Kristien Rodriguez giggled with his lawyer. Flanked by his mother, he didn’t seem to have a care in the world. He didn’t seem upset that four of his friends were dead.
The 19-year-old sat in the dark corner of Courtroom J in the Lee County Justice Center on Thursday. He had his bushy brown hair pulled back in a pony tail. He wore a pair of faded baggy jeans and a T-shirt with the letters Evo-lut-ion stacked on top of each other.
One thing didn’t evolve. Rodriguez didn’t show any remorse for the fatal crash on Dec. 19, 2005.
“Do you have a problem?” Rodriguez lipped to me without a sound coming out of his mouth.
Yes, I had a problem.
We were only in traffic court.
Rodriguez deserved a tougher penalty for having a heavy foot. While driving at a high rate of speed south on U.S. 41 in San Carlos Park, Rodriguez lost control of his car. The passengers — his four friends — were ejected.
“The bodies were flying everywhere,” recalled Ken Craft, a witness to the wreck.
“There was a body in each lane,” said Jennifer Urbina, another witness.
“Three of them were dead when I arrived on the scene,” Florida Highway Patrol Cpl. Robert Crouch told Judge Leigh Frizzell Hayes.
With one turn of the wheel, four lives came to an abrupt and unexpected end. Rodriguez somehow survived both the accident and any stiff repercussions. He got a $1,000 fine, 120 hours of community service, 12 hours of driving school and a six-month suspended license.
That tragic night doesn’t appear to be a random act. Rodriguez’s driving record is proof. In the past three months, even after burying his friends, Rodriguez has been a terror on the road. He’s received two more speeding tickets and a careless driving citation, according to court records.
“The punishment isn’t enough,” FHP Cpl. J.E. Gissendaner told the judge about the other three traffic tickets. “Driving recklessly, killing four people obviously isn’t wake-up enough.”
But Hayes explained her hands were tied. There would be no manslaughter charges. There would be no prison time. That’s because FHP couldn’t prove that Rodriguez was willfully and wantonly driving recklessly. All Rodriguez could be charged with was speeding.
Gissendaner estimated Rodriguez was driving 82 mph in a 45 mph zone. And as the troopers explained, “this was a discounted” rate. The findings didn’t take into account the 600 pounds in the car or that Rodriguez hit a curb before running into a minivan in the northbound lane.
Hayes did slow Rodriguez down in the courtroom.
“I hope you take these next six months to reflect and become a better driver and a better person,” Hayes said. “These deaths have to mean something.”
Rodriguez nodded his head. He wiped his eyes. But not everyone thought the tears were genuine.
“I do some acting and that looked like an act,” said Urbina. “He certainly didn’t show any remorse.”
Rodriguez stormed out of the courtroom after learning of his punishment. He slammed the door. He caused a scene.
Outside the room, he sat on a bench with his head down. I asked him, “Kristien, Do you have any remorse for your actions?”
Instead of saying “yes” or maybe just “I’m sorry,” Rodriguez jumped to his feet. He pointed his finger and screamed, “Get away from me or I’ll (expletive) kick your ass.”
He then went on a belligerent rampage, running down the halls of the courthouse while continuing to yell, as troopers and witnesses watched in dismay.
Rodriguez showed he’s out of control and there is no stopping him. Six months without a license is only a hiccup in his life. He’ll be back on the road. He’ll continue his ways.
Next time, you or I or anyone on the road could be his victim.
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E-mail Tom Hanson at firstname.lastname@example.org.