Pasco judge weighs fate of driver in fatal 2009 crash

NEW PORT RICHEY — Friend after friend sat in the witness box Friday afternoon to tell Circuit Judge Michael Andrews how sad Theodore Papadopoulos has been since killing his buddy in a car crash. His mother and father and brother testified. They worry for him. He just isn't the same, they said.

He doesn't go fishing anymore, they said.

He cries.

He couldn't fully enjoy one Thanksgiving, thinking of his friend's two daughters, now without their father.

He has become quiet, instead of his usual brash, cocky, boisterous self.

He talks of wishing he could have died instead of his friend.

He lost so much weight his pants sagged.

"He said he couldn't eat, couldn't sleep," testified a friend, Don Emerson, at Papadopoulos' sentencing Friday. "He told me, 'You can't imagine what it's like to have a friend die like that.' "

At dusk on Aug. 29, 2009, Papadopoulos was speeding west on Green Key Road — somewhere between 59 and 86 mph, attorneys said — when he hit a curve, lost control of his red 1998 Chevrolet Corvette and hit an oncoming car. His friend, Ernest "Ernie" Baez, 57, of New Port Richey, was killed. The people in the other car, Joseph Moccia, then 18, and Brienna Lyerly, then 17, both had minor injuries. Papadopoulos had alcohol in his system, but it was not enough for a DUI charge, said Assistant State Attorney Eric Rosario. Papadopoulos suffered a collapsed lung, head trauma and was in the hospital for weeks after the crash. He was arrested in February 2011 and charged with vehicular homicide and reckless driving involving serious bodily injury. He was released on bail within hours.

Papadopoulos, now 41, pleaded guilty in May, leaving his sentence up to Andrews, who could give him up to 20 years in prison. Papadopoulos previously was sentenced to five years in prison for trafficking cocaine. He was released in 1999.

Papadopoulos, of Tampa, testified at the sentencing Friday that he decided to plead guilty to save Baez's two daughters, Ashley Baez and Amber Murphy, the trauma of going through a trial.

He spoke to them from the witness stand.

"Ashley, Amber, I am so truly sorry for the loss of your father," he said. "I wish I could bring him back today and replace my life with his."

The family had been upset that Papadopoulos never reached out to them after the crash. Papadopoulos said he didn't because he was ashamed. He felt so guilty, he said. He couldn't face Baez's family.

But Friday, in asking for leniency, he said he would do whatever it took to make things right again. He said he has opened a bank account for the two young women and plans to put money in it, if he's allowed to stay out of prison and keep his $52,000-a-year job as a contractor.

"I would do whatever you ask," Papadopoulos said to the women. "Whatever it takes to fill that void that I have taken from you."

He said he will also pay restitution to the other two victims of the crash.

His attorney, Jaime Garcia, asked Andrews to sentence Papadopoulos to 10 years of probation and, if he messed up just once, he would be sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Baez's daughters and sister were in court. They were too upset to testify and were not clear in what they wanted to happen to Papadopoulos. Andrews wanted some clarity. Ashley Baez walked to the podium, said her name and began crying.

"Take your time," Andrews told her.

"It's hard to relay emotion because there are so many different emotions," she said. "I don't feel that I am in a position to place judgment on someone's fate.

"I have a really hard time even forming an opinion."

"You don't want to make that type of a call," Andrews said.

She nodded.

"You're saying what you think is appropriate," Andrews said, "is what I think is appropriate."

"You're the judge," she said.

Andrews did not make a decision Friday. He is going to think about the case and make a final decision on July 3. He said the case barely rises to the level of a criminal charge.

"We cannot label this an intentional act," he said. "It's a stupid act."

The Baez daughters raced out of the courtroom quickly after Andrews adjourned for the day. Baez's sister, Betty Rocha, knows she wants Papadopoulos punished, but she's not sure in what way or for how long.

"I can't even talk about my brother," she said, beginning to cry.

Papadopoulos and his friends and family left the courtroom as a group, getting an extra few days together.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com.

Pasco judge weighs fate of driver in fatal 2009 crash 06/22/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 22, 2012 8:08pm]

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