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Jury's verdict: Man guilty of DUI manslaughter

Peter Claps could now face decades in prison for slamming into a motorist trying to fix his car on the side of the road in 1999.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002

NEW PORT RICHEY -- A jury early Saturday convicted a 35-year-old Port Richey man of driving drunk on Easter 1999 and killing an elderly man who was standing behind his broken-down car on the side of U.S. 19 in Hudson.

After more than five hours of deliberation, the jury returned the guilty verdict against Peter Patrick Claps at 12:25 a.m. Saturday. The jury found Claps guilty of DUI manslaughter and seven other counts, including vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of a fatal crash.

The three-day trial included emotional testimony from the victim's wife, who was just feet from her husband when he was struck and killed, and a stunning accusation by Claps.

As she listened to a court clerk read the verdict, the victim's wife, Ines Picinich, lowered her head and clutched her daughter's hand. She did not smile or show any visible emotion. She seemed drained. It had been a long day at the end of a difficult week.

"I am relieved," said Mrs. Picinich, now 71. "Now my husband can rest in peace."

Claps will be sentenced at a later date. He faces the possibility of decades in prison. He has two prior DUI convictions, one in 1986 and another a year later. He also was convicted in 1998 of improper exhibition of a firearm for accidentally shooting his brother-in-law in the hand and throat during an argument.

The fatal crash occurred on April 4, 1999, just before midnight. John and Ines Picinich were headed back to their New Port Richey home after a night playing cards with friends. Driving south on U.S. 19, they were involved in a minor collision that left their white Ford Mustang with a flat tire.

Mr. Picinich went to the trunk for a jack and a spare tire. As he stood there, Claps' pickup, traveling 73 mph, struck him, crushing Mr. Picinich against the Mustang's trunk. Mr. Picinich, 69, was killed instantly.

Mrs. Picinich, who was standing beside the Mustang, was thrown 28 feet and knocked unconscious. When she awoke minutes later, she testified, she saw a single white tennis shoe and screamed, "Nino! Nino!" -- the nickname of her husband of 46 years.

Claps had a blood-alcohol level of 0.286 percent, more than three times the legal limit, tests showed. Florida law presumes impairment at a level of 0.08 percent or higher.

Claps took the stand in his own defense and admitted drinking as many as 12 beers on the day of the crash. But he said another man, whose name did not appear on any police reports or witness lists, was driving the pickup when it struck Mr. Picinich.

It was a stunning accusation. And nobody was as stunned as Keith Streid, the man accused by Claps of being the driver.

"I never drove his truck in my life," said Streid, 42, of Hudson after learning of the accusation from a St. Petersburg Times reporter. "This is out of the blue."

Said prosecutor Tom Stathopoulos: "Thankfully, the jury saw through (Claps') excuses. The Picinich family has waited long enough for justice."

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