LIHUE — A victim of a hit and run accident one year ago found some closure from solving the case with her own detective work.
Another chapter to the victim’s remarkable saga closed Thursday in 5th Circuit Court when the suspect was sentenced to probation during an emotional hearing.
Before the victim, Tania Perneel, turned into her own investigator, she was driving home from work as a concierge on Dec. 26, 2012. She was in the Kukui Grove area around 8:30 p.m., when a pickup truck suddenly collided with her Ford Fiesta.
The first thing she saw after the accident was the back of a blue truck with a pink bumper sticker driving away from her wrecked car. At the time, Perneel didn’t think anything of it. She thought the man who stopped to render her aid was the other driver involved in the accident, and did not know it was the truck that she’d seen driving away.
The accident left Perneel with injuries that included a broken ankle that required two screws that makes it difficult to stand. A broken wrist and ring finger has not healed correctly, and two bulging discs in her upper back make it difficult to sit, she added.
“The daily pain is a constant reminder of this hit and run,” Perneel said.
After the accident, Perneel was told by police that the odds of finding the hit-and-run driver were slim to none. So Perneel said she set out to solve the case on her own. She has some law enforcement experience from a Mainland job, but said she was not a police officer.
Perneel was gathering the belongings from her totaled Fiesta, when she discovered a towing loop that was embedded in the engine. It had dislodged from the pickup in the crash.
An auto parts dealer told Perneel that the part was one of two front end towing loops on Dodge Dakota models from 2005-2010. It was sent to her insurance company on Oahu as evidence.
Just 19 days after the accident, Perneel said she was stopped in traffic on a busy rush hour Friday. While making a left-hand turn she thought a pickup outside a body shop had the same color and the pink sticker as the one that caused the accident.
Returning the following Monday, Perneel crawled underneath the truck and saw that the tow loop was missing. She produced her tow loop and saw that part matched and that even the rust patterns ran together.
Perneel brought the information to the police and learned the truck was registered to Jennifer Dacua Tabura’s father. Perneel had no idea who the driver was but didn’t suspect the man because the truck was adorned with items that made it “a girl car,” she said.
After speaking with Assistant Chief Ale Quibilan, the case moved forward, she said, and officers arrested Jennifer Tabura, 23, of Lihue, for second-degree negligent injury on Jan. 31, 2013. A grand jury indicted Tabura for first-degree accidental death or serious injury, and first-degree negligent injury in April, and she pleaded no contest on Aug. 15.
At Thursday’s sentencing, Perneel asked the court to order restitution of $3,608.47, which is the amount due on the car loan not covered by her own insurance. She had to pay it off before making a new loan to purchase another car.
The court ordered Tabura to pay the restitution but would not award other costs associated with other insurance claims.
In her statement, Tabura said her decision caused her pain and that she wanted so much to say how sorry she was to the victim. She was more hurt to hear of the injuries and wanted to apologize.
“I will never do anything like that again,” Tabura said.
Outside the courtroom after the sentencing, Perneel told Tabura that she accepted the apology that was offered to her in court. The two embraced in tears.
“I am not mad at you,” Perneel said. “I am mad at what happened and wanted you to accept responsibility.”
County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Melinda Mendes asked the court to sentence probation and six months jail. She said defendant is studying to be a nurse and fled the scene where there was a possible injury.
“The defendant chose to leave the scene and not offer assistance when the victim could very well have been dead or dying,” Mendes said.
There was no way to know if Tabura was under the influence as the prosecution said might have been a factor in fleeing the scene, she added.
Chief Judge Randal Valenciano said the sentencing does not deal in speculation and instead reminded the defendant to think about her family first when faced with a difficult decision in the future.
“This is the hardest case of the day,” Valenciano said. “These are two good people with the defendant trying to make a go of it, and the victim was just driving and trying not to get into an accident.”
Valenciano said the defendant struggled with a “tough situation” and made a bad decision to put herself in this position. He sentenced her to felony probation and not to drive for one year.
“I am not going to send you to jail,” he said. “There would be no purpose in it.”
State Deputy Public Defender Stephanie Sato requested a deferred acceptance of the no-contest plea so that the conviction would be stricken from Tabura’s permanent record after completing probation.
“The defendant has no prior criminal history as an adult or a juvenile, not even a traffic ticket,” Sato said. “You won’t see her in court again.”
Sato asked the court to consider that Tabura’s actions were motivated by fear and she panicked.
“She basically freaked out, went home and didn’t tell her parents,” Sato said.