The last Flagler Beach City Commission meeting on Oct. 10 ended relatively early: it was adjourned at 7:02 p.m.
At 8:14 p.m., Commissioner Rick Belhumeur was on his way home, after a stop for a shot of bourbon and conversation with his son and with City Manager Larry Newsom at Tortugas, the restaurant and bar on State Road A1A. Belhumeur was at the wheel of his 2016 Ford F-150. When, at the intersection of South Central Avenue and South 7th Street, he struck 60-year-old Garey R. Sharpe, who’d been on his bicycle. Sharpe is a long-time resident of South Central.
Sharpe was struck sideways, the collision catapulting him onto the pavement, where he struck his head. Neither the bicycle nor the truck were seriously damaged. Belhumeur says he’d just pulled out of the intersection stop sign where he’d stopped and looked. The intersection is illuminated by by a street light. The bicycle ended up stuck to the front of Belhumeur’s truck by a pedal, and Sharpe was seriously injured.
He was unconscious when authorities arrived at the scene but showed no signs of bleeding. An emergency helicopter was placed on standby, though by 8:45 paramedics had elected to take Sharpe as a trauma alert to Halifax hospital–where he remained as of Friday, according to Belhumeur–by ambulance. Flagler Beach police was at the scene, but turned over the investigation to the sheriff’s office so as to avoid a conflict of interest, since a city commissioner was involved. A sheriff’s deputy arrived at the scene at 8:52 p.m., according to the crash report.
But even though a city commissioner was involved, neither city police nor the city administration issued a statement or notice about the crash, though a few days later City Manager Larry Newsom said he directed his police chief this week to issue a public advisory about cyclists needing to obey the rules of the road.
The crash was one issue. Belhumeur’s description of it to a reporter, when finally asked about it on Friday, became another: asked explicitly if the crash took place as he was returning home from that evening’s city commission meeting, Belhumeur said it had. He did not mention the stop at Tortugas or the shot of bourbon. He conceded that he’d been there only during a second interview, by which time FlaglerLive had learned of his stop at Tortugas and verified it with Newsom, who’d also been at the bar.
“Commissioner Belhumeur had one cocktail, he met with his son, then he left. That was it. That’s all he had,” Newsom said. “The incident itself basically–believe it or not if you look at the public announcement the police chief put out on Tuesday, we have a big concern about cyclists not stopping at stop signs. I asked Matt [Doughney] to put out a public announcement to encourage them that they are vehicles. Cyclists are recognized vehicles and they have to stop at stop signs.” (The Tuesday Facebook traffic tip the police department published refers to a prohibition on motorcyclists, cyclists or motorists wearing headphones.)
Belhumeur–a second-term commissioner who turns 66 Sunday–said he didn’t mention the stop-over “because it’s a non-issue,” he said in the second interview. “Damn, it’s not like I was sitting there for an hour, drinking. I had one shot, walked away from the bar, sat at a table and talked to my boy.” He said his son was going through a rough time and needed some reassuring. “I didn’t stay long, had one shot and left. I don’t know, some kind of bar bourdon, cheap bourbon,” Belhumeur said. “I couldn’t have been there but 20 minutes, if that. I was on my way home, I still had my shirt and tie on. I was totally honest with the officer, he asked me, I told him I had a shot.”
In fact, Belhumeur did not volunteer the information to the deputy, either–not at first, according to the deputy’s body camera. Deputy Jordan Taylor asked him a few questions about the crash, then asked: “Where were you coming from?”
“Commission meeting,” Belhumeur said.
“So you haven’t had anything to drink tonight or anything like that?” the deputy asked him.
“I had one shot on the way home, yeah.” Belhumeur’s answer was without hesitation, but it had been prompted.
“On the way home? Of what?”
“Is that usual for you to take one shot of bourbon on the way home or what?”
Belhumeur said “a lot of times” he stops after commission meetings to talk things over, presumably with the city manager (the audio is not audible at that point).
The deputy asks for his papers. Belhumeur at no point looks or acts impaired. His answers are lucid, his responses to requests immediate. He stands by his truck as the deputy writes notes. The deputy then asks him to stand at the back of the truck for a “basic exercise.”
“You say you had one shot, I mean, I believe you, you’re talking pretty straight, all right, but I’m just going to make sure, all right?” Taylor tells him, holding up a pen in front of the commissioner’s eyes. The deputy conducts the eye test, asking Belhumeur to follow the tip of a pen, back and forth, up and down. Belhumeur does so, passing the test. The deputy turns off the camera moments after that, just as he’s asking Flagler Beach police some questions about the victim.
