Answering questions under oath to a Florida Highway Patrol investigator a month ago, Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming contradicted several statements he himself had made previously, and phone records he had made available, regarding his involvement with John Fischer in the events surrounding a fatal hit-and-run in Palm Coast the evening of Nov. 10.
The sheriff tells the investigator that he had just two calls with Fischer—one from him, one to him—the very evening of the accident, and one other, later, about a school board issue. No more. Fleming’s cell phone records and his own acknowledgments at other times show at least six calls, half of them from Fleming, between Nov. 11 and 14, not including the two calls he spoke of under oath the evening of the crash, and not including what calls he may have placed or received from the Sheriff’s Office.
“I first received a phone call at 6:48 p.m. on the night in question,” Fleming says in the FHP interview. “I was in the car with my wife, we were traveling to a restaurant to eat in Ormond Beach. The reception on the phone wasn’t the greatest. John had called me, said he thought his wife was in an accident, hit a—hit an animal. I said I’ll call you back as soon as I can get to my location. At 7:06, when I got to my location, I got out of the car and called him back. He told me she thinks, she thought she hit an animal. I gave him the number for the Emergency Operations Center. I said, give them a call, just let them know that you might have hit an animal, let them make—make a report. That was the end of my conversation with him that evening. The next day [Friday], I got into work here, I saw Maj. Clair, he told me that the lady was killed, and I said, I told Maj. Clair, I said, he called me last night, he told me it was an animal. That was the extent of my.” [Pecqueur did not die until noon Saturday.]
“OK, so he called you the night of the crash,” Florida Highway Patrol investigator Brian Wood asks Fleming.
“OK. Have you spoken to him since that time?”
“Um. One time,” the sheriff answers. “Yes. One time, he called me about a school board issue. And he just said, um, he said, can’t believe this. I said John, just praying everything should work itself out. I didn’t tell—I didn’t get into anything with him.”
That’s not the case. At least not according to Fleming himself, in other contexts. The account Fleming gave under oath, detailed as it was, was the third differing account he’s given of the sequence and nature of calls between him and Fischer surrounding the highest-profile fatal road accident in recent memory.
Audio: Sheriff Fleming Under Oath[media id=268 width=250 height=100]
There was a fourth account: the day after his interview with FHP, the investigator received a call from Fleming who said he had a written statement he wanted amended to his interview. The written statement again changed the sequence of events, erasing the calls the evening of the crash, and the whole story about going to a restaurant in Ormond Beach, and replacing the sequence of events with the call at 5:30 a.m. the next day, when Fischer “advised his wife had been involved in a crash striking a dog.” Fleming, in that written statement, said he then called Fischer that evening again to follow up on the conversation. “No other phone calls were received or conducted,” the investigative report states, restating Fleming’s written words.
Fleming’s original concession that he’d had a phone exchange with Fischer cast a shadow on his independence and placed the issue at the center of the election campaign that’s drawn four opponents so far. Fleming’s subsequent alterations in his stories have further complicated the case—but mostly his, rather than Pécqueur’s, which was investigated independently by the Florida Highway Patrol.
Fleming did not answer his cell phone this evening, nor return a detailed message asking for comment about the FHP report. A similar message left with his spokeswoman was left unanswered.
The State Attorney released the full results of the FHP investigation, including photographs and more than a dozen recordings of investigative interviews with Jamesine Fischer, witnesses at the scene, paramedics, Pécqueur’s boyfriend, and Fleming. Fischer’s arrest last week, when she was charged with leaving the scene of an accident with a death involved, followed several attempts by the State Attorney’s office to meet with her again, for additional interviews, which she cancelled, then declined to set, the investigative report shows.
Some of the basic facts of the fatal accident on the evening of Nov. 10 are not in dispute: Francoise Pécqueur, a 76-year-old French immigrant and long-time resident of Palm Coast, was walking tiny poodle, Molly, on Columbia Lane, as she often did, within a couple of block’s distance of her boyfriend’s house. It was around 6 p.m. Fischer’s wife, Jamesine, 55, was at the wheel of her PT Cruiser, going to see a friend in the neighborhood. It was dusk or already dark. As she rounded onto Columbia Lane, she struck Pécqueur violently enough that the collision severely cracked the right side of Fischer’s PT Cruiser’s windshield, and sent cracks radiating up and across the windshield to about its midpoint. The collision was so severe that it lifted Pécqueur off one shoe and sent her almost lifeless in a swale. Pécqueur was a slight woman weighing less than 100 pounds. Fischer thought she hit a dog, and would maintain thinking so until the next morning when speaking to authorities. She never called 911, and did not tell anyone at the scene—paramedics, the person who stopped to call 911 immediately behind her, other witnesses who came to the scene—that she may have hit Pécqueur, even though the 3-pound dog she thought she’d hit was unscathed and at the scene.
Pécqueur died about 36 hours later at Halifax Hospital.
Fleming and John Fischer are friends. The News-Journal’s Frank Fernandez got a tip that Fischer had called his friend after the crash. In an interview with Fernandez in mid-January, Fleming conceded that he’d received a phone call at about 5:30 a.m. the next morning from Fischer, or 11 ½ hours after the crash, when Fischer told him Jamesine thought she might have hit an animal. Fleming told him they should call the emergency operations number. Five hours earlier Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies and Florida Highway Patrol investigators had been to the scene and began investigating the accident as a traffic homicide investigation, because Halifax medical personnel dispelled any notion that Pécqueur’s injuries might have been from a fall. They were looking for the PT Cruiser.
