NEW PORT RICHEY — The girls know her name but they never say it: Betty-Jo Tagerson, the woman who killed their sister. But when Tagerson's guilty verdict was read in court Wednesday afternoon, the 7-year-old girls smiled.
Isabella, Gabrielle and Delaney Rossman were triplets. Delaney was killed when Tagerson lost control of her Jeep on Nov. 5, 2010, and careened into a neighbor's yard full of children playing tag. A doctor testified earlier this week that Delaney had tire marks on her face and her skull was crushed.
Tagerson "is done. She is going away," said the girls' mother, Danielle Malm, after Tagerson's guilty verdict. "She is not going to get away with what she did."
Tagerson faces up to 25 years in prison when she is sentenced. Her sentencing has not been scheduled. The six-member jury deliberated for less than four hours and found the 40-year-old Hudson woman guilty of all the charges she faced: vehicular homicide, culpable negligence manslaughter and two counts of reckless driving with serious injury. The first two charges cover the same crime, so one of them will be dropped at sentencing.
Tagerson kissed her family as she walked into the courtroom to hear her verdict. She wept as she heard the jury's decision and as she was led away. When Tagerson was first arrested on the charges, she spent less than a day in jail before being released on bail.
Tagerson argued with her boyfriend the night of the crash, stormed into her Jeep and floored it. She quickly lost control, jumped a curb, smashed a mailbox and began rolling toward the yard full of girls. She hit a parked truck and the children and then fell out of her open driver's side door, which had a broken latch. She testified she did not bother tying her door shut — as she usually did with a cord — and she didn't wear her seat belt.
An expert testified she would not have lost control of the car if she had been buckled in, because she wouldn't have been fighting to stay in the car.
Tagerson's defense was that she hyperventilated and passed out soon after driving out of her yard. She said she doesn't remember the crash.
"She may have lost consciousness when she was ejected and hit the pavement," Assistant State Attorney Chris Sprowls said during his closing argument. But Tagerson "was awake as she is right in this courtroom right now," Sprowls said, "struggling to stay inside her car, one hand on the wheel and her foot on the gas."
Medical experts for the state testified Tagerson never complained of blackouts until July 2011, eight months after the crash. Tagerson says she did.
During the three-day trial, there was no mention of whether Tagerson had drugs in her system, although the Florida Highway Patrol report on the crash said Tagerson had prescribed levels of oxycodone in her system that night.
Defense attorney Dennis Watson told the jury what happened was tragic. But "it is possible to have a death that is not a crime," he said.
He said the state did not prove the crash was not accidental.
"No one is able to say that Ms. Tagerson set out looking for a yard full of kids to drive through," Watson said.
Gabrielle and Isabella testified Tuesday and were in court again Wednesday, sitting snugly between relatives on the court benches, their little feet dangling, black ballet slippers falling off. Malm said they were nervous about testifying but they wanted to do it for Delaney. They still talk of their sister a lot. Since her death, they have learned how to ride a bike without training wheels. They have learned how to read and write and entered first grade. They turned 7 and got their ears pierced. After the verdict, they wanted to go to their new home in Shady Hills and have cake, which is what the family intended to do.
"This is what we were waiting for," Malm said of the verdict. She is glad to have this chapter of their lives behind them, but Malm does not hope for her pain to be eased. She said the loss of her daughter is constant.
"We wanted (Tagerson) to go to jail and she is," Malm said. "This is something we don't have to worry about anymore."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.