Exclusive: Butler Co. coroner speaks out on his role in Hafford case

Exclusive: Butler Co. coroner speaks on his role in Hafford case
Heavenly Hafford died in a hit-and-run while walking in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. (Photo courtesy: Hafford family)
Heavenly Hafford died in a hit-and-run while walking in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. (Photo courtesy: Hafford family)

POPLAR BLUFF, MO (KFVS) - A county coroner is speaking out about his role in an investigation that has caught the attention of many.

On December 9, 2015, a 13-year-old girl died in a hit-and-run while walking on Highway PP and Maud Street in Poplar Bluff, Missouri at around 7:15 p.m.

"I am not pointing fingers at anyone else," Butler County Coroner Jim Akers said. "Everybody has a job to do. And I want the public to know that I did my job."

Akers doesn't normally speak about the death investigations he handles, which includes some 3,000 over the past eight years. However, the Heavenly Hafford case is different.

Poplar Bluff police arrested two drivers in connection with her hit and run death. However, only one driver now faces formal criminal charges.

Akers knows how people in Butler County feel. He's read the social media posts, some directed at him and the death investigation he conducted.

So Akers reached out, and agreed to show graphic and heart-breaking evidence in the Hafford case, evidence that led him to conclude exactly how the teenager died.

"I answer to the citizens of this county," he said. "They have hired me. And they are my boss."

So, Akers wants you to know why he did what he did, and didn't do in the Hafford case.

He begins with his decision to do a thorough external exam of Heavenly's injuries, but not conduct an internal autopsy.

"I called the child death review pathologist, and that is by law," he explained.

Akers said that expert did not recommend the invasive surgical exam, since it was clear the injuries that resulted in her death could be seen on the outside of her body.

"We will do them on every case this is needed, but I will not do them simply to do one," he said. "As a father, I will care for that person that is in this office's custody as if they were my own. And I will do everything necessary to determine what has caused the death, who has caused the death and the manner. But I will not overstep my legal ability to do so."

Poplar Bluff police arrested both Randel Sparks and Ben Ressel in connection to the deadly hit and run, accusing both drivers of leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident.

"I do not know, nor have I ever met, either of these gentlemen," Akers said of the two men arrested.

Police say Hafford was first struck by Sparks' Volkswagen Beetle as she crossed PP highway that December night.

They say Ressel's F-150 truck ran over her body moments later.

The coroner showed more than 100 photos he took of Heavenly's injuries over the course of three days.

As you look at every one of the photos, could you see the clear difference between injuries sustained by vehicle one and injuries sustained by vehicle two?

"Yes," Akers said.

The differences are striking.

He began with the injuries caused by the first vehicle.

"Knowing she was standing and knowing as it went and hit her and as she struck the ground, you can follow that damage along with the parts of her body," he said.

Those high-impact injuries are much different, he said, than the post-mortem injuries caused by the truck as her body laid across the roadway.

"It was fractures to her head and neck that were due to the impact of the first vehicle," he said.

Was she killed by that first vehicle?

"Yes," Akers answered.

And there's no doubt in your mind?

"Not at all," he said. "Every injury on her body caused by the second vehicle provides no sign of life."

Akers concluded his investigation in late December. In early January, he said he heard from Butler County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Barbour.

"The prosecutor's office asked me to prepare a report for them to submit to a special prosecutor," he said.

Were you told that directly by the prosecuting attorney or by a member of his staff?

"I spoke directly with the prosecutor," he said.

The prosecutor told you, 'I need you to prepare your report. I'm turning over this case to a special prosecutor?'

"Yes," he said.

Did you ask why, in this case, he would do that?

"No, I did not," he said.

Did you at that time have any knowledge as to why that would have come into play on this case?

"I did not," he answered.

Akers said that's the last contact he's had with the prosecutor's office on the Hafford case.

He said when this case is closed, all his work on it can and will be made public.

"At this point, it is a very sensitive situation to protect the Hafford family and to protect those who are still innocent until proven guilty," he said.

The decision not to file formal charges against Ben Ressel came from Prosecutor Kevin Barbour.

He told us over the phone that the evidence in the case following a reconstruction by the Missouri State Highway Patrol involving the second vehicle does not fit the elements of the offense, leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident.

By state statute, a driver commits that crime when the accident results in injury or death or damage to property of another person.

Barbour also said, he's acquainted with Ben Ressel, and did consider the need for a special prosecutor.

He does have up to three years to file a charge by statute and could not comment on the pending criminal case against Randel Sparks.

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