A few weeks ago Palm Coast government’s contractors started working on a 1-mile footpath along Lakeview Boulevard at the north end of the city, between LaMancha Drive and London Drive. The path will also be lit by 43 streetlights.
“I hope they have an opening ceremony because I’m going to be there,” says Lawton Taylor. “You can guarantee I’m going to be there. I think it’s all well and good,” he said of the path and the lights, “but it’s what, six seven years too late?”
Residents had long asked for lights on Lakeview as elsewhere in frequently obscure, pathless Palm Coast, a city that for years paid more attention to the beauty of its medians, frills at its parks or $10 million perks of its own, as when it built City Hall with ready money, before more directly addressing the safety of pedestrians on pathless and lightless streets.
It took the death of 16-year-old Michelle Taylor, the involvement of students at Matanzas High School and a newer, more involved city council to finally move the city administration out of its lethargy.
That’s why Lawton Taylor wants to be at the “opening ceremony” of the path on lakeview: so officials can see his un-abating grief and deep resentment face to face.
At 10:45 p.m. on March 2, 2017, a Florida Highway Patrol Trooper notified Taylor at his home on nearby London Drive that his 16-year-old daughter was dead. Michelle had been knocked off the road and killed by a passing car as Michelle walked along Lakeview with her friend Elizabeth Sherman, 21, who was also struck by the car and severely injured. But Lawton had already sensed something was wrong. He could tell from the police lights shining through the living room, as he does not live far from the crash scene.
Michelle and Sherman had been doing what they did routinely for exercise: walk a loop from London Drive to Lakeview. That night seemed ideal for a walk: 61 degrees, cloudy, but dry.
But Lakeview had no sidewalks, no lights, not even a proper shoulder on its east side: the few tufts of shoulder “sloped down 17.9 percent away from the roadway,” into a ditch, according to a Florida Highway Patrol traffic homicide investigation. It was pitch black as the pair walked north that night when the car knocked both walkers off their path. Taylor would end up at the bottom of the ditch.
There won’t be a ceremony to dedicate the path, of course. The city likes its ceremonies focused on its own big projects, like sewer plants, its city hall, its community center, not mere paths for neighborhood residents. Particularly not paths that owe their existence, if symbolically, to one of those grim roadside monuments that go up near the spot where a person has been killed in a road crash.
Michelle’s is marked by a weathered cross of wood lightly painted in sky-blue and white clouds, with a sun shining from the top, and a plush bear and a rosary hanging from the cross. Next to the cross a beaded treble clef rises above several bunches of flowers, like music stilled.
And there’s been this irony since the monument went up: four small lights, the only lights on Lakeside, shining on what, to Lawton Taylor, might as well have been a crime–if not the driver’s (she’s been exonerated, though Taylor won’t accept it), then the city’s.
“And here I am burying my daughter and they’re putting frickin’ umbrellas over monkey bars?” Lawton Taylor said, a reference to the city’s absurdly expensive parasols, more aesthetically pleasing than useful, the city council approved for four city parks just five weeks after Michelle’s death, at a cost of $425,000–almost as much as the $487,000 listed cost of laying down the footpath on Lakeview.
According to the homicide report obtained by FlaglerLive, which narrates details of the crash and the investigation never disclosed until now, Yajaira Rojas Torres, a 37-year-old nurse, was driving her Honda Civic north on Lakeview that night. She’d just gotten off work at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach. She was on her way to her boyfriend’s, Carlos Veloso.
The report concluded that Taylor and Sherman were walking in the road, “occupying the driving portion of the roadway with their back to traffic, with Michelle to the right of Sherman. Torres did not see them “until the last second.” She struck them both. The car struck both victims’ heads as their bodies were violently thrust back from the force of the impact, with Sherman then catapulted 63 feet north of the point of impact, and Michelle thrust into the ditch. Torres skidded 134 feet north of the point of impact before coming to a stop. It was a 40 mph speed zone. Torres claimed she was going 45.
The violence of the crash can be deduced by the scattering of the victims’ effects: one pink sock was discovered 66 feet north of the point of impact, another, 88 feet north of it. A pair of broken eyeglasses was found 78 feet north of impact.
The homicide report concluded that she’d been going 54 at “minimum.” She may have been going faster, though the report also concluded that the crash would still have occurred if she’d been going the speed limit. What the report doesn’t say is if Sherman would have been as severely injured, or if Michelle would have been killed.
The driver did not initially call 911. She called her boyfriend and told him to come to the scene. She rendered aid to Sherman. Two minutes later, she called 911. Only when Veloso, the boyfriend, arrived at the scene was Michelle located.
Torres volunteered a blood sample at the scene. It came back negative for alcohol or drugs.
The report also concluded that Torres never left the roadway–a finding Lawton Taylor rejects. He thinks to this day that his daughter and her friend were doing what they always did, walk on the very side of the road, and that the car briefly left the road and struck them, and only then returned to the road. The homicide report does indicate a swerve, but only after the point of impact, with the vehicle never leaving the pavement. In sum, the report blamed Sherman and Taylor for walking on the pavement.
Florida Highway Patrol Cpl. Pete Young conducted the homicide report. Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis reviewed it to determine if there’d be any criminal charges. Both concluded that there would not be: “The investigation is complete and no charges will be filed because the at fault person expired as a result of the crash,” the report ended.
Lawton Taylor says Young did not do a complete job because he did not analyze the vehicle’s “black box,” which could have provided more precise speed and other data. “why wasn’t it taken?” he asks. “Why weren’t the the phone records taken? It took them seven months to do it and only after we called the State Attorney’s office did they finally somehow miraculously get them.” The phone records showed Torres was not on the phone–she was not distracted–when the crash took place.
“You can’t charge somebody that didn’t do anything wrong, he swears they were in the grass, but they weren’t,” Young, a veteran traffic homicide investigator said. He explained that black-box analysis isn’t conducted in all crashes, and even when it’s done, there has to be information to back up black-box findings. All that could be done when the investigation was done, he said, and it was reviewed by several people up the chain of command. Young is not known for going easy on drivers: for decades on the force, he has historically pursued criminal driving behavior where he finds it. Last June, his investigation led to the sentencing to life in prison of William Schwarz, the driver who caused a crash on State Road A1A that killed Kathleen J. Boos and her brother-in-law Carl Boos almost a year to the day before Michelle’s death. (That case also paired Young and Lewis.)
Still, Lawton Taylor has not been mollified. “They can say whatever they want. I’m done. I’m going to fight now,” he said. “There’s so many questions that nobody can answer for me.”
Palm Coast issued a press release announcing work on the path on July 30. The crash and Michelle Taylor were not mentioned.