In that mid-January interview with the News-Journal, Fleming insisted that he’d acted properly, as a friend, telling Fischer merely to call authorities. He is quoted as saying that he’d had “no contact with FHP whatsoever.” Two weeks later, Fleming revised his story to the News-Journal, and said he may have actually spoken to Fischer the evening of the accident. Fleming said Fischer called him around 6:30 p.m. that evening, but wasn’t sure, and said the call may have taken place the following evening, though by then Fischer couldn’t still have been claiming that Jamesine had hit a dog, since it had been well established by authorities (and first reported that afternoon, at 4:30 p.m., by FlaglerLive) that that Jamesine had struck Pécqueur.
On Feb. 2, Fleming himself, in a letter to the editor that appeared in that day’s News-Journal, was more assertive: “John Fischer called me around 5:30 a.m. on (Friday) Nov. 11 to tell me his wife had been involved in an accident in Palm Coast, where she thought she had hit an animal. At that time, I told him to hang up and call the Emergency Operations Center dispatching center to report it.” He clarified: “I had two telephone conversations with Mr. Fischer in connection with this incident—not two telephone calls from Mr. Fischer, as reported by the News-Journal.”
Two days earlier, Fleming had himself called FHP to give a statement. He sat for his interview, under oath, with Wood, the FHP investigator. Fleming never mentioned the early-morning phone call. Nor the series of phone calls from and to his cell phone between him and Fischer. (He’s refused to release a fuller account of his calls.)
The account of the interview differs slightly from the recording in one regard: in the investigative report, there is mention of three calls between Fischer and Fleming the day of the crash, one of them taking place at 4:58 p.m. “about business matters.” In the audio of the interview, Fleming is asked if he’d received a call from Fischer since the evening of the crash, and Fleming says yes, one, about school board matters. The written amendment to the interview, on Feb. 1, appears to be a close replica of Fleming’s letter in the newspaper.
The investigator traveled to the sheriff’s office yet again on Feb. 6 “to make contact with Sheriff Fleming to clarify his statements.” The investigator reports that the Jan. 31 interview was conducted before Fleming had his records in hand, “and that the sheriff was confused of the actual date that Fischer had called him.” The phone records, the report states, “clearly indicate that Fischer called him the day after the collision, not the day of the collision.”
The full interview with FHP lasts 6 minutes, though when all formalities are set aside, the substance of the interview is a little more than 3 minutes long.
Here’s the transcript of the January 31 interview with Wood:
Wood: “Reference to this interview is because of the phone calls that you received from Mr. Fischer. What can you tell me about those phone calls?”
Fleming: “I first received a phone call at 6:48 p.m. on the night in question, I was in the car with my wife, we were traveling to a restaurant to eat in Ormond Beach. The reception on the phone wasn’t the greatest. John had called me, said he thought his wife was in an accident, hit a—hit an animal. I said I’ll call you back as soon as I can get to my location. At 7:06, when I got to my location, I got out of the car and called him back. He told me she thinks, she thought she hit an animal. I gave him the number for the Emergency Operations Center. I said, give them a call, just let them know that you might have hit an animal, let them make—make a report. That was the end of my conversation with him that evening. The next day, I got into work here, I saw Maj. Clair, he told me that the lady was killed, and I said, I told Maj. Clair, I said, he called me last night, he told me it was an animal. That was the extent of my.”
Wood: “OK, so he called you the night of the crash.”
Wood: “OK. Have you spoken to him since that time?”
Fleming: “Um. One time. Yes. One time, he called me about a school board issue. And he just said, um, he said, can’t believe this. I said John, just praying everything should work itself out. I didn’t tell—I didn’t get into anything with him.”
Wood: “OK, so he never mentioned, you know, why there was a time delay between—“
Wood: “—when he spoke to you and when they called.”
Fleming: “I was actually surprised at how much of a time delay it was. When, when he spoke to me about the animal, I thought that was taken care of. I really didn’t pay much attention to it. Just. I get those kinds of calls all the time. I did what I would have done for anybody else. I gave him the number for the Emergency Operations Center. Did not seem like an emergency to me at the time. I did not know a pedestrian was hit, nor did I know that—she left.”
Wood: “So, during the initial conversation, you said the reception wasn’t that great. Did he mention that she had stayed at the scene, or anything like that, or whether she had left.”
Fleming: “To my, to my recollection, he, um, I just said let me call you right back because I couldn’t understand anything. When I called him back on the, on the second time, I think it was like a brief, a very brief conversation, maybe 4-5 minutes, I—we discussed, um, what he should do, I gave him the phone number, I said, is your wife home, he said no. So I didn’t. I didn’t, I really didn’t ask any questions pertaining to the accident because I didn’t know how serious the accident was.”
Wood: “OK, so he just indicated that it was simply an animal, thought she hit an animal. Did—and you said she was not home. Did he mention whether she’d called him? Or where she might have called from?”
Fleming: “I, I’d like to say, I’d like to say I think so, but I don’t recall. I think, I think she had said that she pulled over to the side of the road. And I told him to have her call EOC.”
Wood: “OK. Now, at any time, has, has, have they spoken to any of your deputies about this—situation?”
Fleming: “Not to my knowledge.”
Wood: “OK. Um, that is pretty much everything I need.”