Campus tragedy: New details in UF student’s hit-and-run death as driver to be sentenced to prison this week
In the chill December night, in the earliest moments into the criminal investigation of a hit-and-run of a young University of Florida student who died crossing one of the busiest streets bordering campus, officers seemed perplexed trying to reconstruct the tragedy. How could this possibly have happened?
As the investigation unfolded, witnesses and the detritus from the last night of Maggie Paxton's life in college proved insightful. Her phone and wallet, including a fake ID, and a slice of pizza she was carrying on a paper plate were in the middle of the intersection at what police concluded was the point of impact. It was too far from any crosswalks and steps away from the most popular bars and restaurants near campus.
"The one thing I would say, the pizza," one officer said, shining a flashlight toward the middle of the intersection as his voice trailed off.
"I think she was walking diagonal to cut corners, and she got hit right about there," Officer Sarah Reeves said, as she snapped dozens of crime-scene photographs, in a conversation even before Paxton's shrouded body was removed from further down the roadway, according to newly released police video in the case.
"The witness said the light was green," another officer added, "so, either way she did not have the right of way."
"You're also 18 and probably intoxicated," Reeves said.
Seven months later, police arrested the mysterious driver, who already has pleaded no contest to killing Paxton and fleeing the scene that night – a tragedy that changed how Gainesville and the state’s flagship university serve pedestrians, with new speed humps and lowered speed limits around campus. Joshua Figueroa, 32, of Gainesville is expected to be sentenced to prison Wednesday on a felony charge of leaving an accident scene involving a death.
“There’s nothing that will bring our daughter back, and the time the coward spends in jail will hopefully be sufficient time for him to reflect on his actions and inactions,” Lisa Paxton of Jacksonville said in a statement. “Perhaps he will understand the enormity of taking another human life and have one ounce of empathy or human decency.”
The trial judge, Circuit Judge Phillip Pena, concluded at a hearing in April that the sentence prosecutors had proposed – four years in prison, 10 years of probation and the loss of his license for three years – does not appear to be enough. “This does not appear to be a minimum case,” Pena said, after talking to Paxton’s parents. The maximum sentence would be 30 years in prison.
“This is somewhat a little bit atypical, but I have a host of people on both sides that are hopeful and wanting to come to some closure and some resolution to the matter at hand,” said Pena, a University of Florida graduate, at the hearing. “From the court’s perspective, I have to get to a point where I believe that the resolution is just based on all of the facts and circumstances.”
Paxton’s life ended on the pavement that cold winter night in 2020 within sight of Florida’s iconic football stadium. The fate of the driver who killed her could become clear later this week.
A months-long investigation of the case has uncovered new facts never before reported. This article is based on reviews of about seven hours of newly disclosed police video and more than 300 pages of police and court records, along with interviews. Police turned over the video for $400 under Florida’s public records law.
It’s unclear how – or whether – the newly disclosed information may affect Figueroa’s prison sentence.
- Police investigating the crash concluded Paxton may have been illegally crossing University Avenue near the northwest corner of campus, cutting between two crosswalks and against the light. In a related civil lawsuit settled out of court earlier this year, Paxton’s parents said she was hit in a crosswalk, but Figueroa’s father said she was negligently crossing outside a crosswalk. No judge ever reconciled those claims.
- Police found a fake ID near Paxton’s body they said belonged to her, and Reeves, one of the first officers on the scene, said she “probably” was drunk. The state attorney’s office and medical examiner declined to release Paxton’s toxicology report, saying the criminal case against Figueroa hasn’t been resolved even though he has entered a plea and is awaiting sentencing. Paxton’s grieving family has declined to talk about the investigation.
- Police believe Figueroa was speeding, passing a slower vehicle when his 1995 BMW M3 struck Paxton in the intersection with such violence that she was carried on the car’s hood before she slid off and was dragged down the road, pulling off a shoe and sock found at the scene. Police believe he never hit his brakes. “He had to hit her really hard,” one officer said that night, his remarks captured on video.
- In the first-ever remarks heard from a key witness in the case, one of Figueroa's friends told police he talked to the driver 15 minutes after the crash. "He said he hit something, he didn't know what it was,” said the friend, Marc Painton. “He should have stopped." Neither of them called the police. Painton has repeatedly declined to talk about those conversations. “I have no comment, please stop bothering me,” Painton wrote in a text. The police video represents the first time the public can hear directly from one of the most important-but-reluctant witnesses in the criminal investigation.
- More than six months after the crash, after police tracked him down through phone records, Painton told officers that Figueroa drove the damaged BMW to a bar downtown where Painton worked after the crash, where the two talked. Figueroa was panicked, Painton said, and the car was visibly damaged on its passenger side. "He was like, ‘I don't know what I hit, I just panicked.’" Painton said he did not see blood on the car that police found. “I don't really want to know what happened,” he said. “I don't want to be involved.”
- When police arrested Figueroa nearly seven months after the crash – one day after police finally interviewed Painton at his home – he seemed surprised to hear he was being taken to the police station. "The detectives want to talk to you," an officer explained. Figueroa answered, "I’m just trying to understand what the hell’s going on." On the drive, in handcuffs, they did not discuss the crash or Paxton’s death.
- Damage to Figueroa’s BMW was so extensive that officers that night in vain followed a trail of leaking engine fluids for blocks beyond the scene trying to find the suspect car.
The investigation into Paxton's death – a high profile case that made headlines across the city – was notable for how quickly police identified the car that hit her and how long it took before they determined Figueroa was driving and arrested him.
The case was frustrated for days early in the investigation because Figueroa's father, Miguel, initially refused to let officers onto the grounds of his auto body shop where police could see through a fence that the damaged and bloodied BMW was parked among other cars on the lot.
