Missing driver's body found in Trout River

By Crystal Moyer, Morning assignment desk, backup traffic reporter, cmoyer@wjxt.com
Published On: Apr 14 2014 09:19:51 AM EDT
Updated On: Apr 15 2014 05:52:43 PM EDT

Vernon's wife says her husband was going to meet a friend Friday night to celebrate his birthday. His mother is in town from Washington DC, helping the rest of his family search, for her only child.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

Police confirm that the body of a man recovered from the Trout River early Monday morning is that of the driver who disappeared after his car was in a crash Friday night on the Mathews Bridge.

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The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said it found the wallet and ID of 39-year-old Vernon Stephens (pictured below) on the body. The Medical Examiner confirmed the identity Monday afternoon.

A fisherman spotted the body under the Interstate 95 bridge about 7:15 a.m., but swift current had moved the remains to an area off the 500 block of Maxwell Rod off Heckscher Drive before JSO and Jacksonville Fire-Rescue marine units could get to him.

"He had traveled quite a distance in the Trout River," Sgt. Jay Farhat said. "You know, sometimes with these currents, you just never know. But I have to agree it is quite a distance from the Mathews Bridge. But these things happen."

Police said Stephens' red Mitsubishi Galant broke down on the westbound side of the bridge Friday night, then was hit by another car. They said his car was found with the hood up, and another car slammed into the back of it.

Police, fire boats, the U.S. Coast Guard and other resources searched throughout the weekend, and Stephens' family joined the search on Sunday afternoon.

Henry Curtis According to a police report, the driver who struck Stephens' disabled car was identified as 31-year-old Henry Lee Curtis (pictured in booking photo from 2012 arrest on drug charges). Police estimate he was going 65 mph at the time. The speed limit is 45 mph.

Investigators still don't know how Stephens ended up in the water.

"“We don’t have a whole lot of details at this point in time, but we're doing our due diligence to determine how and why this happened," Farhat said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family."

Stephens was a father of two, and he and his wife were soon to celebrate their 11th wedding anniversary.

"What I need is answers," said Yvonne Golden, Stephens' mother. "This is my only child."

Curtis family said he wasn't at home Monday and didn't want to talk about the crash, but they don't think it was his fault.

An account has been set up for the Stephens family where contributions can be made to help support Vernon's wife and children with funeral costs, as well as any other financial needs. Click HERE to donate or find out more information about the fund.

Channel 4 learned that Curtis has 11 driving infractions over the past dozen years, plus arrests two arrests for possession of marijuana. JSO traffic homicide detectives are looking into this accident and whether Curtis will face any charges connected to Stephens' death.

Stephens' family is asking for donations to help support his wife and children with funeral costs, as well as any other financial needs. To donate, click here.

They issued this statement Tuesday:

"We are heartbroken at the untimely passing of Vernon resulting from a tragic vehicle accident which occurred the evening of April 11, 2014, on the Mathews Bridge. Vernon was a loving husband, father, son, brother, uncle, nephew and friend.

"We want to thank the Jacksonville Sherriff's Office, the US Coast Guard, and Jacksonville Fire and Rescue for their efforts in the search and discovery of our loved one.

"While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we ask that everyone kindly respect our privacy during this devastating time.

"In Vernon's memory, we encourage the community to continue his legacy by demonstrating the characteristics which he lived by -- 'To live fully, love freely, to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than ourselves. We thank you for your continued prayers during this time of bereavement.'"

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