NEW PORT RICHEY — On the evening of Nov. 5, 2010, Jonathon McGuffin was fixing a broken Christmas ornament when he heard squealing tires and a bang.
"And then a lot of screaming," McGuffin said Monday at the trial of Betty-Jo Tagerson, a 40-year-old woman who drove her Jeep into a group of children playing tag in a neighbor's yard. Five-year-old triplet Delaney Rossman was killed. Her sister Gabrielle Rossman was seriously injured.
McGuffin was the state's first witness. He is a sergeant at the Pasco County jail and lives near Tagerson in Country Club Estates in Hudson.
He described the scene. There was a little girl, Gabrielle, screaming in her mother's arms. Delaney wasn't moving. She appeared to have been pushed into the lawn by the force of the vehicle, he said. She was bloody.
"There were tire tracks on her left cheek," McGuffin testified. He said some adults were performing CPR on the little girl, and he took over the chest compressions.
As McGuffin described what he saw, the girls' mother, Danielle Malm, and her relatives pressed tissues to their faces.
Assistant medical examiner Dr. Laura Hair testified that Delaney died of skull fractures from blunt impact trauma to the head.
Tagerson faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted. She is charged with vehicular homicide, culpable negligence manslaughter and two counts of reckless driving with serious injury.
Tagerson was quiet in the courtroom Monday. Before jury selection began, Malm passed by Tagerson several times in the courtroom. Both women avoided eye contact.
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On that night in 2010, authorities say, Tagerson had a "heated argument" with her boyfriend in the front yard of her house at 12910 King Manor Ave. and "angrily got into her Jeep and rapidly drove out of her yard," according to her arrest report.
The Florida Highway Patrol estimates that, within the span of a few homes, the Jeep accelerated to at least 44 mph before Tagerson lost control.
Tagerson swerved left, jumped a curb, flattened a mailbox and careened into a neighbor's yard, authorities said. She hit a parked truck, then drove into a group of children, which included the triplets: Delaney, Gabrielle and Isabella Rossman, authorities said.
Tagerson was thrown from the Jeep, which kept rolling, driverless, back onto the street and crashed into the triplets' parents' van, which was parked in their driveway a few houses from the crash site.
Delaney was declared dead the next morning at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.
Gabrielle 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 spent in a medically induced coma.
The other girls — Isabella, older sister Victoria Morgan, 10, and a 9-year-old neighbor, Marissa Manuli — were scraped and bruised, but okay. Tagerson had minor injuries.
Assistant State Attorney Chris Sprowls said in his opening statement to the jury that Tagerson's faulty driver's side door contributed to the crash. He said she kept the door shut with a bungee cord. But that night, she was so angry with her boyfriend that she peeled out of the yard without shutting it, and, as she drove, she began falling out. As she drove into the yard where the children played, "her foot was on that pedal, and that pedal was all the way down," Sprowls said.
Defense attorney Dennis Watson acknowledged that what happened was a tragedy.
"There is no way to sugarcoat that," Watson said. "That is what happened."
But he said Sprowls was off with a few details.
"Ms. Tagerson was upset. She was getting away from the house," Watson said. "Ms. Tagerson got into her Jeep, and she hyperventilated.
"She lost consciousness, and she lost control of her Jeep."
Tagerson claimed previously in court that she suffered from chronic blackouts. She used a walker in court Monday.
Watson said Tagerson is likely to testify.
Malm said she plans to be in court for every minute of the trial.
"I want to get this over with," she said last week. "I'm ready to be done with it."
Gabrielle's injuries have healed, and she runs and plays with Isabella. The girls are in first grade, and they turned 7 on Jan. 10. They brought flowers and a balloon for Delaney to a memorial site in their back yard. The family now lives in Shady Hills. Malm and her children never went back to the Hudson house after the crash. Her family members moved their belongings out for them.
The girls will probably testify today. Malm said they've toured the courthouse and practiced sitting in the witness chair and speaking into the microphone. They are ready to have this chapter of their lives behind them. Malm isn't hoping to feel better after the trial, though. She said the pain of losing her daughter never goes away or lessens.
"You learn to live with it," she said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.