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    Months later, woman charged in fatality

    It took authorities 19 weeks, but Shanna Jane West is charged in the wreck that killed a Dade City woman.

    By RYAN DAVIS and BRADY DENNIS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001


    TAMPA -- It took more than four months, but 21-year-old Shanna Jane West, admittedly high on drugs the night she caused a fatal accident last year, is in jail on a manslaughter charge.

    Authorities say West of Brandon was high the night of Nov. 21, went to jail on DUI charges, posted bail and was released.

    Less than 12 hours later, again high on drugs, she swerved across the center line on U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes and slammed into a car carrying four people, authorities say.

    The accident killed 54-year-old humanitarian Barbara Mercer of Dade City.

    Florida Highway Patrol officials waited months to interview West, saying repeatedly they were waiting for blood test results to prove she was intoxicated.

    As a result, West remained free until Tuesday.

    "(She) doesn't seem to be conforming her conduct to anything that would seem to be law abiding," said Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for Pinellas-Pasco. "We figured we'd better do something."

    Authorities would not explain Wednesday why West was charged in the fatal accident without the drug test results that FHP long said it needed to wrap up the case. FHP officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

    And Assistant State Attorney Phil Van Allen said: "I have no way to comment on why it took (FHP) so long, so I'd rather not." The day after the fatal accident, West told the Times she needed help. More trouble followed.

    On Dec. 15, she was forced to surrender her driver's license. It was her 11th suspension since November 1997.

    On Feb. 2, West was in court on the DUI charge.

    She was given the standard sentence for a first-time DUI offender -- until the judge learned about the fatal accident, and that she had contradicted her testimony about completing a drug treatment clinic. She actually had dropped out.

    The judge set a new court date to re-evaluate her probation.

    On Feb. 18 -- 89 days after the fatal wreck -- FHP turned over its investigation to the state attorney's office, Van Allen said.

    It included blood tests that are incapable of testing for GHB, commonly known as a date rape drug, that West told the Times she was taking the night of the accident.

    Without such data, authorities couldn't prove she was intoxicated, FHP said.

    On March 6, West appeared at her rescheduled DUI court date, but she stormed out of the courtroom "in a rage," court documents stated.

    Two days later, a warrant for her arrest was issued on charges the she failed to appear in court.

    On March 22, the state attorney's office filed papers seeking a warrant for her arrest in connection with the fatal accident, Van Allen said.

    On Monday, Van Allen realized West was still at large and he called the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, urging the agency to do something, he said.

    Within 24 hours, West was arrested -- 19 weeks after the accident.

    Now prosecutors can begin their case against her.

    West was being held Wednesday evening at Orient Road Jail in Hillsborough County. Her bail was set at $7,500, Hillsborough Sheriff's deputies said.

    "That is a little concerning," Van Allen said.

    He said the bail was likely set without taking into consideration that she previously stormed out of court. He can, and likely will, seek to have the bail raised.

    The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office said she is only being held on the manslaughter culpable negligence charge. It has no record of a failure to appear charge.

    Once it gets blood test results from a local lab, the state attorney's office expects to change the charge to DUI manslaughter, Van Allen said.

    If she doesn't post bail first, West will be transported this week to Pasco County Jail in Land O'Lakes, a Pasco Sheriff's spokesman said.

    West, who had been working recently at a Tampa company that supplies candy and other goods for fundraisers, was arrested Tuesday at 1:52 p.m. at a 3132 W Lambright St. apartment in Tampa, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office said.

    She did not resist arrest.

    In Dade City, her incarceration came as good news to the Mercer family, now a father and his two boys.

    "I was concerned while she was out that she might have killed someone else," said Tony Mercer, 17. "We have forgiven her. I was just worried she might bring more victims into it, and I wouldn't wish on anybody to go through what we went through.

    "It's been pretty hard adjusting to not having a mother."

    Recent coverage

    Arrest in fatal crash proves elusive (March 15, 2001)

    Suspect in DUI treated lightly (February 2, 2001)

    Driver in fatal crash has license suspended (December 28, 2000)

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