Exhausted, a suspect in the drunken driving deaths of three, takes a bus to Tampa and turns himself in.
By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 21, 2002
TAMPA -- In June 2001, Joseph Safrany vanished.
He was awaiting trial on multiple manslaughter charges, accused of being the drunken driver who plowed into a Honda early one morning on a Town 'N Country road. Three young men, two of them Air Force officers, were killed. A fourth was severely injured.
For Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Jason Connell, the homicide investigator assigned to the case, Safrany's disappearance would be the start of a 15-month, cross-country pursuit.
He interviewed more than 100 of Safrany's drinking buddies. He sifted through bags of Safrany's trash. For months, he worked on the case in his off hours, without pay.
Justice came Thursday night.
That's when Connell stood face-to-face with Safrany in the booking room at the Hillsborough County jail. The first thing he did was shake the fugitive's hand; Safrany had turned himself in, and Connell respected that.
Connell then looked into the eyes of the man he had been chasing for 15 months.
"Are you tired?" he asked.
"Exhausted," Safrany replied. "You?"
"I'm beat," the detective said. "It's just been a long time."
At 3:15 a.m. on April 7, 2000, Safrany was driving his 1993 Cadillac on Sheldon Road. Authorities said he was going 73 mph when he hit a 1998 Honda Civic driven by Troy D. Call, 24.
Call had three passengers in the car: Brandon Smith, 19; Shawn Falla, 20; and his brother, Robert Falla, 23. The Honda was hit so hard that it rolled 140 feet. Call, Smith and Robert Falla were airmen stationed at MacDill Air Force Base.
The four were turning into their apartment complex after a night in Ybor City. Only Robert Falla survived. The drivers of both cars had been drinking, authorities said.
Safrany, 37, had a history of drinking and driving. Officers involved with the case describe him as a "party animal," a man who used drugs and alcohol, often to excess.
Safrany's criminal record included charges of driving under the influence and driving with a suspended or revoked license, disorderly conduct and cocaine possession.
But after he was arrested for the crash, Safrany's $250,000 bail was reduced to $55,000, to the dismay of the families. He posted bail and was released.
In 2001, about a year after the crash, Safrany's case did not look promising, Connell said.
In late May, Safrany threw himself a big birthday bash, complete with limousines to shuttle his friends to different clubs.
Then he disappeared.
"Originally, I thought he may have killed himself," Connell said. "But what he basically did was walk out of his life."
To find Safrany, Connell enlisted the help of Tampa FBI Agent Carl Cuneo.
Together, they scoured the United States: Connell worked the local angle, interviewing Safrany's relatives and friends and numerous girlfriends. Cuneo worked with his national contacts.
"I don't hunt fugitives," Connell said. "I'm an accident reconstructionist."
During the 15 months Safrany was on the lam, Connell talked to the victims' families at least once a week.
"He told me that he would never give up," said Beverly Falla, the mother of two of the victims.
A break came Saturday when Safrany's case was featured on Fox's America's Most Wanted TV show. Cuneo and Connell had pestered the program to highlight the case, and once it did, tips came in almost immediately.
Safrany was living in Philadelphia and working as a telemarketer, a tipster said. Also, Safrany was using a different name: Joe Brown.
But Safrany also watched the program. By the time FBI agents in Philadelphia went to his office, he had quit and fled.
Agents discovered he had boarded a train headed west. They searched the train in Albuquerque. Safrany had gotten off at the previous stop.
Connell feared he was headed to Mexico or South America.
But tips kept coming in. Agents learned he was in Chicago, even pinpointing the hotel room that he stayed in while calling a friend for advice. But when agents arrived, Safrany had checked out.
"We were hours behind him," said Connell, who was back in Tampa, following the case. "We were always just a little behind."
But Safrany didn't intend to run forever.
He took a Greyhound bus to Tampa and got off at 7:23 p.m. Thursday. Then, authorities said, he walked up to a pay phone and dialed 911, saying he wanted to turn himself in on some warrants.
Safrany said he would be standing in front of the bus station, smoking a cigarette.
Tampa officer Bonnie M. Elliott responded.
"He seemed humble and very upset, to be honest with you," Elliott said. "Extremely cooperative and polite."
Elliott asked him why he was turning himself in.
It was the right thing to do, he said.
"I was on America's Most Wanted," Safrany said. "I saw it."
Elliott drove him to the county jail. Safrany emptied his pockets in the booking room.
From his right pocket he pulled out a small, ivory angel, encased in glass.
He kissed the angel, and put it in his backpack for the officers to take away.
When Connell heard the news, he drove to the jail. He wanted to find out what Safrany had been doing all this time, if his life matched what Connell had surmised during his detective work.
"I spent two years doing this and I wanted to see where I had missed," Connell said.
Safrany was charged with being a fugitive to avoid flight, three counts of DUI manslaughter, three counts of vehicular manslaughter, three counts of DUI property damage or injury and DUI with serious bodily injury. He is being held at the Hillsborough jail without bail.
Connell called the victims' families after confirming that Safrany was in jail.
For Beverly Falla, the news was bittersweet. Her son Shawn died in the crash, and her other son, Robert, was the sole survivor in the Honda. Robert suffers from nerve and leg damage.
On Friday morning, Falla was trying to get ready for work when she saw a television news clip of Safrany's capture. And for the first time, she also saw videotape of the Honda and the crash scene.
"God, how did my son get out of that alive," she said, weeping. "He's my miracle boy."
Falla and her family have had a hard time coming to grips with Shawn's death. Falla has joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She is furious that Safrany was driving when he had prior arrests, and even more livid that his bail was lowered after the wreck.
"I'm very happy that he is apprehended, and I'm sorry that they had to wait so long to get this man in jail," she said. "I just prayed for this to come. But it has opened a lot of wounds for me."
-Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.