PLANT CITY — Jonathon Adams heard a scream, "like a dog getting run over by a car," then saw a minivan come tearing around the corner with a woman he knew dangling out of the passenger side.
It was the start of a deadly sequence of events Dec. 8 that Plant City police first reported as a traffic fatality but now is under investigation as a possible homicide.
The woman, Emily Hilliard, 35, was found down the road, dead. Her boyfriend, Michael Christopher Baynard, 32, was struck by the minivan and injured as he ran to help her.
The driver, 55-year-old Todd Charles Riggs of Largo, was arrested and faces charges including leaving the scene of a crash involving injury without rendering aid and driving under the influence resulting in injury.
Adams said he spoke to his friends Hilliard and Baynard just before her death.
"Emily said she had to meet a guy to get money," Adams recalled. "They were going to meet at the library. She wanted to do it in a public place. She said she’d be back in five minutes."
Plant City police Chief Edward Duncan said investigators are working with the State Attorney’s Office on possible homicide charges in the case. But police provided few other details, saying they did not know why Hilliard was in Riggs’ van, where they were driving from, or even whether Hilliard and Baynard knew each other.
Adams and other witnesses, however, gave this account of the incident during interviews this week:
Just before 11 a.m. of Friday, Dec. 8, Hilliard and Baynard got breakfast at Hands of Hope, an outreach program of the Plant City church New [email protected], 315 N Collins St. The couple had been in and out of homelessness. He drank coffee, she had Powerade and they both ate doughnuts.
"One of my workers told them to come back on Saturday for breakfast," said the program’s outreach director, Jennifer Anderson. As they left, Hilliard turned to say they would — and that "Jesus loves (you) and so do we."
"I thought it was kind of cool," Anderson said.
Adams, who had known Hilliard and Baynard for several months and is occasionally homeless himself, was volunteering at Hands of Hope. Adams met up with the couple and some other friends a short time later outside an apartment on Baker Street near the Bruton Memorial Library.
A few minutes after Hilliard parted company with them, Adams said, he and the others heard the screams. As they grew louder, Adams saw a van peel around the corner, headed south on Wheeler Street and turning west on Baker.
Hilliard was hanging from the open passenger door, wearing flip-flops and reaching with her toes for the pavement in an effort to escape. The driver pulled her back in by the collar of her shirt, Adams said, causing him to fishtail between lanes as Hilliard cried to Baynard for help.
"He ran into the street waving his arms and trying to get him to stop," Adams said. "The guy floored it. He hit Chris on the driver side and Chris cartwheeled. He flipped twice."
Adams and the others rushed to Baynard.
"A minute or two later, we heard the sirens," Adams said. "It felt like forever."
They saw an officer approaching on a motorcycle, thinking he was responding to the hit-and-run. But he kept going. Adams said they got the officer’s attention and, after a brief stop, he said he was headed to a traffic fatality a mile up the road.
Adams followed the officer down Baker, north onto Alexander Street. When they reached the entrance to Interstate 4, both stopped.
"That’s where we found Emily," Adams said. "She was dead."
Police said Hilliard had been struck by a white Ford pickup truck whose driver could not avoid hitting her as she fell from the moving gray 2002 Honda minivan.
Baynard was taken to a hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening.
Police arrested Riggs at the scene. Records show Riggs has been arrested more than a dozen times in Florida, with convictions for vehicle theft and cocaine possession.
On Wednesday morning, five days after Hilliard ate her last breakfast there, people gathered at Hands of Hope for a lunch of chili and rice. Before they bowed their heads to bless their meal, Anderson, the outreach director, assured the crowd that in the face of tragedy, they always had somewhere to turn.
"You have us here so you don’t need to be out there," Anderson said. "Whenever anything happens to you out there, you come to us."
Contact Daniel Figueroa at [email protected]