PANAMA CITY – As friends and family members of a man killed in a hit-and-run crash earlier this year call for firm punishment, the man only recently identified in surveillance video as the driver has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for violating his probation from a previous traffic arrest, according to court records.
James Christopher Atwell, 32, appeared in court Thursday for a hearing in the case. He and Brittney Leigh Pippin, 26, were most recently arrested in June after Florida Highway Patrol arrived about 6:50 p.m. near County 2321 and Resota Beach Road to find that a 49-year-old pedestrian, Cleveland Long II, had been struck by a vehicle and left for dead. At the time, Atwell had been on probation for fleeing a police officer and was sentenced by Circuit Judge Michael Overstreet to 15 years in prison for violating the terms of his release.
Charges of leaving the scene of a crash with death, and accessory after the fact are still pending against Atwell and Pippin, respectively. A trial date has not been scheduled. Meanwhile, Overstreet has received several letters from friends and family of the victim asking for the maximum punishment for his death.
The victim’s son, Andrew Long, wrote the court to say that his father was killed while walking to a restaurant to meet with up for his birthday.
“I will never see my father’s smiling face again, my fishing partner, play basketball or have father and son conversation again,” Andrew Long wrote. “This has really hurt me deeply and I will forever remember father’s death every year of my birthday. My birthday will never be happy again.”
According to FHP reports, the crash happened about 6:50 p.m. May 31 on a stretch of Resota Beach Road in Southport. Long was walking on the westbound shoulder of the road, about 1,000 feet from the County Road 2321 intersection, while Atwell was driving a Ford F-150 westbound with Pippin in the passenger seat. Troopers said Atwell ran the F-150 off the roadway and clipped Cleveland with the front of the truck. Atwell and Pippin then allegedly fled the scene, FHP reported.
Long was rushed to the hospital but died from his injuries. Another driver who had just passed him walking on roadside saw the collision in his rear-view mirror. As that driver pulled over, he noted the description of the truck and the direction it headed as it fled the scene, FHP reported.
After collecting information from the witness, FHP and the Bay County Sheriff’s Office sought the vehicle described and located it on Kingswood Road at about 1 a.m. with considerable damage.
“There was damage to the front right portion,” troopers wrote. “The damage continued rearward, pushing the front right fender toward the front right passenger door, making it difficult to open the front right passenger door. The damage continued along the passenger lateral portion to the right rear passenger fender.”
The owner of the truck told authorities the truck had not been damaged before he let Pippin and Atwell take it to a gas station for cigarettes, FHP reported.
Pippin and Atwell were found later in the evening. Both claimed to have been inside a gas station when the truck was hit by a vehicle they could not identify, but they told troopers differing stories.
At the time of the crash, Atwell was on probation for a driving-related felony. He was arrested in December 2016 after he fled from an officer investigating a call of a reckless driver of a truck in Callaway. Atwell sped off when he saw the marked patrol car through a high-density residential neighborhood, forcing officers to terminate their pursuit out of concern for public safety. He pleaded no contest weeks later to attempting to elude at high speed and was sentenced to five years of probation, court records stated.