Prosecutors used colorful analogies Thursday to describe the actions of a sheriff’s deputy who crashed into another car while driving 104 mph.
“A speeding train out of control,” they said. “A bowling ball with a battering ram.”
A Palm Beach County jury had another word for it: Guilty.
After 75 minutes of deliberations, they convicted Brandon Hegele of reckless driving causing serious bodily injury, rejecting his defense that the injured driver entered the deputy’s lane while distracted by a cell phone.
The felony trial this week focused on the deputy’s conduct behind the wheel before he plowed his Ford patrol car into the rear of a Smart car on the afternoon of May 27, 2016. The crash left Harry Deshommes, 62, permanently disabled and in an assisted-living facility.
Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer ordered Hegele, 35, to be taken to Palm Beach County Jail immediately, where he must stay until his March 15 sentencing. The crime is punishable by up to five years in prison.
As his wife wept in the courtroom, Hegele pleaded with the judge to let him stay free on bond, so he can continue to work a part-time job to help support the couple and their two small children.
“We’re going to lose the house,” said Hegele, a 13-year veteran of the sheriff’s office who has been on unpaid leave since his arrest by the agency following the crash.
“Unfortunately, sometimes an employee makes a bad decision which leads to misconduct,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Teri Barbera said after the verdict. “The sheriff’s office will remain vigilant to insure that our efforts are professional and meet the high standards that the public has come to expect.”
She said a disciplinary investigation will begin now that the criminal case is over.
Defense attorneys Scott Richardson and Flynn Bertisch said it’s not over — they will appeal the verdict.
The victim’s sister, Gina Desrouleaux of Royal Palm Beach, said she prays God can help Hegele.
“I am so sorry that his family will have to suffer just like mine,” said Desrouleaux, who testified her brother suffers from memory loss because of a brain injury and had a difficult recovery from many broken bones.
In closing arguments Thursday, prosecutors contended Hegele ignored commands to stop pursuing another car wanted by police, and increased his cruiser’s speed until he caused the violent crash on Southern Boulevard.
“At 104 miles per hour, you don’t have control,” Assistant State Attorney Laura Laurie said, noting Hegele also wasn’t using his lights and siren. “He has to drive with due care and he failed miserably. He’s hell-bent on finding this car (that’s) nowhere even in sight.”
Hegele’s defense was that he was responding to a “be on the lookout” alert for a Toyota with a Kentucky tag that fled a traffic stop in the Village of Palm Springs.
But sheriff’s supervisors testified they told deputies to hang back while arrangements were made for a helicopter to conduct a search.
Hegele’s attorneys argued there was also a command to keep the suspect car in sight, but not to engage in a chase.
Richardson said a dashcam video proved Hegele was a very careful driver, even at high speeds.
“He’s very aware of traffic and he’s not reckless,” he said of the deputy changing lanes and using his lights and sirens within intersections. “No other vehicle is affected by his driving whatsoever.”
But the big dispute in the trial centered on a U-turn made by Deshommes into the westbound lanes of Southern, with Hegele six seconds away.
Laurie said Deshommes’ Smart car was nearly the length of three football fields in front of Hegele, but the deputy was traveling 152 feet per second and could not avoid the crash.
Hegele hit the brakes about one second before impact, according to black box data shared with the jurors.
She presented the jury with cell phone records to prove Deshommes wasn’t on a call, but said even if he was holding the device it doesn’t mean he’s to blame.
Hegele’s attorney presented four reasons for the jury to find reasonable doubt, all of which put the responsibility for the crash on Deshommes.
“I’m not blaming the victim,” Richardson said. “I’m analyzing the facts.”
To emphasize what he called the tragic consequences of the deputy’s speed, prosecutor Daniel Reiter counted out loud the amount of seconds after Deshommes’ U-turn, “One, two, three, four, five, six.”
“If only this defendant remembered the motto, to serve and protect,” he said.