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Shannon Stephen's double DUI manslaughter retrial begins in Pasco

NEW PORT RICHEY — Sarah Gleason and Joe Swiech were walking arm-in-arm when a truck came out of the blackness on Grand Boulevard and struck them both.

Swiech, 26, died instantly. Gleason, 24, was taken to a hospital where she later died. They had planned to marry.

Authorities charged Shannon Leyland Stephen with two counts of DUI manslaughter and leaving the scene of a crash involving death in the March 26, 2006, crash. They said his blood-alcohol level was three times the level at which Florida law presumes a driver is impaired.

Stephen, 38, of Holiday went to trial in 2008, but it ended with a deadlocked jury.

As his retrial got under way Tuesday, attorneys for both sides laid out their versions of the largely circumstantial case. Prosecutors said Stephen was out drinking that night with friends and insisted on driving himself home. Minutes after the crash, the victims' friends said they pulled a staggering, drunken Stephen from the driver's seat of his damaged truck about a mile from where the couple were hit.

But Stephen's attorney says the state can find no one who actually saw his client driving.

The first witness was Robert Bartlett, who was walking with Swiech and Gleason in the early morning darkness. He and the couple had been drinking at a bar after the Chasco Fiesta and decided not to drive home.

Bartlett had just finished talking to a friend on the phone about getting a ride home when the truck hit Gleason and Swiech.

"I went up to Joe first. He was dead instantly. I could see it in his face. He still had a smile on his face," Bartlett testified. "Sarah was still gasping for air. I tried to help her as best I could without moving her. There wasn't much I could do."

"Did the truck stop?" Assistant State Attorney Eric Rosario asked.

"No," he said. "He gassed it."

Rick Scott, the friend coming to give the three a ride, testified that he passed a damaged Chevrolet pickup at State Road 54 and Grand Boulevard. He saw someone get out of the driver's side, run and hide behind a utility box as approaching sirens grew louder. Scott continued on to Bartlett, who was frantically tending to his friends. When Bartlett described the vehicle that hit them, Scott said he put everything together and went back to look for the truck.

It was at the same intersection, sputtering to a stop.

"I got out, went around to the driver's door. It was locked," Scott said. "I told the guy inside to open it up."

Scott identified Stephen as the man he pulled out of the truck and said he was staggering and smelled of booze.

Was he the same person who had hidden behind the utility box? Rosario asked.

"By the physical shape and height, yes," Scott said.

In his cross-examination, Kenneth Foote, Stephen's attorney, asked Scott this: "As you sit here today you can't say that Shannon Stephen is the person who hit Sarah and Joseph?"

"Did I actually see him do it, is that what you're saying?" Scott replied.

"That's my question," Foote said.

"No," Scott answered.

Shannon Stephen's double DUI manslaughter retrial begins in Pasco 05/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 8:39pm]
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