Man that triggered fatal crash near Ocala fined, has license suspended
(Ocala Star Banner) OCALA, Fla. – The driver of the black Ford F-250 pickup that swerved off Interstate 75 on May 3 and killed a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, a tow truck operator and a businessman standing on the side of the highway went to court on Monday in an unsuccessful bid to contest his traffic citation.
Troy Thomas Owens, 23, was adjudicated guilty and will have his license suspended for six months and must pay a $1,000 fine.
After listening to a half day of testimony from troopers who worked the fatal crash and motorists who testified about watching the truck and trailer driven by Owens travel at a high rate of speed and make several close-call lane changes, County Judge Thomas Thompson III found Owens guilty as charged of a civil citation for failing to use due care.
Thompson said he found reason to believe Owens was using “excessive speed” on the highway that rainy day, where visibility was limited, as he traveled south on I-75 and approached traffic slowing for an accident about one-third of a mile in front of him.
Trooper Chelsea Renee Richard, tow truck driver John W. Duggan and businessman George Phillips were on the side of the road in response to that crash.
Friends and family members of the victims said Monday they were disappointed that the sentence was all the law would allow.
“The laws need to be changed,” said Bonny Duggan, whose husband of almost 37 years, John, was killed. “It’s not fair.”
The day of the crash Richard, 30, arrived on the inside grassy median on I-75 southbound near the Belleview exit in response to a single-vehicle crash. Phillips, 55, arrived because his daughter was involved in the accident. Duggan came to tow the car.
As traffic backed up and cars slowed down, Owens, traveling in the left lane, came into contact with another car. His truck veered left into the median and struck the trooper’s vehicle, the crashed car and the tow truck.
An FHP investigation estimated Owens was going about 65 mph when he began to leave the roadway.
Owens took the stand and said he disagreed with a handful of state witnesses who described him before the accident as driving near or over the speed limit and swerving in and out of lanes.
“He wasn’t really in a position to drive carelessly, to swerve, to weave,” said Owens’ attorney, Pravesh Bobby Rumalla, in his opening statement to the court. He explained that on that day, Owens was trailering a U-Haul big enough to accommodate a car.
Rumalla also argued that his client was trying to get over from the left lane into the center lane when he saw the flashing lights so he could comply with the state’s “move over” law, but there was no space for him to squeeze in among the other drivers.
Rachel Satow, who was driving near the accident that day, testified there was space to move over.
Larry Taylor, who was traveling back from Gainesville that day, testified that Owens’ truck did not have a right turn signal on.
Owens’ younger brother, Tristian, who was in the truck with him, testified that his brother did signal.
“I know that because of the sound it makes in the truck,” he said on the witness stand.
The defense argued that Owens was planning to get off the interstate at the County Road 484 exit, and said it does not make sense that he would still be driving in the left lane at a high rate of speed when he needed to exit soon after the accident site from the right lane.
A main point made by the defense was that as Owens approached the traffic he began to slow down but his truck was hit on the front passenger side by John Lindecamp’s 2005 black Mercury Mariner.
Lindecamp testified that he saw the traffic and began to slow down but said his brakes locked, causing him to fishtail and possibly swerve out of his own lane a bit and into the left lane, where Owens was driving.
Owens said after he saw the stalled traffic he decreased his speed to the low 50s and had his turn signal on, but continued in the left lane as he passed about six or seven cars in the middle lane. When he came up near Lindecamp’s vehicle, Lindecamp hit him.
“(He) hit me pretty hard, enough to push me off the road into the state trooper’s vehicle,” Owens testified.
“We would point to the culprit in this case as John Lindecamp,” Rumalla said in his closing argument.
Before rendering his decision, Judge Thompson pointed out that between the truck and trailer, Owens’ vehicle weighed more than 10,000 pounds. He also took note of testimony from witness Amy Barco, who was trailering horses southbound on I-75 that day and said she watched Owens enter the highway around State Road 40 in Ocala.
She said as soon as Owens entered the roadway, he immediately got into the middle lane.
“He cut right in front of me,” she testified.
Barco estimated she was doing about 73 mph at the time and then slowed to avoid a different accident. She testified that the black truck sped ahead and she lost sight of it.
She said she saw the truck a few miles later on the side of the road with two men standing next to it.
The judge noted her testimony because, he said, in only a few miles time Owens had an accident of his own and was already out of the car, which would be consistent with the argument he was speeding.
Thompson’s voice became stern when he noted that FHP reconstruction experts showed that Owens was going 65 mph in the left lane, in a state with a move-over law, while a trooper was outside of a car with flashing lights.
He said whether Lindecamp or Owens caused the crash would be up to their own morals to determine, but before him was just the traffic citation case.
“Three people are dead because of the way individuals operated their vehicles,” Thompson said.
While Owens did not show remorse on the witness stand, Rumalla told the court during sentencing that his client regrets what happened.
Andrea Phillips, whose husband died in the crash, said she found it sad that Owens could not come to court and admit his actions and show remorse.
According to court records, this was the fifth time Owens was adjudicated guilty for a driving citation in recent years, including for unlawful speed and failing to drive in a single lane.