NEW PORT RICHEY — Oknan Ziegler was leaving the Salvation Army store on U.S. 19 where she loved to shop on Jan. 19, 2007, when an oncoming car T-boned her Toyota, and she died.
Was her death an accident or a crime?
Authorities charged Justin Tanoff, who was 18 at the time, with vehicular homicide. His trial started Monday.
Assistant State Attorney Mike Kenny told jurors that Tanoff, who drove a white 1991 Honda Civic, had gotten into a high-speed battle with another driver whom he cut off in traffic. The two raced down U.S. 19, weaving in and out of cars.
"The traffic (wasn't) moving fast enough for the defendant," Kenny said.
Between the traffic signals at Darlington and Mile Stretch roads, Ziegler was pulling out of the Salvation Army parking lot, turning left to go north. Tanoff struck her on the driver's side, then he crashed into the car he'd been racing with, a black Honda.
Tanoff is guilty, Kenny argued, because of the choices he made: to drive recklessly, speed and "play a game to stay ahead at the cost of Mrs. Ziegler's life."
Kemba Lewis, Tanoff's public defender, didn't dispute that Tanoff was speeding.
But she said Ziegler failed to stop at the stop sign in the store parking lot and again before she pulled out into traffic.
In addition, Lewis said, Ziegler, 62, had 15 different kinds of medication in her system.
"This case is about a very, very unfortunate accident," Lewis said.
Three drivers on the road that day testified.
Tom Coyne said he was at a red light when he first noticed Tanoff's car, loud bass booming from its interior.
Then Coyne watched as Tanoff and the black car, driven by Aaron Kukla, then 20, raced each other down the highway. Coyne lost sight of them, until he saw a big white puff of smoke from the crash.
James Golding, who witnessed the impact, said Ziegler's car was like a magnet — as she was crossing lanes, the two speeding cars were changing lanes toward her.
"I don't think anybody saw anybody," Golding said.
Dwinell Ouellette was driving a semitrailer delivery truck, sitting high above the road. He, too, watched the crash unfold in front of him.
"I remember thinking like, the white car wasn't stopping, wasn't going to stop," he said. "This is going to be close, be an accident."
Kukla has already pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless driving from this incident, and was sentenced to six months' probation.
Tanoff faces a maximum of five years in prison.