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Widow seeks closure at trial

After nearly three years and six delays, the DUI trial begins this week for a Port Richey man with two prior DUI convictions.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002


NEW PORT RICHEY -- The first wreck that day, a minor one, left John and Ines Picinich with a flat tire. Mrs. Picinich, who was driving, pulled the Ford Mustang onto the shoulder of U.S. 19 in Hudson. Mr. Picinich went to the trunk to get a spare tire.

It was Easter 1999, just before midnight. The Piciniches had just left a friend's house, where they spent the evening playing cards and singing. On the way to their New Port Richey home, a car making a U-turn on U.S. 19 had clipped the couple's Mustang. Now they waited on the side of U.S. 19 near Oakley Avenue for authorities to arrive and investigate the accident.

The inconvenience of a disabled car turned out to be a prelude to tragedy.

As Mr. Picinich stood behind his broken-down car, a pickup rumbled up from behind, veered into the shoulder and struck the 69-year-old retired boat builder, crushing him against the Mustang's trunk, authorities said. Mr. Picinich was pronounced dead at the scene. A 46-year marriage was over, destroyed, authorities say, by a drunken driver.

This week, the driver of the pickup is scheduled to stand trial in a New Port Richey courtroom. Peter Patrick Claps, 35, of Port Richey is charged with driving under the influence manslaughter. A conviction could bring a 15-year prison sentence.

Mrs. Picinich, now 71, has waited nearly three years for this moment, enduring one delay after another in a case that has now been set for trial six times.

"Two years and eight months," she said without hesitation Monday. "It's been going on much too long. Nothing is going to bring my husband back, but I want closure."

Mrs. Picinich was standing beside the Mustang when her husband was struck and killed. She remembers seeing the pickup coming at them, remembers the terrible sound of scraping metal. The next few moments of April 4, 1999, are gone from her memory, she said. The force of the collision knocked her to the ground, and she briefly lost consciousness.

Mrs. Picinich said she is a forgiving woman by nature. But she has not been able to forgive Claps, a man with two prior DUI convictions, one in 1986 and another a year later.

"We all make mistakes," Mrs. Picinich said. "If this was the first time, I wouldn't be so angry with him."

Florida law presumes impairment when a driver's blood-alcohol level is 0.08 percent or higher. Prosecutors say Claps' blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported that samples taken at the scene showed Claps' blood-alcohol level was at least 0.286 percent.

Authorities said Claps fled from the crash site and hid behind a shed on the west side of U.S. 19. A police dog eventually hunted him down.

Claps, who is free on $35,000 bail, did not return a call Monday seeking comment. His attorney, Robert Ford of Tampa, also could not be reached.

Claps is no stranger to a courtroom. In addition to his prior DUIs, he stood trial in 1998 for aggravated battery. Authorities said he accidentally shot his brother-in-law in the hand and throat during an argument. A jury found him guilty of a lesser charge, improper exhibition of a firearm, a misdemeanor.

-- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1 (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com.

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