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Witness tells of wreck that killed 3

The trial gets under way for a 40-year-old man accused of causing an accident that left three University of South Florida students dead.

By SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


TAMPA -- On a clear fall night, Jennifer Gomes sat at a north Tampa intersection waiting for the light to change, about to become an unwitting witness to a horrifying scene.

Gomes and her mother, heading home after an evening at Seminole Bingo, idly waited in their car on Fletcher Avenue at Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Facing them directly across the intersection, a gray Pontiac Firebird waited, too.

When the light turned green, Gomes' always cautious mother, who was driving, hesitated before stepping on the gas.

But the gray car didn't.

That's when Gomes saw it off to the side: the big white Cadillac "flying" on Bruce B. Downs and into the intersection, smashing into the gray car, twisting metal and shattering glass.

Gomes was the first witness in the trial of Mitchell Houston James, 40. James, who has a previous DUI conviction, is accused of driving drunk in November 1999, running a red light and plowing into a car carrying four college students who were returning from a late-night run to McDonald's. He faces three counts of DUI-manslaughter.

Driver Leanna Dawson, 19, and passenger Majid Tahri, 20, were killed instantly. Jaclyn Ayala, 18, who lived in the University of South Florida's Gamma Hall dorm with her good friend Dawson, died at a hospital. A fourth student, David Sanders, suffered serious injuries and has told investigators his last memory was leaving McDonald's.

James, who suffered a broken leg and hip and head injuries, was found inside his 1979 Cadillac, bleeding on a 12-pack of Budweiser beer, according to prosecutor Paul Duval Johnson. One open beer bottle was on the floor and James later admitted he was intoxicated, Johnson said.

Tests later put James' blood alcohol level at nearly three times the limit at which a person is presumed to be impaired.

But James' assistant public defender, Dillon Vizcarra, said James' car was having brake problems and he sped up "to be able to get through the intersection."

The trial is expected to last through the week.

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