COLLIER COUNTY — Kevin Shinsky sat in the Collier County jail for nearly four years, proclaiming his innocence from the day he was arrested on charges of leaving the scene of a crash with death.
Soon after the fatal crash on Nov. 4, 2006, the 39-year-old East Naples father of two faced a new charge, vehicular homicide in the death of Michelle Sommers, 38, of Full Moon Court in East Naples.
All along, Shinsky, who had a suspended license due to child support debts and didn’t drive, had maintained Sommers gave him a ride to a Publix to cash his paycheck, then drove off in his friend’s car. Minutes later, he saw Sommers again, but a Hispanic man was driving the car and Shinsky tried to pull the keys out of the ignition.
“I’m hanging onto the car on the driver’s door to try to stop them and I fell off,” Shinsky said, adding that he saw the two again several minutes later, but the man was no longer at the wheel: Sommers was driving just before she crashed the car.
Since his arrest that day, Shinsky waited years for a trial while going through three attorneys. As he waited, he wrote to the State Attorney’s Office to demand a speedy trial, the Supreme Court, judges, his lawyers — anyone who would listen to his pleas for help.
It wasn’t until his fourth attorney, David Agoston of Naples, and his colleague, attorney Jamie Chandler, and paralegal Lissette Perez began working with John Hisler and Associates investigations that the evidence came together to show Shinsky was telling the truth: He was innocent.
Jim Schott, a private investigator, went through all the depositions and reports and found many inconsistencies that suggested Shinsky's innocence. The legal team, which got the case in December, worked quickly to free Shinsky and on Friday, the State Attorney’s Office dropped the charges and he was released from jail.
“There’s no way he could have been in two places at once,” said Hisler. “He cashed his Peluso Movers paycheck about that time.”
The bank failed, but Hisler tracked down the original paycheck three years later, locked in a safe at Peluso Movers, which hired someone to open it to help a valued former employee.
The check, time stamped 1:46 p.m. with Shinsky’s fingerprint, was cashed at the Publix at U.S. 41 and Thomasson Drive just minutes before the 1:50 p.m. crash.
Shinsky’s minor injuries matched his account, that he’d fallen off a fleeing car, not that he’d been in a car that hit two cars, went airborne, clipped a tree, flipped several times, hit three cars and burst into flames in the Embarq parking lot.
“There’s no way anyone could come through that wreck with that amount of injuries,” Hisler said of Shinsky’s scratches, adding that the driver's seat was pushed into position for a short woman like Sommers and hadn't been moved forward due to the crash.
Sommers was ejected, hit a building and landed on concrete, dying instantly. An autopsy showed she suffered severe injuries all over her body, including a skull fracture. Her blood-alcohol content measured 0.33 percent and 0.37 percent, and there was cocaine in her system. She was a friend of Shinsky's roommate and had offered to drive him in his friend, Barbara Parrack's, car that day.
“His cell phone records show voicemail retrievals before, during and after this accident,” Agoston said.
Those records show Shinsky called Parrack, 40, to say her car had been stolen and checked voicemails, with calls beginning at 1:39 p.m, two when the crash occurred at 1:50 and 1:52 p.m., then 1:56 p.m., 1:57 p.m., and 2 p.m.
An eyewitness came forward later to say he saw Shinsky hanging onto the car and falling off as it fled and rushed over to ask if he needed help. Two eyewitnesses who saw the crash didn’t identify Shinsky as the bleeding man who crawled out of the burning car: That man was Hispanic, had a forehead injury, clutched his side and limped away.
“(Shinsky) didn’t have a forehead injury,” Chandler said, adding that that's clear from looking at the mugshot from his arrest.
At 3:30 p.m. Friday, as Tropical Storm Bonnie headed toward Naples, Shinsky walked out of the jail, unable to wear the clothing he’d come in with because he’s lost weight. He wore another man’s shorts, jail sneakers and a T-shirt.
Hisler got a bed for him at St. Matthews House, took him to St. Vincent DePaul to purchase clothing with St. Matthews vouchers, and then to McDonald’s before heading to Agoston’s office. Hisler also gave him money for a cell phone.
State Attorney’s Office Spokeswoman Samantha Syoen cited the new eyewitness, phone records and other evidence as reasons why they dismissed charges.
“New evidence came to light from the defendant, evidence that we were not privy to until very recently,” Syoen said. “... It was apparent that we should drop the charges.”
She said they’d never received a letter from Shinsky.
Shinsky is relieved he’s free, but has no job, no permanent place to live, and $50,000 in child support to pay.
“I couldn’t ask for a better legal team,” Shinsky said Monday as he sat in Agoston’s office with Chandler and Hisler, still in his thrift shop clothing.
Agoston commended prosecutors for listening.
“They were moving forward with information given to them,” he said. “Our investigation showed a lot of that was misinformation and that information came from one source, Deputy Johnny Cisnero.
“That led to the groundwork for the arrest of Kevin and was responsible for nearly four years of truly wrongful incarceration.”
An internal affairs case filed against Cisnero after Shinsky complained was closed after Cisnero denied being untruthful. But he's now being investigated in another case involving untruthfulness.
Hisler said he’ll turn over their file in the hopes the sheriff’s office will reopen the internal affairs investigation into Cisnero, whose report says Shinsky refused to speak without an attorney. But he also wrote that Shinsky then asked about Sommers, saying, “When I climbed out of the vehicle, she wasn’t in there. What happened?”
Hebebrand's deposition says she heard Shinsky asking about the woman in the car and telling Cisnero the woman had stolen his car.
Shinsky says he told Cisnero only that Sommers had driven off in Parrack’s car and he’d tried to stop her. Cisnero had arrested him several times before, he said, but charges always were dropped, and because he didn’t drive, Cisnero often stopped drivers giving him a ride and harassed or threatened them — once even throwing a driver in jail for not wearing glasses and then having her car towed.
Sheriff’s Spokeswoman Karie Partington said Shinsky was not polygraphed, as some suspects are.
She added: “If Mr. Hisler has additional information we would encourage him to bring it forward to CCSO’s Professional Responsibility Bureau.”
Shinsky, who had a felony record from a 2002 arrest that included battery and resisting arrest, faced up to 15 years in state prison for both vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of a fatal crash, and five years for driving while license was suspended in a crash causing death.
He began by paying a private attorney, Landon Miller, who withdrew in August 2008. Then he was assigned a public defender, the tops in the office then, Deputy Public Defender Mike Orlando, who got depositions of several witnesses to build a case for his innocence, but had to withdraw due to a conflict. Then Shinsky was appointed a regional counsel, Nico Vitale, who also withdrew due to a conflict. Agoston was his fourth, a private attorney who was court-appointed by a judge.
"Mike Orlando did a wonderful job and I was very happy with his work, until 10 days before trial and he said there was a conflict," Shinsky said of someone else in the public defender's office once representing one of his witnesses, which barred Orlando from continuing.
Now Shinsky, who has a high school diploma and a year of college behind him, is looking for a job as a mover — or any work. While jailed, he took classes on planning for families, Bible study — anything that took his mind off his situation.
“I read a lot of books,” Shinsky said, thanking St. Matthew’s House, and Harry and Jan Thomas of Restoration Church who provide jail Bible study classes. “They really got me through it and took me away from that place.”