Hit-and-run leaves many questions unanswered
By BRIGID O’MALLEY, [email protected]
The knock on the door came around 10:45 p.m.
Collier County sheriff’s deputies stood outside a Naples Park home where Jeffrey Scott Ryals was living.
They asked him where his pickup was. It’s in the yard, an annoyed Ryals told deputies.
But there was no sign of the truck.
“My truck’s gone,” Ryals snapped.
Deputies told him it was a few miles away at the scene of a serious traffic crash near Pelican Bay. There was no driver to be found.
Several days later, Michael E. Moritz, 68, a multimillionaire benefactor of Ohio State University, where the law school bears his name, died from injuries sustained in the February 2002 crash.
Now, court records in Collier County spell out the details of a mystery, a hit-and-run traffic crash turned whodunit.
No arrests have been made so far.
The Moritz family wants answers – and an arrest.
A lawsuit against Ryals and his wife has been filed by Moritz’s family. In it, the family raises allegations of a flawed investigation by deputies and prosecutors.
Members of the Moritz family are struggling for answers, launching their own investigation.
They are offering a six-figure reward. It remains unclaimed.
They want to know what happened in the hours before the knock on the door.
A night out with friends
Michael Moritz and his wife, Lou Ann, were at an Ohio State University gathering at the Naples Hilton on the evening of Feb. 23, 2002.
Moritz, of Dublin, Ohio, was the university’s largest single benefactor with a $30 million donation to the law library in 2001.
They had dined with friends, Edwin and Mary Jane Overmyer of Upper Arlington, Ohio, at Ohio State University’s Winter College, a weekend in Southwest Florida for alumni and donors to the university. They listened to a talk by retired Ohio senator and astronaut John Glenn.
Deciding to leave around 9:30 p.m., they headed north on U.S. 41 past Pelican Bay and faced what should have been a 15-minute drive home. They were staying at a beachfront home and their friends were staying on Gulfshore Drive.
Moritz’s wife was driving and he was in the front passenger seat. The Overmyers were in the back seat.
Around the same time they left the hotel, a tan 1999 Toyota Tacoma pickup was weaving and speeding along Airport-Pulling Road in North Naples, making wild turns onto Pine Ridge Road before it reached U.S. 41 North near Pelican Bay.
It caught the attention of other drivers, including one who struggled with his cell phone to alert authorities to a dangerous driver who had to be drunk. He followed him for about 5 miles.
Reaching 70 mph at Pelican Bay Boulevard North, just south of Vanderbilt Beach Road, the truck collided with the Moritzes’ Ford rental car, spinning it out.
The pickup’s driver walked quickly away.
Several miles away, Ryals and his wife, Linda, were already in bed, they told investigators. Home since 9 p.m, Ryals, now 43, was asleep in his parents’ house on 97th Avenue North in Naples Park. He’d worked a half day, done a little shopping with his wife and then come home to go to bed early. He left his pickup parked in the yard, he said.
By then, Moritz was fighting for his life at the hospital.
Met by deputies at his home, Ryals told them his truck must have been stolen from the front yard.
Deputies took Ryals to his truck at the crash scene, questioned him at the North Naples sheriff’s substation and let him go home.
With family members sitting vigil, Moritz died March 5, 2002.
The evidence left behind, his family argues, is enough to point a finger in the direction of who was at fault.
Accident scene, crime scene
At 9:50 p.m. at the crime scene, deputies were measuring distances, filling out reports and asking questions.
They had one driver and two vehicles – one of them a pickup with no driver.
They needed blanks to be filled in. And a man in black to be found.
Some facts came easily:
The car that the Moritzes and their friends were in was stopped in the northbound lane of U.S. 41 North, waiting for the light at Pelican Bay Boulevard. Ryals’ truck also was traveling north and struck the right rear corner of the car while traveling around 70 mph.
The Moritzes’ car then spun for about 90 feet before stopping in the left-turn lane. The truck slid across the northbound lanes and stopped on the east side of the intersection, in the westbound lane of Pelican Bay Boulevard, sliding 100 feet after impact.
Two witnesses watched the wreck. One man, while going to aid Moritz and the other occupants, saw the driver of the truck walk away and disappear behind Matter Brothers Furniture.
Only the truck remained. Its keys were in the ignition.
The next step was to find the owner.
A familiar name
At least two deputies at the scene knew Ryals. They recognized his name when their records check of the truck named him as the owner. They recalled him being a trusty in the Collier County jail.
When sheriff’s tracking dogs couldn’t turn up a scent to follow, they were left with a description of a man around 6 feet tall, wearing black clothes.
Following the lead on the truck’s registration, they drove a few miles to Naples Park.
It was 10:45 p.m, nearly an hour after the crash.
Ryals smelled as if he’d been drinking when they talked to him in his doorway, one deputy said. He wore a long-sleeved black shirt.
In a sworn statement, Deputy Ryan Tutt, one of the deputies who went to Ryals’ home, tells what he saw:
“Just a strong odor of alcohol coming from his facial area, his eyes were bloodshot and glassy and he was pretty messed up,” the report says.
Ryals told deputies that he hadn’t been drinking.
Tutt described Ryals as hesitant in accompanying him to the scene of the crash. Tutt explained that he was just trying to confirm it was his truck involved in the crash. Ryals seemed suspicious, but finally agreed to go with the deputies.
Once inside the patrol car, Ryals said he couldn’t believe his truck had been stolen, Tutt recalled.
When Tutt dropped him off at home a few hours later, Ryals left the smell of alcohol behind in the patrol car, the deputy said.
Later on, according to court documents, more answers would surface and spell out Ryals’ day and evening.
He said his wife picked him up from a job site at Tiburon around 1:30 p.m. Since his license had been suspended, he said his wife drove him to and from work and around town.
Ryals then went home, took a shower, ate lunch, hung out at the house and watched television.
Later, Ryals and his wife shopped at Coastland Center mall. Then went to Wal-Mart in North Naples, where they purchased cold medicine because the red tide was bothering Ryals’ wife. They were back at the house and in bed by 9 p.m.
His parents were home, too. In sworn statements, they said they had been watching television earlier and then when Ryals and his wife came home, his mother was on the Internet and his father was getting ready for bed. They confirmed their son’s whereabouts.
But before the Ryalses went to bed, he turned the truck around in the yard so the bed faced the house instead of the street. He had tools, rakes and other equipment in there and didn’t want them stolen, he had explained.
He left his wallet in the truck as he normally did, he told deputies. He left his wife’s wallet inside the truck, too. And the truck keys, too.
He forgot the keys and her wallet because he grabbed some wet clothes from behind the seat and was in a rush.
His wife gave the same account, saying she was the one to leave the keys in the truck. She said she knew he was going to put the truck in the yard because she isn’t too skilled at backing it up.
She said she didn’t hear any noises outside the house. She didn’t even hear her husband back the truck into the yard. The windows and the bedroom door were closed.
But the Ryalses also agreed on this: No one else had ever driven the truck.
Deputies concluded that if someone had stolen the truck, not only did they leave the valuables inside, they were driving the truck toward the Ryalses’ home.
Investigators also learned that someone had been desperately calling the Ryalses’ home via cell phone between 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
Five calls were logged.
“If they had enough evidence against my client, they would have charged him a long time ago,” said Ryals’ attorney, Steven Koeppel of Fort Myers. “There’s no evidence that my client was driving the car.”