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Jury verdict: Ryals found guilty in fatal 2002 hit-and-run

Jeffrey Scott Ryals held up his middle finger to TV cameras after verdict read in court

By Aisling Swift

Jurors deliberated nearly four hours Tuesday evening before finding a 46-year-old Naples Park man guilty of vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of a hit-and-run crash – rejecting defense claims that someone else stole his truck and smashed into a car five years ago.

As a court clerk announced that Jeffrey Scott Ryals was guilty of the top count, a first-degree felony involving the death of 68-year-old Ohio multimillionaire Michael Moritz, Ryals turned to his wife, Linda, and mother, Linda, rolling his eyes and shrugging.

His wife quietly sobbed, her face red, as she dabbed her tears with a tissue, rocking back and forth. His mother just her pursed her lips, staring ahead as she listened to the verdict.

The four-woman, two-man jury also found Ryals not guilty of leaving the scene of a crash resulting in death, a third-degree felony that defense attorney John McGowan had argued was redundant and likely would have been dropped at sentencing Aug. 10, when he faces up to 30 years on the top charge and five years on the other charge.

Acquitting on that charge was understandable because Moritz, a benefactor to The Ohio State University’s law school, died 10 days after the Feb. 23, 2002, crash and jurors had seemed confused about the charge. They’d asked one question early on in deliberations, wondering whether they needed to determine if Ryals knew at the scene of the crash that he’d caused a death.

Jurors also found him guilty of leaving the scene of a crash resulting in injuries involving one of three passengers, in addition to Moritz – Edwin Overmyer, who suffered from a broken ankle, radial fracture to his right arm, broken ribs, and a dislocated right hip that had to be replaced 3½ years later.

Testimony showed Ryals’ truck was traveling north, about 70 mph, swerving from lane to lane, as if following the white line. It struck the right rear corner of a rental car being driven by Lou Ann Moritz, who was stopped at a light at Pelican Bay Boulevard.

The spun about 90 feet before stopping in the left-turn lane, while the truck slid about 100 feet across the northbound lanes and stopped on the east side of the intersection, in the westbound lane of Pelican Bay Boulevard. The truck driver slid out of the truck’s passenger side, fell on all fours, and disappeared behind a nearby furniture store as an eyewitness who’d been following Ryals’ truck called 911.

Ryals’ truck still had keys inside, as well as Ryals’ wallet and his wife’s wallet.

Ryals, who has a criminal record, didn’t take the stand in his defense. So jurors were unaware that Ryals has been arrested four times on DUI charges – an adjudication was withheld twice in Monroe and Lee counties – and racked up at least three convictions for driving while his license was suspended or revoked.

He also was convicted on drug charges involving marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs, as well as other charges involving intoxication and has violated probation several times, ending in him serving time in Collier and Lee county jails.

Moritz’s widow, Lou Ann Ransom, who has since remarried, and her friends, Overmyer and his wife, Mary Jane, were too nervous to wait for the verdict and left after Circuit Judge Elizabeth Krier instructed jurors on the charges. They couldn’t be reached after the 8:35 p.m. verdict.

As Ryals was being fingerprinted, his wife and mother waited just feet away, waiting to say goodbye before he returned to jail, where he has remained since his Nov. 4, 2004, arrest. But he turned toward TV and newspaper cameramen and held up his middle finger, saying, “Read this.” His mother scolded him, saying, “Scotty, there will be an appeal.”

The day began with Ryals’ wife storming into the courtroom and demanding that a bailiff stop private investigator Victor Ortino from talking with witnesses outside the courtroom. Ortino, who is running for sheriff, was hired by Naples attorney Ted Zelman, who represents Moritz’s widow, Lou Ann, in a lawsuit filed in order to gain subpoena powers to investigate and question witnesses.

But Ortino, who managed witnesses for the prosecution, assured the judge he was just making chit-chat or asking witnesses if they needed to see their prior statements to refresh their memories before testifying.

The day ended with Ryals’ wife storming out of the courtroom, shouting, “Betty Sue (Kronz) and Ortino were bought, crooked” and calling Kronz’s testimony lies. Ryals’ mother hushed her, urging her to keep quiet. But she wouldn’t shut up. “He’s innocent,” she shouted, crying uncontrollably. “He wasn’t there.”

