Racing down Santa Barbara Boulevard at more than 100 mph, Collier County sheriff's Cpl. Jesse Todd sped toward a burglary pursuit in North Naples.
Suddenly, headlights appeared from Todd's right. A Chevrolet Impala started turning left, directly into his path.
Todd slammed on his brakes and swerved, but it was too late. His police cruiser crashed into Andrew Rakes II, crushing the driver's side of Rakes' car.
Now, nearly a year after the Golden Gate crash that killed Rakes, a debate continues on about who was responsible for the fatal collision — the deputy driving 55 mph over the speed limit to a call, or an East Naples man under the influence of marijuana who pulled out in front of the cruiser.
Rakes' family faults Todd for hitting triple-digit speeds, which they called unnecessary.
"We're real upset about this," Rakes' stepfather, Tom Bell, said. "This speeding by police is out of control."
Todd, who is on paid administrative leave after his second on-duty fatal crash, has argued his speed was appropriate because he was responding to a potentially dangerous call. He also has contended Rakes violated his right-of-way.
On Thursday, a Collier county judge agreed, finding Todd not-guilty of a traffic citation issued by Florida Highway Patrol.
"Deputy Todd feels terrible about this for the family and everybody else, but it's an accident he couldn't avoid. The other car pulled out in front of him," said Todd's lawyer, Donald Day.
State laws and Sheriff's Office policies don't provide speed limits for emergency responders. Instead, state statutes require responders use "due regard," and the Sheriff's Office policies allow deputies to exceed the speed limit "so long as life and property are not endangered."
Which raises the question: how fast is too fast?
The call came about a burglary suspect on the loose on the evening of March 31. He was near Livingston Road and Delasol Lane in North Naples.
Ten miles away, three K-9 deputies — Cpl. Jesse Todd, Cpl. William Gifford and Cpl. Chris Swarthout — were conducting training exercises at Golden Gate Community Park. They got in their patrol cars and responded, going north on Santa Barbara Boulevard.
Todd led the group, his speed topping out at 101 mph. Troopers later concluded his emergency lights and siren were activated.
One and a half miles from the park, Andrew Rakes drove his 2002 Chevrolet Impala on 22nd Place Southwest, approaching a stop sign at Santa Barbara Boulevard. Troopers would estimate he could see 276 feet down the road, past the brush and trees on the corner.
As Rakes pulled into Santa Barbara Boulevard and began to turn left, Todd caught sight of Rakes.
"I saw headlights coming out from the roadway," Todd testified Thursday. "I started swerving to the left but the vehicle kept going."
Todd's skid marks started about 150 feet from the intersection. At the time of impact, Todd's speed was 79 mph and Rakes' was 16 mph, troopers said.
Hearing the crash, a nearby resident went out to the scene. He later told investigators that Todd asked, "Why did he pull out in front of me?"
Rakes was flown to Lee Memorial Hospital. He died three days later.
Todd was hospitalized with serious injuries.
Since the crash, several officials have wrestled with whether Todd should be punished for his speed.
FHP troopers said yes, citing Todd in November for failure to use "due regard" because of his speed — even though troopers also faulted Rakes for violating Todd's right-of-way.
On Thursday, Collier County Judge Michael Provost disagreed with the FHP, finding Todd not-guilty during a non-criminal traffic court hearing. Provost said the law allows for deputies to respond at high speeds, and that Rakes had a responsibility to let the emergency vehicle pass.
"(Rakes) may have misjudged the speed. That may have been a factor," Provost said. "But the fact of the matter is the statute requires him to remain there for the time at the intersection until the emergency vehicle has passed."
Criminal prosecutors also reviewed the case, but Assistant State Attorney Donald H. Mason wrote in November that the crash didn't warrant vehicular homicide charges. Prior cases showed that "speed alone" isn't enough to get a conviction, Mason wrote.
"It is uncontested that Todd was operating with his emergency lights and siren operating, albeit at a speed which, in hindsight, appears excessive," Mason wrote. "The fact is, however, that one can only speculate whether this accident could have been avoided if Todd's speed had been reduced there by 10, 20 or 30 miles per hour. It is also uncontested that Mr. Rakes pulled out into the path of the oncoming cruiser driven by Dep. Todd."
The Sheriff's Office has yet to weigh in. An internal investigation is ongoing, and spokeswoman Michelle Batten said the agency won't comment while the review is pending.
Sheriff's Office policies allow deputies to exceed the speed limit during emergency calls "so long as life and property are not endangered." Factors considered include the seriousness of the call, time of day and traffic congestion.
A civil suit filed by Rakes' family against the Sheriff's Office also is pending. The Sheriff's Office has moved to dismiss the case.
A family's fight
The setbacks in court haven't stopped the Rakes family from trying to clear Rakes of fault.
The family continues to dispute a medical examiner's findings that Rakes was high at the time of the crash. Blood samples showed Rakes had inhaled marijuana within two hours of the collision.
Bell said his stepson wasn't known to smoke marijuana and was subject to random drug tests while he worked at NCH Downtown Naples Hospital.
"We think the blood was mishandled," Bell said. "The whole thing is very peculiar. Drew was never known to do that."
Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Robert Pfalzgraf, who performed the autopsy, confirmed Friday that the correct blood samples were tested.
The family also continue to call for Todd to be taken off the street.
They said last year's crash and a February 2007 fatal collision between Todd and a heavily intoxicated 32-year-old man are examples of recklessness. In 2007, Todd responded to a robbery when Felix Beltran — who had a blood alcohol content of 0.32, four times the legal limit — pulled out in front of Todd's patrol car.
FHP investigators estimated Todd's speed in the 2007 crash at 98 mph, but a Sheriff's Office internal investigation put his speed at 79 mph. Internal investigators concluded Beltran pulled out in front of Todd, but Todd was reprimand for failing to notify the command supervisor that he was responding to the call.
Todd hasn't been back behind the wheel of a Sheriff's Office vehicle since last year's crash.
After he was medically cleared to return to duty in late July, Todd was assigned to administrative duty. He spent time in the radio shop, worked in the jail and did desk work in Golden Gate Estates, Batten said.
Then, in mid-February, Todd was placed on paid administrative leave pending the completion of an ongoing internal investigation.
Despite the Rakes family's complaints about Todd's speed, the corporal's lawyer warned about changing regulations governing speed of emergency responders.
"They're trained to drive. They're trained to watch the facts and circumstances," Day said. "The law works well. We do not have very many accidents."
That outlook isn't shared by Rakes' family.
"This racing around town unnecessarily by the police is outrageous," Bell said. "They're supposed to serve and protect, not kill and maim. If me and you had done that, we wouldn't be getting a speeding ticket."