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Prosecutor: Driver told varied stories

Jose Luis Espinoza is on trial in the crash that killed the mayor's bodyguard last year.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published January 31, 2007


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TAMPA - When sheriff's deputies arrived to investigate the crash that killed Mayor Pam Iorio's bodyguard last year, the driver of the car at fault had disappeared.

Deputies found Jose Luis Espinoza about 1 1/2 hours later, crouching beneath a dock in a nearby mobile home park, prosecutor Kim Seace said Tuesday.

She was telling jurors how Espinoza, 36, came to be in court, on trial for DUI-manslaughter, vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of a fatal crash and driving without a valid driver's license. She said he initially denied being involved in the accident.

"I know nothing about a crash," he told deputies, Seace said.

Then he said his head hurt. A deputy asked why.

"Because I was in a crash," Espinoza told him.

It was the first of several versions he would give investigators in the hours after the Feb. 25 crash at the Gibsonton Drive intersection just off Interstate 75, Seace said.

A red 1996 Pontiac Grand Prix ran a red light about 11:40 a.m., slamming into the driver's side door of Tampa police Detective Juan Serrano. The 17-year Tampa police veteran was driving home in his city-issued Ford Taurus after spending the morning with the mayor at the Gasparilla Distance Classic race.

Witnesses testified Tuesday that they saw two men exit the Grand Prix and head toward the nearby mangroves. After a police dog led investigators to Espinoza, he said he had been sleeping in the passenger's seat and did not know the driver, Seace said.

Then investigators learned the Grand Prix was registered to Espinoza, who had a driver's license from his native Mexico but was not authorized to drive in the United States.

Tests showed that Espinoza's blood alcohol level was 0.16, twice the level at which Florida law presumes a driver is impaired.

Brief fireworks interrupted opening statements Tuesday. Assistant Public Defender Anthony Candela argued that the prosecutor's last-minute request for an expert to extrapolate Espinoza's blood alcohol level at the time of the crash "harpooned" his defense.

Seace said she was entitled to continue her investigation, even after a jury had been seated Monday, and noted that Candela could have performed similar calculations.

Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta allowed the information to be presented to jurors but did not hide his displeasure about the prosecutor's timing.

"This was a violation of discovery, a substantial violation of discovery," the judge said.

Candela told jurors that the state could not prove how much alcohol was in his client's system at the time of the accident or whether it contributed to the crash. He did not dispute Espinoza's final version of events to investigators. According to Seace, Espinoza said he was driving and thought he had a green light but admitted being distracted as he put a CD into the portable CD player sitting on his dashboard.

DNA samples taken from the Grand Prix's air bags bolstered the prosecution's contention that Espinoza drove the car.

Espinoza told investigators he tried to brake. Witnesses testified Tuesday that they never saw his car slow down.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 31, 2007, 01:49:01]


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