Charges against the 22-year-old man accused of causing the May 2008 drunken-driving wreck that killed Bluffton High School junior Josh George were dropped Thursday, Solicitor Duffie Stone announced.
DNA evidence from two Modelo beer cans found on the front floorboard failed to connect the suspect to either the driver's seat or the passenger's seat of the vehicle, Stone said at a news conference at his Bluffton office.
"At this point, I believe that it would be improper and unethical for me to go forward with the case against Juan Rodriquez," the three-year solicitor said. "It was a difficult decision, one that I didn't make lightly, but I have never prosecuted anyone that I wasn't convinced committed the crime, and I'm not starting now."
Juan Roman, previously identified and booked as Juan Olague Rodriquez, has been in the county jail since May 18, 2008, awaiting trial on charges of felony DUI and leaving the scene of a wreck resulting in death. The charges carried a potential prison sentence of up to 50 years.
His attorney, Hector Esquivel, told his client the news Thursday afternoon inside one of the cinder-block interview rooms at the Beaufort County Detention Center.
"He was very pleasantly surprised," Esquivel said. "Tears welled up in his eyes when I told him. Juan, throughout the whole ordeal, has maintained his innocence. He wanted me to express his deepest condolences to the (George) family. It's terrible what happened to the family. Juan is excited about moving on with his life."
Roman, through Esquivel, declined requests for an interview. His attorney expects federal Immigration & Customs Enforcement agents to pick him up in the next 48 hours and begin deportation proceedings because Roman is in the country illegally.
George's mother, Cheryl, declined comment, but asked a reporter to speak to her surviving children.
Josh George's siblings, 19-year-old Jessica and 15-year-old Jake, accepted the decision without bitterness.
"It doesn't matter who's punished. It won't change what's already happened," Jessica George said. "Somebody being in jail isn't going to change anything. We don't want (Roman) to be punished if he's not guilty. ... Two wrongs don't make a right."
Both siblings said their family wants to deal with the announcement privately.
"Everyone's upset about it -- but you have to move forward in life," Jake said. "What happened, happened. There's nothing we can do now. ... Based on the judicial system, (Roman) is innocent. This guy being released -- that won't make anything change. ... There's nothing we can hold against him."
'A CHALLENGING SCENE'
On May 18, 2008, Josh George, 17, had just dropped off his girlfriend and two friends from an after-prom party. It was nearly 3 a.m. Sunday, and he was headed home.
He was driving east on Bluffton Parkway in his Toyota pickup when a green Subaru sedan heading in the opposite direction turned left onto Buck Island Road. The Subaru clipped the back of the pickup as it passed through the intersection, police say.
"This was a low-speed crash, caused by what we still believe was a drunk driver who misjudged a turn," Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister said Thursday. "It was an awful tragedy."
George, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected through a window. He died three days later in a Savannah hospital.
Immediately following the wreck, officers from at least two different agencies fanned out the find the culprit. A pair of Beaufort County deputies followed a trail of car parts, oil and other fluids to a home on Frierson Circle in Vista View. They found a Subaru with significant front-end damage and a house containing up to 10 Hispanics who had been drinking heavily.
"It was a challenging scene to say the least," McAllister said.
Because none of the officers spoke Spanish, they found a woman inside the house to translate. She didn't seem to be intoxicated, McAllister said, and was the only person inside who appeared to speak English.
Another man came forward and admitted to being in the Subaru at the time of the wreck and said Roman had been the driver. That claim was made through the interpreter, who was apparently the long-time girlfriend or wife of one of the man's relatives. The interpreter also indicated to police that Roman had told her he was driving the car, authorities said.
"The officer couldn't confirm what was said because he didn't speak Spanish," McAllister said.
Roman was arrested.
Police identified him as Juan Rodriquez based on a Mexican ID card found inside the house.
Esquivel, his attorney, said Roman tried to clear up questions about his identity, but was unsuccessful until a bond hearing a few days later.
Police, on the other hand, described Roman as uncooperative and said he didn't try to set the record straight about his name or involvement in the crash.
Esquivel said he's not sure why the people in the home accused Roman, but he and police have two prevailing theories.
Roman was the only person living in the home who wasn't related to the others, Esquivel said, so it's possible they may have been covering for a relative by handing over the only "stranger," the attorney said.
The second theory is that the witnesses misunderstood the question.
"The difference between 'were you driving the car?' and 'do you drive the car?' in Spanish is a very subtle difference," Esquivel said. "It might have been unintentional."
The Subaru in the wreck was, by several accounts, primarily used by Roman, so it's possible they were telling the police it was his car, Esquivel said.
"They either gave us incorrect information or they flat out lied to us," McAllister said. "We had language barriers. The folks that we depended on, the translator and the witness, were very credible and they gave us credible statements. The problem with law enforcement is you move forward with the best evidence you have at the time. That's why DNA and fingerprints are so important. In this case, they did the right thing. They cleared someone who was not the driver or at least we don't think is the driver."
Esquivel would not say whether Roman was in the car at the time of the wreck.
Police suspect he was, probably in the back seat.
They found a third Modelo beer can near the scene of the crash.
DNA from the can matched Roman's, Stone said, but wasn't enough to tie him to the car and, more important, put him in the driver's seat.
AN ACTIVE CASE AGAIN
Investigators believe three men were inside the Subaru that night. The trio had been drinking at Palomas, a predominately Hispanic bar off S.C. 46.
All of the people living in the Vista View home left within two days of the fatal wreck, leaving police with two unknown DNA profiles and no witnesses.
Their employer, a local painting company, began checking their immigration status the following Monday. The landlord told police the group had moved out quickly and he had no idea where they went.
Police and prosecutors remain interested in finding them.
"We've spent the better part of two-and-a-half months trying to locate them to no avail," McAllister said.
Authorities aren't even sure if the names they provided are real.
"That's an ongoing challenge with undocumented immigrants," Stone said.
The DNA profiles gathered from the beer cans inside the car will be loaded into a national database, in case the two other men in the car are ever involved in a crime.
Authorities also hope Roman, the man who spent 14 months in jail for a crime he probably didn't commit, will suddenly decide to talk about the wreck for the first time.
"We're going to reach out to his attorney upon the dropping of these charges and then ask if he'd like to make a statement beyond what we already know," McAllister said.
"This case now moves back into open and active. My detectives have been trying to locate these two individuals. ... We have been and will continue to track down every lead."
THE RIGHT THING?
The fatal wreck stunned the community because it claimed the life of what Josh George's high school principal called a "top-shelf kid." George was a gifted student and captain of the varsity soccer team.
His family had known tragedy before.
George's father died in 2001 when the F-16 he was piloting crashed near Edwards Air Force Base in California. Father and son are buried next to one another in Huntington, W.Va.
But reaction to the wreck that claimed the teen was colored by something more than the loss of a promising young man. The fact that an illegal immigrant at first seemed to be the culprit stoked anger in an area with hard feelings about immigration.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Roman had come to the United States illegally to find a better life, Esquivel said.
He has family spread across the country, but none locally.
His only visitors during his months in jail were a public defender, Esquivel and a woman who met with him several times after reading about the wreck in the newspaper.
"I think (the decision to drop the charges) shows a lot of character and integrity on Duffie's part," Esquivel said. "Obviously, it's not going to be popular, but it was the right decision to make."
Stone agrees on both accounts.
"I have children. I can't imagine what Mrs. George is going through," he said. "But again, I have never prosecuted anyone that I didn't know is guilty."