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Street racer found guilty in 83-year-old woman's death

TAMPA — She staked her claim soon after he walked into the Ybor City restaurant where she worked as a waitress.

"I'll take the short one," she told a co-worker.

Two weeks later, they were married.

The 61-year love story of William and Vertis Ryan ended tragically on Feb. 11, 2007, when a man racing in a Nissan 350Z slammed into their car as the Ryans made a U-turn at Gibsonton and Kenda drives.

Vertis Ryan, 83, died on impact. Her children say first responders found her leaning against her husband's shoulder in the mangled car. William Ryan had serious injuries, but recovered.

On Wednesday, a Hillsborough County jury convicted Roger Lee Yeager, 39, of Gibsonton, of vehicular homicide, reckless driving and unlawful racing. He could get at least 15 years in prison when Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles sentences him next month.

Michael Anthony Smith, 23, the man charged with racing Yeager then leaving the scene of the accident, pleaded guilty to avoid a 30-year sentence. He received three years in prison and testified this week against Yeager.

Jurors reached their verdicts within three hours of deliberation. William Ryan never got to hear it. He died in August of heart failure at 87.

His children say he "technically died" two years ago with their mother.

"In so many ways, he shut down," said daughter Vicki Herndon.

William Ryan never left home after the crash, except for the occasional doctor's appointment. He refused to sleep in his bed, spending his nights in his wife's recliner.

Vertis Ryan had been sick with a cold the day she died and her husband decided to take her for a Sunday morning drive. She suggested going past their church to see how many people had shown up for service. They were making a U-turn at the same spot they made a U-turn twice a week on Sundays when Yeager slammed into them.

Sheriff's investigators estimated Yeager's speed at more than 100 mph as he raced Smith along eastbound Gibsonton Drive in the 45 mph zone. At the time of impact, authorities said Yeager had slowed to 63 mph.

Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley argued that what happened was nothing but a tragic accident.

"This was not the fast and the furious, two people racing down the road in the middle of the night. 'I'll beat you to 301,' " Spradley said. "Everyone would love to live in a word where tragic accidents don't happen."

She urged jurors to not base their decision on sympathy.

Assistant State Attorney Barbara Coleman reminded jurors during closing arguments that witnesses saw Yeager revving his engine at a traffic light and jumping forward as he waited for the signal to turn green.

"He was showing off," Coleman said.

Prosecutors used video surveillance from a carwash along Gibsonton Drive that captured the two cars racing.

Relatives called the Ryans a loving and devoted couple. She had called him "Shorty" since she first saw him in Ybor and the nickname stuck. Folks around town knew them as "Vert and Shorty."

He served in World War II and then got a job as a maintenance man. She stayed home to raise their four children.

"My parents were the salt of the earth," said Ron Ryan. "They were the kind of people that help make this earth great."

They helped start churches, though they never served in the ministry. They took in people in need. They lived by the Golden Rule.

Daughter Elaine Rimes became the primary caregiver of her father following the accident. She and other siblings took turns spending the night with their father so he was never alone.

Mike Ryan said they rallied around their father to let him know he was still Dad. They said he cherished the role as caregiver. The day he died, he'd asked his son Mike whether he had food at home to eat.

William Ryan lived long enough to learn of Smith's sentence.

"Even after the accident, Daddy said all I want is for justice to be done," Herndon said.

If it took three years in prison for Smith to learn a lesson, that was okay with Mr. Ryan, his children said.

"I have a choice to make in life now to be bitter or be better," Ron Ryan told the judge. "My parents took every situation and chose to be better. So we choose to be better and not bitter over this."

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Street racer found guilty in 83-year-old woman's death 10/14/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 15, 2009 1:02am]
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