NEW PORT RICHEY — The state called Isabella Rossman to the stand Tuesday morning. Her mother held her hand as they walked into the courtroom.
"I'm going to sit right up front where you can see me," Danielle Malm leaned over and whispered to her daughter.
"Okay," said Isabella, who is 7 and in the first grade. When she got to the chair, she waved to her mother, sat forward and put her face near the microphone. She answered questions about the November evening when she played in a neighbor's front yard in Hudson and shared Rice Krispie treats with her sisters.
"How many sisters do you have?" Assistant State Attorney Chris Sprowls asked.
"Now I have two," Isabella said. "I used to have three."
Isabella, Delaney and Gabrielle were triplets. They were playing outside Nov. 5, 2010, with their older sister and a neighbor girl when Betty-Jo Tagerson lost control of her Jeep and drove into the crowd of children, killing Delaney. Tagerson, 40, is on trial this week for vehicular homicide and other charges. Tuesday marked an emotional day with the testimony of the surviving siblings — and Tagerson herself, who told jurors she had an anxiety attack and passed out behind the wheel.
Isabella said she was hit by the car but not hurt badly. Gabrielle hurt her leg and had to wear a cast for a long time, Isabella said.
"What about your sister Delaney?" Sprowls asked.
"I remember I saw her laying down on the grass," Isabella said. "She wouldn't breathe, but I remember somebody helping her breathe. But she still wouldn't breathe."
After she finished her testimony, Isabella ran toward her mother and grabbed her hand.
Tagerson began sobbing at the defense table.
Circuit Judge Michael Andrews told the jury to leave until Tagerson could compose herself.
"Will you be able to continue?" Andrews asked.
Tagerson pressed a tissue to her face. "I'll be fine," she said softly.
Gabrielle testified after Isabella. The girls wore matching outfits, little pink cardigans and cream-colored dresses with flowers. They wore earrings, something that is still new for them. They got their ears pierced as a birthday present. They turned 7 on Jan. 10. They brought flowers and a balloon for Delaney to a memorial site in their back yard.
Sprowls asked Gabrielle what she and the girls were doing on the evening her sister died.
"We were playing tag and we were making sand castles," Gabrielle said.
Gabrielle was severely hurt by the Jeep. She had two broken clavicles, a broken pelvis, several broken ribs, a broken right leg, a collapsed lung and internal bleeding. She was in the hospital for two weeks, much of that time in a medically induced coma.
She does not remember the crash. "All I saw," she said, "was a big black spot."
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Authorities say the crash happened because Tagerson argued with her boyfriend and stormed into her maroon Jeep, which had a faulty driver's side door that she tied shut with bungee cords, towels and shirts. Witnesses reported hearing the squealing of her tires before the crash.
On that evening, Sprowls said, Tagerson didn't take the time to tie her door shut. As she floored her Jeep out of her yard, he said, Tagerson began falling out of the vehicle, her foot still on the gas as she drove into the yard where the girls played.
"Put your foot all the way down," vehicle crash expert John Murdoch testified for the prosecution Tuesday. "That's the kind of acceleration I'm talking about. Maximum acceleration."
Murdoch estimated Tagerson was going more than 35 mph when she hit a parked pickup and the children before falling out of her vehicle. He said her driver's side door was open, and that was what hit Gabrielle. He said Delaney was hit by the front right side of the Jeep.
Murdoch said evidence shows Tagerson did attempt to brake before hitting the girls, but the Jeep's brakes were bad and its tires were bald so it didn't help. He said if Tagerson had worn her seat belt, she wouldn't have been fighting to stay inside the car, which could have prevented the tragedy.
"There would have been no loss of control in my opinion," Murdoch said.
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Betty-Jo Tagerson leaned on her walker as she made her way to the stand Tuesday afternoon. She is charged with vehicular homicide, culpable negligence manslaughter and two counts of reckless driving with serious injury. She faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted.
Up until Tuesday, she had declined to publicly tell her story.
"You didn't latch your door did you?" Sprowls asked.
"No," said Tagerson, who said she remembers nothing of the crash.
"Because you were angry," Sprowls said.
"I just wanted to leave," Tagerson said.
"You were mad," he said.
"You were mad at your boyfriend," he said.
"You were mad at the situation."
"You wanted to get out of there."
"You wanted to go and, as you said, clear your head," Sprowls said.
"Yes," Tagerson said.
"The fact of the matter is you wanted to get out of there as quickly as you could," Sprowls said.
"No," she said.
"But you slammed your foot on the gas," he said.
"I put my foot on it to go forward," she said, "and then I passed out."
Tagerson said she hyperventilated and lost consciousness. She said it was the first time it happened to her and her doctor said it was anxiety-related. Tagerson said she remembers not wearing her seat belt or latching her door shut. She said the latch had been broken for two weeks.
• • •
The triplets' mother, Danielle Malm, told jurors she marched over to Tagerson's house a few weeks before Delaney died. Malm said she saw Tagerson and other people who lived at the house speeding up and down their street "three or four times" one day.
"I went down there to her house to remind people that kids were playing in the yard and road and to be aware of the children," Malm said. "She was in her doorway when I was addressing the people at the house."
"Were you speaking softly?" Sprowls asked.
"No, I was loud," Malm testified. "I was yelling."
Malm said Tagerson appeared to hear her.
"She did make eye contact with me," Malm said. "We did not speak."
"Did she acknowledge you?" Sprowls asked.
"She nodded," Malm said.
The trial is expected to end today.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.