Miguel Figueroa said he was advised not to discuss the investigation. His son’s attorney, Robert Rush, did not return emails and phone calls over weeks.
The first break in the investigation came quickly from a high tech surveillance system the city and university have spent millions of dollars building across the area. It is a network of scores of cameras that records the license plates of every passing vehicle and stores that information for three years. The cameras record each plate and also a wider-angle picture of each vehicle, allowing police to track when and where any vehicle may have been traveling. But the angle of the system's cameras means it can almost never see who is actually behind the wheel.
A witness in a white Toyota at the crash scene told police an older, dark-colored sedan had passed her through the intersection and hit Paxton then continued driving along University Avenue. She couldn't tell police more, and even mistakenly said the car was gray, not blue, and that it was a sedan, not a coupe.
Police examined surveillance video of the witness' car about a half-mile further east on the road, two minutes before the crash, and the city’s license-plate system had recorded a blue two-door BMW registered to Miguel Figueroa driving behind her.
That matched damaged car parts police found at the scene – a chrome grill bezel and fog light – and identified as coming off a BMW.
Within a day, Figueroa's BMW – which the city's surveillance network had photographed at least 51 times over the 19 days before the accident – had disappeared off the city's streets.
It was parked somewhere, but where?
Five days after the crash, on Dec. 15, police found the missing BMW on the property of Miguel Figueroa's auto shop. Police said they could see it through a chain fence wedged between other vehicles in what they said appeared to be an attempt to hide it. Miguel Figueroa told them to come back with a search warrant, which they obtained the same day. Police did not return until two days later to seize the BMW.
Lisa Paxton encouraged a boycott of Miguel Figueroa’s business.
“His parents are equally disgusting and inhumane for not coming forward with information for the seven long months we waited in agony to prove who was behind the wheel,” she said in a statement. “They are not being charged in the case, but they know they were involved.”
It wasn't until February 2021 – two months after the crash – that police requested Figueroa's cell phone records, which the service provider turned over about 30 days later, police said. Those phone logs listed everyone Figueroa called immediately after the accident.
By June 22, police Lt. Summer Kerkau was contacting those people and asking about conversations with Figueroa from six months earlier, according to the newly released police video.
She asked one man, identified on the call with Kerkau only as Dan, who talked to Figueroa by phone roughly two hours after that night's crash, whether he remembered what they discussed. The man sighed deeply.
"I, I mean, probably meeting out?" he answered. "Um, I don't know. I mean, you said December?"
A woman Kerkau referred to as Molly on the West Coast on another call also talked by phone and text to Figueroa hours after the crash. Kerkau asked her what they discussed.
"On December 9th of last year? Like 2020?" the woman said, the conversation captured on Kerkau's body camera video. "I'm not even sure if I was in the state, or not."
Police said Figueroa made one of his first phone calls within minutes of the crash to Painton, a local bartender who described himself to police as an occasional drinking buddy of Figueroa's. Officers interviewed him on the porch of his home June 30 – three months after they received the phone records tying Painton to the investigation – their body cameras recording the conversation.
"I want to be 100% honest with you – there was an incident," an officer told Painton. "A girl was hit by a car, Joshua was driving and he called you right after." The officer wanted to know what Figureoa told him.
Painton said Figueroa confessed he had hit "something or someone" crossing the street. Painton described his friend as panicked. He said he urged Figueroa to meet him at the downtown bar where he was working, where he examined Figueroa’s car that night and saw a small dent but no blood.
Painton told police he used to work at a sandwich shop on University Avenue less than a quarter-mile from the crash scene.
"During game days I would see drunk kids walk out in the street constantly," Painton said. "But he should’ve stopped."
Painton said Figueroa seemed sober that night but started drinking to calm himself down.
Painton told officers he told Figueroa he didn't want to hear more. Even after Paxton’s death was widely reported in Gainesville, Painton never notified authorities of Figueroa’s involvement in a crash.
"If you didn’t hit any person or anything, it doesn’t matter to me," Painton told police. "I don’t really keep up with the news, and I’m not big into social media and drama and all that stuff."
Police arrested Figueroa the following day at his aunt's home. He was asleep when police arrived in the afternoon and took him away in handcuffs without incident.
One of the officers apologized as he arrested him. "I'm sorry this kind of went crossways, you know what I mean?" the officer said.
"You guys aren’t doing anything wrong," Figueroa said. "I’m just trying to understand what the hell’s going on."
Paxton's family – who testified during the April court hearing – said they were angry that Figueroa remained on the lam for seven months and that people close to him frustrated the investigation into their daughter's death.
"He chose to run, hide and lie for seven months to conceal his felony," said James Paxton of Jacksonville while looking at Figueroa and his family members in the pews behind him.
A police spokesman, Graham Glover, said it wasn’t clear whether Paxton might have survived if Figueroa had stopped immediately, even though officers were at the scene within minutes.
“Somebody was hit, and somebody left and didn’t render aid. Who knows what could have happened if that individual would not have left the scene?” Glover said. He added: “He could have possibly saved Maggie Paxton’s life. Do not flee the scene of a crash – ever – under any circumstance.”
The newly released police video from the accident showed police then paramedics trying in vain to save Paxton as her life drained away on the road.
Officers nearby noted the intersection was poorly lit, especially considering how many college students walk across it every day and night. They noticed there was no evidence of braking or skid marks near Paxton's body, which they shrouded with a sheet after about 10 minutes of chest compressions.
Police were resolved in catching the mystery driver.
"We're looking for a murderer," an officer said.
Firefighters used a hose to erase evidence of Paxton's death from the road. As one officer began packing up to leave the scene, she opened her patrol car's door and "Silent Night" could be heard quietly playing on the radio.
"Truly he taught us to love one another," the song played. "His law is love and his gospel is peace."
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to support our students here.