The Forgotten Man

He was one of these guys you see on Friday afternoon at the 7-Eleven, stocking up on beer for the weekend, maybe buying some Lotto tickets, then piling into a battered van with his buddies and cranking up Zeta-4 on the radio.

It would be nice to say his skills as a carpenter were renowned at the swank enclaves of Williams Island and Turnberry Isle where he worked. In truth, the people who live in the houses he built never paid much attention to Jeffrey Smuzinick.

And these days they don't even see him. A friend recalls that Smuzinick used to put down his hammer at midday and speed into town for legendary lunches -"a dozen oysters, ten chicken wings (hot), fish sandwich (plain), and an order of French fries." Now, in a South Dade nursing home, the 32-year-old Pembroke Pines man is learning to drink pureed spaghetti through a straw.

Minutes after midnight on the morning of December 10, 1990, an intoxicated Smuzinick darted out in front of a Volvo on a residential street near Joe Robbie Stadium. The driver of the car, WSVN-TV Channel 7 anchorman Rick Sanchez, became the subject of a subsequent January 16 New Times story that described the odd circumstances of the accident. Sanchez, whom a Metro-Dade police officer said "smelled strongly of alcohol," first stopped his car but then later left the scene. A blood test to determine Sanchez's sobriety was not administered until an hour and fifteen minutes after the collision. Though Sanchez says he tried to aid Smuzinick at the scene of the accident and flag down motorists, eyewitnesses claim the anchorman ignored the injured man and loudly told police and bystanders that blood tests were pointless, and would hurt his public image.

Best known for his stint as a sometimes-melodramatic correspondent on Channel 7's "Crime Check," Sanchez continues his work on the station's evening and late newscasts while awaiting a September 13 court date on misdemeanor drunk-driving charges. Though the results of one test show the newsman's blood-alcohol level was .15 -slightly over the legal .10 limit - the test was performed after Sanchez left the scene of the accident. In January Sanchez told New Times he had consumed no alcohol the night of the accident. His attorney, Richard Essen, now says the anchorman returned home and had "a couple of drinks to calm his nerves" before returning to the scene. Essen doubts that Sanchez's DUI charge will ever come to trial. "I think the results of the blood tests will be thrown out," the lawyer says. "If the results of the blood tests are suppressed, then there is no evidence against him at all. The state cannot proceed."

Meanwhile, after two months in a coma, Smuzinick has regained consciousness and is making slow improvement. His right side remains largely paralyzed due to massive brain damage, but he can move his left arm and leg and sometimes hold his head upright. Using hand signals, he can answer yes or no to simple questions. Doctors last Friday removed a feeding tube from his trachea, and Smuzinick can now eat liquid foods. He has indicated that he hopes he can soon move from HealthSouth Regional Rehabilitation Center in Cutler Ridge to the town house in Pembroke Pines he purchased and finished remodeling shortly before the accident.

"The first eighteen months after an accident like this are crucial," says Dr. Kenneth Fischer, a neurologist who treated Smuzinick at North Shore Hospital until March 21. "Whether or not he will improve further is hard to say. It's very unlikely he will ever be able to function independently or converse spontaneously."

Though Smuzinick's health insurance policy covers most of his medical costs, it doesn't pay for rehabilitative care. Family members say unpaid bills for physical therapy now total about $81,000. To save money, they have removed Smuzinick from the clinic's head-injury program. Using videotapes to learn therapy techniques, friends, relatives, and former co-workers have begun to provide a semblance of the rehabilitation program they can't afford.

One friend of the family, Kelli Crist, has distributed flyers describing the accident involving Smuzinick and Sanchez. The flyers list Crist's phone number (680-2741) and request donations to help pay for treatment and therapy. So far the fund-raising effort has not gone well.

"Nobody seems to be interested," Crist says. "We must have passed out 5000 flyers in Miami alone. Yours was the first phone call I've received."

Smuzinick's fiancee, Jackie Stringhill, says it's just as well that Sanchez hasn't paid a visit to Smuzinick since the accident. "I guess his attitude bothers a lot of people. But we have enough to think about. We have our hands full. We don't really talk about the accident much any more. Anyway," she adds resignedly, "as far as Sanchez goes, what goes around comes around.

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