TAMPA — More than three years after Robert Niedbalec was hurled from his bicycle by two cars going more than 90 mph on Fletcher Avenue, one of the people responsible for his death sat before a judge Friday and wept into shackled hands.
Lenoy Rivera asked Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles to go easy on him. He spoke of the guilt he has felt since the day Niedbalec died. His family members talked about what a good kid he was, how his role in the 52-year-old's death threw him into depression, how he spoke to portraits of the man he killed, begging him for forgiveness.
In the end, the judge spared little.
He ordered Rivera, 21, of Tampa, to serve 13 years in prison followed by two years of probation, close to the maximum he faced after his conviction last month for vehicular homicide.
"Dr. Niedbalec, by all accounts, was a wonderful man," Battles said. "To characterize this as anything less than absolutely senseless would be a mistake."
It happened Feb. 13, 2011. Niedbalec, a Polish immigrant, veterinarian and black-belt judo instructor, took his bicycle out that sunny Sunday afternoon from his home in Temple Terrace.
He was headed east about 2 p.m. in the bike lane on Fletcher Avenue near the University of South Florida's Riverfront Park when two cars came from behind.
Rivera sat behind the wheel of one of them, a Ford Five Hundred, as it weaved and tailgated another car. Witnesses told Hillsborough County detectives it looked as if the two were racing.
The Ford's airbag control module recorded a maximum speed of 92 mph just before it slammed into Niedbalec. He was thrown from the bike. He died instantly.
The other driver, who was later identified as Armando Perez Jr., 37, left the area, authorities said, but was quickly tracked down. After a lengthy investigation, Rivera and Perez were both charged in November 2011 with vehicular homicide. Perez, who also faces a charge of leaving the scene of an accident with death, is still awaiting trial.
On Friday, a parade of Rivera's extended family members stood with tears in their eyes and told Judge Battles what a caring, helpful, and intelligent person he is.
His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Dana Herce-Fulgueira, noted that doctors have diagnosed Rivera with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression as a result of the accident. In September 2013, she said, he was hospitalized after trying to take his own life with an overdose of Tylenol and amoxicillin.
"He feels that he should have been the one that died," she said.
But for all the remorse Rivera showed in court, and all the good things his family said about him, the facts of the case could not be overcome, said Assistant State Attorney Barbara Coleman.
Rivera did not have a driver's license and had been cited three times for traffic violations, Coleman noted. That, she said, made the fatal crash more than just an isolated incident.
There was also Rivera's initial claim to investigators that his girlfriend, 20-year-old Cristina Perenzuela, was the one who drove the car. Witnesses later refuted that assertion.
"A strong man does not let his girlfriend, someone he's supposed to care about, take responsibility for his actions," Coleman said.
Then there was Niedbalec's side. They were judo students, veterinary partners, friends, and his widow, Kathryn, and his daughter, Kate. They spoke of a man who loved people as much as he loved life. His brother, Jack Niedbalec, addressed Rivera directly.
"I would like to tell you, I know it wasn't intentional, but you have to suffer the consequences of your choices," he said. "You killed a great, great man, and I hope it will stay with you the rest of your life."