Her mother-in-law patted her on the shoulder, calming her down, saying, “It’s all right” before the elevator doors opened and they left.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Randall McGruther and Assistant State Attorney Mike Provost declined comment until sentencing, except to say that the charge Ryals was acquitted on wouldn’t have counted at sentencing because, like vehicular homicide, it involved Moritz’s death. McGowan left the court immediately after the verdict and couldn’t be reached for comment.

The trial began Monday, when jurors heard from seven prosecution witnesses, including an eyewitness, Jason Ardoline, who noticed Ryals’ truck swerving from lane to lane on Airport-Pulling Road. Ardoline followed the truck onto U.S. 41 North, where he watched the crash and called 911.

They also heard from Deputy Ryan Tutt, who testified that Ryals claimed that his truck had been stolen, but Tutt called his claims an act. Tutt, who arrived at Ryals’ home nearly an hour after the crash, testified Ryals was clearly drunk, had glassy eyes and smelled of alcohol.

On Tuesday, jurors heard from Ryals’ former employer, Craig Hawkins, who had worked at BJ Excavating, who said Ryals returned to work after the crash with a “noticeable limp” that Ryals said wasn’t work related.

They also heard from George Frazer, who formed the Marco Island Chamber of Commerce years ago and served as its vice president and later president. Frazer, who was arrested years later on charges of forging prescriptions after he got addicted to pain killers from a back injury, said he was in jail with Ryals and they discussed their cases.

He testified they talked about their past mistakes and what they’d wished they’d done differently. Ryals confessed to driving that night, and said he wished he’d owned up back then, but was too far into his case to retract his denials.

Jurors also heard from Ryals’ neighbor, Betty Sue Kronz, who came forward after reading an August 2004 Naples Daily News article asking for witnesses to come forward. She testified she originally thought investigators were asking about Ryals’ son, Tony, so she hadn’t brought up what she’d seen that night.

She said she was walking her dog around 10:20 p.m. that night and saw Ryals’ father, Cecil, driving a van home. He stopped and Jeffrey Scott Ryals slid out and steadied himself on the van before stumbling toward his parents’ home, where he then lived. She placed him arriving home shortly before a deputy arrived.

Jurors also heard from Ryals’ son, Tony, who is serving time in prison for molesting someone. He was called as a rebuttal witness for the prosecution, but changed his story to help his father, smiling at him as he left the courtroom.

Defense witnesses, his uncle and uncle’s then-girlfriend, described Ryals as not being drunk when they left him at 5 p.m. that night. Douglas Young, who owns the tow yard where Ryals truck was taken to, said he didn’t notice a limp when Ryals came the next day to get his wife’s wallet, his wallet and keys.

His mother angrily testified that she answered the door that night, contradicting Tutt, who said it was his father. She testified her son never left the home after returning home at 8:45 p.m. that night and going to bed.

During his summation, Provost summarized testimony for jurors. “The only real question we have is: ‘Who was driving that vehicle that night?'” Provost asked. “…You can ask the question, ‘Well, how did we know it was Jeffrey Scott Ryals?’

He urged them to piece together the circumstantial evidence. He listed the pieces: the truck was heading toward Ryals’ home and was 1.8 miles away when the crash occurred at 9:53 p.m. Ryals’ employer said he had an obvious limp when he returned to work, and Kronz watched him arrive home. He also pointed to Frazer’s testimony about his confession.

During his closing arguments, McGowan agreed with the prosecution about the question jurors needed to answer. But he added: “We have no physical evidence. You have to rely on witnesses’ testimony.”

He urged them to acquit Ryals.

As he had during trial, McGowan contended the state’s case was built around witnesses greedy for a $100,000 reward, including Kronz and Frazer. He portrayed them as liars and questioned Kronz coming forward years later. He also had contended the Collier County Sheriff’s Office botched the case and hadn’t immediately gathered evidence, including Ryals’ clothing, and found no blood in the truck.

There was a lot of testimony jurors didn’t hear that was gathered for a possible civil trial, including evidence showing Ryals calling his home and father five times between 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., when he claimed to be in bed. And a witness who went to the impound lot with Ryals the next day and watched as he wiped blood off the truck’s airbags and cleaned it up.

Jurors also didn’t hear that no one claimed the $100,000 reward. Ortino called it a just verdict.

“The family before the verdict prayed for a just verdict,” he said, adding that he’s uncertain what will happen with the lawsuit, but it likely would settle.

He said Ryals’ insurance company had offered a settlement before the criminal trial began. A settlement was likely now that the victims got what they wanted – a guilty verdict.

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