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DUI suspect had license despite judge's order

TAMPA — After William Edward Ham drove drunk and killed a woman, a judge sent him to prison for 10 years, told him not to drink alcohol and revoked his license for life.

But last year, one month after Ham was released from the Pompano Transit Center in Fort Lauderdale, the state of Florida issued him a driver's license.

And early Wednesday, a Tampa police officer came upon a Nissan Maxima that didn't move when a red light turned green. Behind the wheel, she found Ham, 31, either passed out or asleep and reeking of alcohol. His blood-alcohol content registered at 0.18 percent, more than double the level at which the state presumes a person impaired.

Ham, still serving probation for his prior DUI-manslaughter charge, was arrested on a new charge of driving under the influence and for violating the terms of his community supervision. He declined to be interviewed from jail, where he was being held without bail.

"I would love to see how he managed to get a valid driver's license," said Becky Gage, a victims' advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Hillsborough County. "If he did, how many others can? Unbelievable."

Asked late Wednesday afternoon to explain Ham's license situation, a spokeswoman for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said she would not be able to provide an immediate answer.

Ham was 20 when he slammed his Chevrolet Camaro into the back of Sandra Louise Allen's car, an older-model Camaro. Her car hit a power pole, and she died at the scene at Bloomingdale Avenue and Ivy Boulevard in Brandon.

A day earlier, Oct. 20, 1998, Allen had celebrated her 36th birthday.

Ham eventually pleaded guilty and left his punishment up to now-retired Hillsborough Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer. On May 7, 1999, she handed down a 10-year prison sentence to be followed by four years and seven months of probation. The sentence included a permanent revocation of Ham's driver's license, court records show.

Louise Armstrong, 81, remembers being in court that day. She told Ham that she would forgive him some day but couldn't right then. Not when her pain was so fresh from losing "Miss Priss," her pretty and prissy granddaughter who had worked as a secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections.

About six years passed before Armstrong truly felt forgiveness toward Ham, she said.

Then, on Wednesday, she learned that Ham had come to a stop at a red light at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Central Avenue in Tampa about 2:30 a.m. and that an officer had to tap him on his shoulder to rouse him.

When the officer asked for his license, he looked at her with bloodshot eyes and tried to hand her a wad of $20 bills, according to police records.

Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said the officer was "very surprised" when a records check showed that Ham's driver's license was valid. His state driving record indicates it was issued on Feb. 28, 2008.

"It's a very good possibility he would have hurt somebody if the officer hadn't rolled up behind him," she said. "What would have happened next? It's very, very scary to think about that."

Armstrong felt angry all over again Wednesday.

"I think (he) should rot in jail," she said.

Ham works as manager of Ascension Auto Service in Tampa. Driving and court records show that he has been found guilty of two traffic violations since his release from prison, one for a passenger without a seat belt and the other for an expired registration.

If a judge finds him guilty of violating his probation, he won't face substantial prison time.

The maximum punishment Ham faced when convicted of DUI-manslaughter, a second-degree felony, was 15 years of prison or probation. He already served just under nine years in prison and has one year of probation under his belt. So he could be sent back to prison to serve out the rest of his sentence.

Allen's family was grateful Ham was caught before someone else got hurt. Since her death, Allen's parents divorced, and her mother suffered a heart attack.

They didn't even know Ham had been released from prison when they got word of his latest arrest Wednesday.

"I'm mad and I'm angry and I'm hurt because it's bringing back all the bad memories," said her mother, Sandy Allen.

"My heart can't stand it."

Times staff writer Drew Harwell and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

DUI suspect had license despite judge's order 03/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 6, 2009 10:55am]
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