Early morning last Sept. 19, Joseph Eckert asked his girlfriend to borrow her truck so he could get food at a Denny’s.
When he didn’t return to her Tempe hotel room for six hours, she was upset and demanded to know where he had been. Eckert told her he was the victim of a hit-and-run and had to have her Ford Ranger towed back.
He told police the same thing.
They didn’t buy his story and slapped handcuffs on him, charging him with leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
Video footage of nearby convenience stores showed a vehicle matching the one Eckert drove near Alma School and Baseline roads, where witnesses saw a Ford Ranger swerve across two lanes, jump a curb, hit an electrical box and a pedestrian who later died.
Ten days after the man was killed, a Mesa detective who was working on the case was driving back from an unrelated call in Phoenix when he spotted a damaged truck that fit the description of the vehicle that killed an 81-year-old out for an early-morning walk.
When police interviewed Eckert’s girlfriend, she said she was suspicious of his story of being the victim of a hit-and-run: “I thought the damage to the vehicle looked like he had hit something instead of the story he was saying that someone struck him,” she told police.
When police challenged Eckert’s story, showing him there was no damage to the rear of the vehicle, where he said another driver rammed into him, “Joseph finally admitted to driving off the road and hitting a box.”
According to an officer’s report, “I asked if he knew he hit a person. Joseph seemed surprised and asked how the person was doing. I told him it was the worst possible outcome for someone. Joseph became emotional and began apologizing stating he only thought he hit the box.”
On Dec. 12, Eckert admitted to leaving the scene of a fatal collision. With no prior convictions, he was sentenced a month later to three years’ probation.
The relatively light charge and sentence came despite his admission to drug use before he killed the man.
According to the police report, Ekcert “admitted to taking fentanyl the night before the accident. Joseph said he has MRSA and showed us a large open wound on his right hip. He said he is in a lot of pain and takes the drugs to help with the pain.”
Because of the delay in finding Eckert, “That’s where we lose a manslaughter charge. If we can’t prove impairment, we don’t have a manslaughter,” Mesa Police Department Sgt. Greg Loewenhagen said.
“It doesn’t make me happy but we did what we could.”
Eckert may end up facing a stiffer sentence, as he apparently violated terms of the probation: On April 15, the day before his 45th birthday, Eckert’s probation was revoked and a warrant was issued for his arrest.