So the depth of the deputy’s investigation is not clear from the video, and the crash report itself is unusually vague and in parts contradictory and inconclusive. That’s become an issue, because to Belhumeur, the crash report is problematic: he did not get a citation (as drivers deemed at fault generally do if accused of inattention or carelessness), but the report’s narrative does say that Belhumeur himself “stated that he stopped at the stop sign at the intersection and proceeded without looking. [Belhumeur] was inattentive and drove into [Sharpe] who was riding a black in color bicycle, he then backed up thus dragging the bicycle underneath his vehicle.”
“His narrative says I claimed I pulled up to a stop sign and then proceeded without looking.” Belhumeur said. “I don’t want to say it’s a lie, but it’s totally inaccurate.” Belhumeur claims “the guy blew through the stop sign going the wrong way and the wrong lane.” Of the report, he complained, “nothing was said about him being in the wrong lane, nothing was said about him going through the stop sign, and I certainly didn’t say I proceeded without looking.”
The report in one section lists the crash as being head to head, with Belhumeur going 5 mph, but in the drawing of the crash, the deputy had the truck striking the side of the bicycle as it went north. Belhumeur said he was heading west on 7th street (he lives on Flagler Avenue), while the cyclist was, he said, heading north, but in the southbound lane. He says the drawing has the cyclist inaccurately in the right lane of South Central. “In all fairness this really wasn’t my fault,” Belhumeur said. “If it had been a car this would be a whole different story, in the sense that whoever was driving the other vehicle ran through a stop sign and was in the wrong lane. If he’d pulled up to the stop sign and stopped I’d obviously would have seen him. It was directly under a street light. I feel awful about what happened, but jeez, I did everything right in my opinion.”
The crash report marks Sharpe as having taken “no improper action.” Belhumeur was allowed to get back in his truck and go home. The scene was cleared at 9:21 p.m.
The next day at noon, Belhumeur wrote the deputy: “I would like to speak with you about what I feel may be inaccuracies in your narrative and crash scene drawing.” Belhumeur said he did not get a call back, so he called Sheriff Rick Staly.
The call inevitably recalls the call then-School Board member John Fischer placed to then-Sheriff Don Fleming when Fischer’s wife Jamesine struck and killed a pedestrian, Francoise Pecqueur, on a C-Section street in 2012.
But there’s little comparison between the two situations. In the Fischer case, Fleming himself called Fischer three times in the hours following the crash and took three calls from Fischer, raising serious questions about the extent and motive of Fleming’s involvement. In Belhumeur’s case, the sheriff got a message that the commissioner had called and called him back once, to let him know what the process would be. (The two met briefly and coincidentally at a symposium on addiction this morning, where Belhumeur said the sheriff told him he’d seen the video and that the examination into the report would follow its normal course.)
“He did not tell me he had called or tried to email the deputy who investigated it,” Staly said on Friday. “When I walked into my office after a meeting I had a message to call him. I called him, that’s when he told me he disagreed with the investigation and what the deputy wrote in the report. I said well, I’ll have Chief [Chris] Sepe look into your complaint just like we do for any citizen that complains. So Chief Sepe has it, he is going to review the investigation to make sure it was thorough, accurate and fair, he’s going to pull the deputy’s body camera and see if there’s anything there to make sure it’s an accurate report.”
But the sheriff would also expect to be told the full circumstances of the incident. Staly noted that Belhumeur had not told him of the stop-over at Tortugas. “I believe Belhumeur told me he had left the commission meeting and was going home. He didn’t tell me anything of that, but that will be part of Sepe’s review, but I’m sure if we thought he was an impaired driver he would have been arrested, and hopefully that’s all in the body camera.”
A sheriff’s office spokesperson said there was no timeline on the completion of Sepe’s review.
“Perfect, that’s all I expected,” Belhumeur said of the sheriff’s response. “I wasn’t calling to call in favors, I feel like I’m just like a citizen anyway.” He acknowledged leaving the detail of his stop-over out of his conversation with the sheriff. “I wasn’t trying to mislead him either. I wasn’t trying to mislead, but I did leave it out, because I just thought it didn’t have any thing to do with the accident.”
As for Sharpe, Belhumeur said he had not spoken to or visited him at the hospital. “Personally I’d like to but I don’t know the implications one way or the other, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’d love to be able to tell him how sorry I am that it happened and wish him well.”
The available footage from the body camera is below.