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What occurred that night a mystery to family

The case of an accident that killed a father and involved a car driven by a man who failed a sobriety test is closed.

By ANDREW MEACHAM
Published March 16, 2007


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It's an image she can't get out of her mind: David Heppner, her friend and ex-husband lying by the side of the road, his body broken by a drunken driver's SUV.

Helen Heppner-Petosky has relived the scene every day since June 18.

The man she married, the father of her child, died two months later of his injuries. The driver, Patrick LaPointe, is a free man who still teaches third grade in Apollo Beach.

While Heppner's death never made the news, Heppner-Petosky, 67, and her current husband, Jim Petosky, can't stop poring over accident reports.

Over and over, they ask themselves: What really happened that night on a dark stretch of Oakfield Drive in Brandon?

"It just blows my mind that the justice system allows something like this to happen," Heppner-Petosky said.

- - -

Helen and David met 40 years ago at Sea World in Ohio. She worked as a manager and he was the new food service director. He dressed well. He wore dark-framed glasses and had piercing blue eyes.

They had a two-story house with a swimming pool. They moved to Florida and took family trips to Disney World and Cypress Gardens.

David drove a souped-up Mustang and taught Chris Tarr, Helen's son from a previous marriage, how to ride a motorcycle.

"It was the family of the '70s, the way it was supposed to be," said Tarr, 42, of Mango.

The couple had one child together and divorced.

Helen married Jim Petosky several years ago. David remained a close friend of the couple and was a regular guest at holidays.

David, who had written a cookbook and directed food services at Busch Gardens, brought the food: Amaretto cheesecake, squash soup in pumpernickel bread bowls, game hens.

As the guests savored his dishes, David smiled and told jokes no one else understood.

Helen and Jim were in Fort Myers, about to board a boat to Key West, when they got a text message.

There has been an accident, Kathryn Heppner wrote to her mother. Come right away.

- - -

Heppner, 63 and retired, was a creature of habit. He frequently walked from his Plantation Oaks apartment to the teller machine at First Citrus Bank, then across Oakfield Drive to the post office.

"He made that trip every night," Tarr said.

But on that Sunday in June, something went wrong.

Patrick LaPointe, an Apollo Beach Elementary School teacher, was headed east on Oakfield Drive. At 9:53 p.m., according to witnesses, LaPointe's 2000 Jeep Cherokee swerved suddenly. When it came to a stop, Heppner lay in the street 60 feet away.

LaPointe, 27, failed a sobriety test, according to a police report. A breath test measured his blood-alcohol level at 0.17, more than twice the legal limit. Florida law presumes someone with a level of 0.08 is unable to safely drive a motor vehicle.

LaPointe and passenger Brooke Martin told deputies that Heppner had been lying on the road. Martin, also a teacher, said she tried to warn LaPointe that someone was in the road, an investigator reported.

LaPointe was charged with felony DUI with serious bodily injury. His attorney: prominent Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen.

It was Cohen who had once represented Jennifer Porter, a teacher who had avoided prison after killing two people and injuring two others in 2004

Heppner was flown to Tampa General Hospital with a broken collarbone, ribs, pelvis and vertebrae.

Detectives investigating the crash never got to interview Heppner. Family members describe him as unresponsive for weeks. He regained consciousness but spoke only once, asking Helen for a newspaper.

About 1 a.m. Aug. 25, Helen, Jim and Kathryn Heppner, a Brooksville veterinarian, sat by David's hospital bed as his breathing slowed.

"David, if you can hear me, squeeze my hand," Helen said.

"David, you are going to be okay."

They watched a digital readout of his pulse.

Sixty. Fifty. Forty.

- - -

After Heppner died, prosecutors could have increased LaPointe's charge to DUI manslaughter. Instead, they reduced it to a misdemeanor.

LaPointe pleaded guilty in September to driving under the influence and was sentenced to 12 months' probation and community service.

The reason, Assistant State Attorney Kim Seace said, is that she couldn't prove LaPointe caused the accident.

Investigators found no damage to the grille, hood or windshield of LaPointe's Jeep, supporting his claim that Heppner was already lying in the road, Seace said.

"We have to prove that the person did something in his driving behavior to cause or contribute to the accident," Seace said.

LaPointe could not be reached for comment.

Helen Heppner-Petosky and Jim Petosky didn't learn about the plea deal until it was over. They question the driver's account and wonder if hiring a high-profile law firm played a role in the outcome.

It was Cohen who engineered a plea deal for Porter, allowing the dance teacher to get probation and community service for two hit-and-run deaths.

"I don't understand how this man works his magic," Heppner-Petosky said.

Cohen bristled at the suggestion that LaPointe got off easily.

"This decedent was lying in the road," Cohen said. "He died as a result. It had nothing to do with our client."

Some of Heppner's friends and family find it hard not to second-guess the result. Jim and Helen Petosky have gone over all of the investigative records they can find.

On Tuesday, Jim again reviewed a crash diagram. He is going to Web sites, trying to calculate vehicle speeds and how long it should take a car to stop under normal circumstances.

The only person he trusts is David, Petosky said. But David isn't around.

"This is still in the background all the time," he said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at 661-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 15, 2007, 07:50:09]


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