PLANT CITY — When Tara McEntarffer and her boyfriend returned to her Valrico home after dinner that night, she found her son and about 10 other teenagers drinking beer.
The Bloomingdale High School students didn't hide the Natural Light they were drinking, and McEntarffer, 43, told them to leave.
Because she broke up the underage-drinking party when she got home, she and her boyfriend, Lamar Justice, aren't to blame for the Oct. 7, 2006, party where teens consumed alcohol before a deadly crash, a county judge ruled Friday.
After the party, eight teens squeezed into 17-year-old Tyler Clark's open-top Jeep. The Jeep hit a median on Bloomingdale Avenue and swerved off the road and into a tree. Tyler was pronounced dead at the scene. Seven others were injured.
Authorities said Tyler's consumption of alcohol was a contributing factor in the crash.
In July, the State Attorney's Office charged McEntarffer and Justice with misdemeanors, saying they were suspected of supplying alcohol to minors. The charge carried a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and $500 in fines. But the teens who testified Friday said they didn't receive beer from the couple.
County Judge Art McNeil acquitted both adults after a half-day trial. He based his decision on a 1995 Florida Supreme Court ruling that shields adults from liability if they terminate a party and order the guests to leave.
But that's not enough, said Assistant State Attorney Kimberly Low. She said McEntarffer and Justice should have made sure the teens got home safely.
"Did they offer to drive you home? Did they call cabs?" she asked witness Nicholas Baldwin, 19, who was at the party.
"No," he answered.
The five teens called to the stand told stories that were often conflicting.
Ryan Caldwell, 18, said he didn't remember seeing anyone inside the house. But the four other witnesses said people were inside and on the back porch. Baldwin said they left right after McEntarffer told them to go, but Morgan Blazek, 18, said they finished their cigarettes and beer.
Christopher Terlizzi, 17, who was in the Jeep when it crashed, said he never heard McEntarffer tell them to leave. He said he had a normal conversation with his friend's mom and soon after hopped into Tyler's Jeep to go to another party.
The teens who testified said they couldn't recall many details about that Saturday night. Some said they suffered head trauma.
But Ron Darrigo, the attorney for Tyler's estate, said the teens were hedging. He said the state might have heard different stories had it conducted depositions before the nonjury trial.
"They could have remembered what happened," he said.
Denise Clark, Tyler's mother, sat in the front row dabbing her eyes with a tissue as witnesses gave testimony about the party that her son attended shortly before he was killed.
An autopsy concluded that Tyler was driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent. State law presumes a driver is impaired at 0.08 percent and above. Because he was younger than 21, Tyler was not legally allowed to have alcohol.
The crash never came up during the trial, save one slip from Assistant State Attorney Low. Judge McNeil said he didn't want the events after the party to influence his decision.
Still, the questions about how the night began — with quarts of beer and 12-packs of Natural Light — brought together many of the teens who were in the Jeep, some still bearing scars.
Several have kept in touch; others haven't. But outside the courtroom, they smiled at and talked to one another. After the trial, several left together, saying they were happy with the outcome.
Though the criminal trial is over, Denise Clark hasn't given up. She plans to lobby for a change in the state's statute on open house parties.
The statute has been interpreted by a lower court to mean that adults should take steps to ensure that minors get home safely, but the Florida Supreme Court disagreed with that interpretation. Now it's up to legislators to change the statute, said Darrigo, the Clarks' attorney.
The teens who were in the Jeep and their families have not filed civil complaints, but they'll come, Darrigo said. Some of the victims' parents were planning to file lawsuits against McEntarffer and Justice, he said, but that will be harder for the witnesses who said the couple broke up the party when they returned home.
"They're kind of locked into what they said," he said.
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.