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    Teen gets 15 years for DUI deaths

    At the sentencing hearing, the judge urges relatives of the three who died in the crash to let go of their bitterness.

    [Times photos: John Pendygraft]
    Dione Ortiz, left, mother of Ashley Rubera, weeps with family member Lily Tinker and Ortiz's niece Carissa Carr, 5, during the sentencing of Michael Jones. Rubera was one of three teens killed when a car driven by Jones crashed.

    By SUE CARLTON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2001


    TAMPA -- On a September night in 1999, Lori Crowell's daughter was one of four teens who piled into Michael Dale Jones' car before it screeched off into the darkness, headed for a party.

    Her daughter also was the only passenger to survive.

    photo
    Michael Jones gets a forgiving hug from Lori Crowell during the sentencing. Her daughter, Erin Kugler, survived the crash. Officials say Kugler fastened her seat belt at the last minute.
    Friday, Mrs. Crowell spoke to Jones in a courtroom packed with angry, tearful faces. Jones, who previously pleaded guilty to three counts of DUI-manslaughter, hung his head, awaiting his sentence.

    But Mrs. Crowell had no bitter words for him. None of the teens thought about consequences that night, she said, drawing angry whispers from the families of those who died.

    "I don't care how anybody feels about me for having this opinion," Mrs. Crowell said, as the voices grew louder and a bailiff called for order.

    Then she walked to Jones and embraced him. In jail clothes and handcuffs, he hugged her back.

    "You're not a murderer," she said.

    It was clear that many in the courtroom considered him to be just that.

    photo
    Suzette Berenguer comforts her daughter Jamie Berenguer after Jamie broke down during testimony in the sentencing hearing.
    After nearly four hours of testimony -- including poetry reading and shattered family members who had to be led out sobbing -- Circuit Judge Cynthia Holloway had her decision. Though most asked for a sentence within state guidelines of 31 years to life, the judge said she considered that Jones was only 17 at the time and that he had shown remorse. His fate: 15 years, plus five more on unrelated drug charges.

    Some gathered on behalf of those killed -- Ashley A. Rubera, 15, Jodee Suzanne Beam, 19, and Marc A. Berenguer, 19 -- reacted with anger.

    "Back door plea bargain is what happened here!" a man yelled from the back of the courtroom.

    The night of the crash, the teens were hanging out at the Three Lakes Mobile Home Park in Town 'N Country when Jones came by in his mother's 1990 black Acura about 1:30 a.m. Mrs. Crowell's daughter Erin Kugler, then 18, got in the passenger seat while Rubera, Beam and Berenguer climbed in back.

    Jones drove recklessly down Sheldon Road. The teens started screaming, begging him to stop.

    "Everyone knew what was going to happen," Kugler later told investigators. "Everyone was screaming, "Stop, please!' "

    "God d--- it, don't tell me how to drive!" he said, according to investigators.

    No one in the car was wearing a seat belt, but Kugler snapped hers on right before it happened. Jones lost control of the car. The Acura spun, slid, knocked down a wooden utility pole and then smashed into a second pole, this one concrete.

    Jones had a blood alcohol level of 0.12, according to testimony. The law presumes a person to be impaired at 0.08 or higher. He had marijuana in his blood as well.

    All three of the victims also had either alcohol or marijuana in their systems, autopsy reports stated.

    Friday, the judge watched a shadowy video of the wreckage and the bodies. She listened to more than a dozen witnesses who spoke of the proms, weddings and children the three would never have.

    A grandmother spoke of having to identify her granddaughter's lifeless body at the scene.

    Much of the day's testimony centered on the youngest victim, Rubera, her family's darling, a girl who loved dolphins and wanted to be a marine biologist.

    "I cannot wake up from this horror," said her mother Dione Ortiz. "I will never see my precious sugar plum fairy princess again."

    Jones stood to give a rambling apology, telling the families he was "sorry beyond belief." He pointed to his arm, and a tattoo bearing the names of the dead teens.

    "That tattoo is not a souvenir," said Jones, 19. "That's my heart."

    Many in the courtroom stared stonily back at him, while others wept. Rubera's family said Jones was no friend to their daughter, only an acquaintance. The tattoo showed his "audacity."

    "He didn't even spell Marc and Jodee's names correctly," said Rubera's stepfather, Michael Ortiz.

    Some called him a drug dealer, pointing to his arrest two months after the crash, when a sheriff's deputy accused him of having a fat marijuana cigar and 43 ecstasy pills.

    But his lawyer April Haughey spoke of Jones' embattled childhood and his father in prison.

    At the end, the judge spoke directly to the victims' families and urged them to stop the bitterness.

    "Don't discredit them (the victims) by living less than the best that you can live with your lives now," she said.

    - Sue Carlton can be reached at (813) 226-3346 or carlton@sptimes.com.

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