said.

Lindor's personnel file also raises questions about whether he should have been driving juveniles on the Daytona Beach trip.

Lindor received a memo nearly identical to Atilard's in January 2008, revoking his driving privileges. In the three years before his 2008 ban, Lindor had nine traffic citations and had his license suspended twice, records show.

A January 2011 driving record check found Lindor had one violation — failing to pay a toll — since 2008, which would have made him eligible to drive under AMIkids policies. However, Collier court records show he also was cited in May 2009 for not carrying a driver's license and August 2010 for disobeying a "no passing zone" sign.

AMIkids officials didn't respond to questions about whether the January 2011 driving record check should have caught those two citations, and what effect those tickets would have had on his driving privileges.

Lindor also was subject to complaints in September and October for texting while driving company vehicles. He denied both accusations and records don't show any action was taken. Washington was aware of the complaints, signing documents about them.

The response

Following the crash, Lindor was fired in late December and Washington was demoted. He resigned in mid-January.

Vercher said AMIkids officials had hoped to keep Washington, an employee of 18 years with no disciplinary record in his personnel file. He was given a $25,690 severance.

"(Washington) gave AMIkids a number of years and we wanted to ensure there was some continuity of staff for the kids there," Vercher said.

AMIkids officials have since completed this "corrective action plan" with DJJ:

? A Big Cypress supervisor will now run driving record checks on all new hires, with checks then done twice a year.

? A list of eligible drivers will be made for managers to review before any employees drive company vehicles.

? Staff members will be retrained on transportation policies.

? Before any off-campus trips, a plan must be approved by supervisors and seat belts must be checked.

In a statement, DJJ spokesman C.J. Drake said Big Cypress "does not have any outstanding major or minor deficiencies" and DJJ will oversee the corrective action plan. DJJ officials also are looking at using state databases to monitor traffic records of juvenile justice program drivers.

The changes, however, don't satisfy everybody.

Christy Wilson, whose son, Joseph, tried to save Daniel Huerta, said family members should be contacted if Big Cypress juveniles are being driven long distances. And that's just one example of the changes needed.

"Right now, I wish that whole place would close down, because I don't think it was right what happened at all," Christy Wilson said.

© 2012 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. ... n-collier/
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Offline Reddit TroubledTeens

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Re: Big Cypress Wilderness Institute driver kills child in c
« Reply #16 on: May 19, 2012, 02:35:22 PM » ... nt-djj-ig/

State report: Drivers committed six policy violations in juvenile camp fatal crash

    Posted May 3, 2012 at 9:10 p.m.

NAPLES — A state investigation found six policy violations related to a December 2011 crash that killed a juvenile justice contractor employee and a Bonita Springs teen in eastern Collier County.

A 17-page Department of Juvenile Justice inspector general's report released this week laid blame for the six policy violations on the two top administrators at Big Cypress Wilderness Institute, a juvenile justice facility in Ochopee for male teens, as well as the driver who crashed an SUV into a canal last year.

The driver, Johnson Atilard, 25, and Daniel Huerta, 17, drowned. Seven surviving passengers were hospitalized briefly.

The investigation found administrators allowed Atilard, of Cape Coral, to drive too many teens with not enough seat belts, all while talking on a cellphone.

Atilard's company driving privileges were revoked at the time of the crash, and administrators failed to notice Atilard lied on his job application about his driving record. By the time of the crash, Atilard had accumulated at least 18 traffic citations since 2006.

"The inspector general's investigation was thorough and comprehensive," said Department of Juvenile Justice spokesman C.J. Drake. "We will continue to closely monitor the AMIkids program in Collier County to ensure that the employees there effectively enforce policies and procedures for the benefit of our youth."

The inspector general's report found former Big Cypress executive director Daniel Washington and director of operations Frantz Lindor were each responsible for at least three policy violations. Washington was demoted and later resigned after the crash; Lindor was fired.

"Everything that's written in the IG report is consistent with our own internal investigation and the concerns they raised," said Judy Estren, vice president of support services and corporate council for AMIkids, a Tampa-based nonprofit organization overseeing the Big Cypress Wilderness Institute.

Five of the six policy violations had been reported, either by the Department of Juvenile Justice or the Daily News in a mid-March article about the crash.

The lone new violation alleged in the report was that Lindor told at least one juvenile to lie about the number of teens in Atilard's SUV when it crashed. Lindor wanted the teen to lie "because that would have meant there were too many people in the car and Lindor was going to get in trouble," the inspector general's report states.

Investigators couldn't reach Lindor for questioning about the allegation after it surfaced late in the inquiry.

Steve Schwed, the lawyer for Huerta's parents, who filed a lawsuit against the Big Cypress Wilderness Institute alleging negligence, questioned whether there should have been better oversight of Washington and Lindor.

"There were management decisions that led up to this that allowed it to happen," Schwed said. "Obviously, they didn't train their folks properly."

Both Washington and Lindor talked with the inspector general's investigators at least one time. Neither has spoken publicly since the crash, and neither could be reached to comment Friday.

Washington told investigators he allowed Atilard to drive — even though his driving privileges were revoked by a February 2011 memo — because he "did not remember giving Atilard the memo and did not remember Atilard wasn't eligible to drive for the program," the report states.
Scott McIntyre/Staff The intersection of Birdon Road and Wagon Wheel Road in Big Cypress.


Scott McIntyre/Staff The intersection of Birdon Road and Wagon Wheel Road in Big Cypress.

Lindor told investigators he never was told Atilard wasn't allowed to drive company vehicles.

The inspector general's report said Lindor reviewed its contents and didn't have any comments about the findings. Washington was provided with the report by the Department of Juvenile Justice but didn't respond to the findings.

The inspector general's report lists recommended changes to AMIkids' program policy, all of which AMIkids officials said have been made. They include requiring staff to report traffic violations they receive and that long-distance trips with juveniles are "carefully considered for the potential of driver fatigue."

"Prior to learning what their investigative report contained, we had either addressed or were in the process of addressing these recommendations," Estren said.

The report likely won't have a significant effect on the lawsuit, which is in its early stages, Schwed said.
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