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After charges dropped in fatal Palmetto hit and run, report shows how case fell apart

Prosecutors dropped charges against a Palmetto man for a fatal 2019 hit-and-run after they say a lack of evidence and uncooperative witnesses unraveled the case.

A memorandum issued by the State Attorney’s Office in December cited a number of reasons charges were dropped against 50-year-old Zachary Nelson less than a month before he was set to go to trial for a hit-and-run crash that left two people dead and one person critically injured.

One of the difficulties prosecutors said they faced in building a case against Nelson was proving he knew he hit a person.

Nelson was charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving death or serious bodily injury. Florida Statute requires the state to prove that Nelson “knew or should have known from all of the circumstances, including the nature of the crash or the injury or death of (the victim),” according to the memo.

A roadside memorial sits on US 19 in Palmetto to remember Tyler Pittard and Donald Keefer who died in a hit-and-run crash on Aug. 17, 2019.
A roadside memorial sits on US 19 in Palmetto to remember Tyler Pittard and Donald Keefer who died in a hit-and-run crash on Aug. 17, 2019.

Conditions the night of the crash

Conditions along U.S. 19 on Aug. 17, 2019, the night 13-year-old Tyler Pittard and 47-year-old Donald Keefer were allegedly struck and killed by what witnesses described as a white Chevy Silverado, may have made it difficult for Nelson to know he hit a person, according to prosecutors.

It was raining heavily the night of the crash and Nelson couldn’t see, he told investigators.

The memo also says the “crash occurred during nighttime hours when the area was dark and not well lit.”

One of the witnesses at the time of the crash said Nelson stopped briefly before leaving the scene, according to an arrest report.

Prosecutors said witness testimony supports Nelson’s position that if he had stopped and looked back he would not have seen the victims or evidence that he had been in a crash that involved people.

Nelson allegedly left the scene of the crash but called law enforcement the next day after reading about the fatal accident in the news.

He told investigators at the time he thought he hit a large deer or cow, the Bradenton Herald previously reported.

When a homicide investigator with the Florida Highway Patrol was asked during deposition whether there was any direct evidence Nelson knew or should have known he hit a person, he said there was no evidence in the case to prove he would have known he struck a person as opposed to an animal, according to the memo.

When questioned further, the investigator said Nelson’s version that he thought he hit a deer “was consistent with, and a reasonable view, of what the damage to the vehicle would support.”

A roadside memorial sits on US 19 in Palmetto to remember Tyler Pittard and Donald Keefer who died at the site in a hit and run on Aug. 17, 2019.
A roadside memorial sits on US 19 in Palmetto to remember Tyler Pittard and Donald Keefer who died at the site in a hit and run on Aug. 17, 2019.

Another deputy who responded the night of the crash was quoted from her deposition in the memo as saying “we have wildlife all over the place up there,” including coyotes, cattle, horses and “huge boars.”

Multiple officers agreed that the damage to Nelson’s pickup truck was “inconsistent with striking a single human,” according to the memo.

Lack of cooperation from witnesses

The State Attorney’s Office says a lack of cooperation from the witnesses also played a role in their inability to pursue a conviction.

One of the witnesses described in the memo as “extremely uncooperative” made several statements that he “would never testify in this case.”

Prosecutors say many attempts were made to contact another witness, but she was also uncooperative.

These witnesses were described by prosecutors as pedestrians who were also at the scene of the crime. One was a man who was narrowly missed by the truck and the other, his partner, was the third pedestrian hit by the pickup truck. A 40-year-old woman was taken to HCA Florida Blake Hospital where she underwent emergency surgery for injuries to her legs, according to an arrest report.

The State also said, “the physical evidence on scene also does not support a conviction in this case.”

An investigator said during his deposition several of the witnesses’ previous statements were directly contradicted by physical evidence and that things could not have played out in some of the ways described by the pedestrian who was not struck by the truck.

An investigator said the cone of debris was concentrated in the right lane area by the paved shoulder and widened from there, leading him to the conclusion that the area of impact occurred there.

Prosecutors say this is inconsistent with what the witness who was not hit by the vehicle told them, as he initially said the impact happened in the grassy area.

Initial testimony from this witness said the pedestrians were not walking in the roadway before the crash, but prosecutors say video evidence shows them walking in the paved portion of the road at 2:40 a.m., moments before the impact allegedly occurred.

Video evidence also showed Nelson driving down the road, but showed no signs of him driving erratically, as previously described by the witness.

Based on the evidence, prosecutors concluded that “the State is unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant left the scene of a crash that he knew or should have known involved a person.”

Nelson’s case was set to go to trial in early February, but the trial was canceled after the state entered a plea to dismiss all charges on Jan. 8, according to court records.