ARIPEKA – Nothing about Thursday afternoon’s car accident in Aripeka that resulted in the death of a pedestrian was accidental, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said,
It was an act of “pure evil,” Nocco said during a Friday press conference at the Land O’ Lakes Detention Center.
According to Nocco, 21-year-old Justin Pennell was running errands Thursday afternoon and driving his red Chrysler PT Cruiser. Around 2:30 p.m., at the intersection of Aripeka Road and Old Dixie Highway, Pennell saw a man walking on the side of the road.
“The suspect drives past him, intentionally makes a U-turn, goes toward the victim and starts accelerating at a high rate of speed,” Nocco said.
Pennell, a Hudson resident, hit the pedestrian, a 75-year-old Vietnam War veteran with a wooden walking stick. The unidentified male died at the scene.
After hitting the victim, Pennell’s vehicle sustained damage and broke down. The defendant then called 911 not far from the scene, admitted to running down the victim, and waited for law enforcement to arrive. During the interview with detectives, Pennell said he had been thinking about killing somebody for “several months.”
“The suspect tells us later on that while he’s driving there at this victim he can see the look of fright on the victim’s face,” Nocco said. “He can see that fear and he can see the emotion of, ‘Oh my gosh, this person’s about to hit me,’ and the victim tries to get out of the way. The suspect intentionally runs him over.”
“There are some cases that we hear of that, even for us in law enforcement, make us just realize and remind us that there is pure evil in this world,” the sheriff said.
Adding to the horrific nature of Thursday’s crime is a witness report that other people drove by the scene, stopped and left without contacting law enforcement.
“There’s a saying, the greatest sin is the indifference of good men,” Nocco said. “The one witness who called us from the side of the road … (told us) other people drove up, witnesses, possibly took photographs, and drove off.”
Nocco implored those who witnessed any aspect of Thursday’s crime to contact law enforcement.
“If you’re one of those people that was a witness out there, men or women, please contact the Pasco Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “We just need your assistance. We have a very solid case, we have a very strong case, but at the same time we have to bring as much justice as we can for this victim. You’re not in trouble. We just want to talk to you because we need that information.”
Nocco and Michael Rosa, a sergeant with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit, spoke to reporters during Friday’s press conference. Rosa said Pennell was “very calm” during the interview and “confessed to everything and was very cooperative.”
Rosa added that Pennell did not appear to be under the influence of anything and was lucid. When asked about his demeanor at the scene, Nocco told reports Pennell “actually laughed to the detectives when he said he saw the victim scared.” In the police report, Pennell told detectives he was "smiling and laughing when he struck the victim."
The investigation, with assistance from the Florida Highway Patrol, continues and Rosa said search warrants are being obtained for Pennell’s vehicle and various electronic devices. Rosa said the sheriff’s office found two reports involving Pennell in its system, but he’s never been arrested. No direct link between Pennell and the victim has been established and Pennell told detectives he didn’t know the victim.