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With one student dead and another critically injured, University of Tampa holds vigil in wake of hit-and-run crash

TAMPA — Two hundred people held candles in silence Monday night at the University of Tampa, in memory of Erik V. Nicoletti, the 20-year-old film student from New York who died after being struck by a hit-and-run driver early Saturday morning.

His mother, father and younger sister held each other as the family of the girl run down in the same accident stood with them for support. Cree Riley, 19, couldn't make it to the vigil. She remained at Tampa General Hospital in critical but stable condition, with bones broken up and down the right side of her body and a jaw requiring surgery.

After everyone blew out their candles, Nicoletti's friends introduced themselves with hugs, tears and stories.

"He's got a lot of friends here," said the father, Jose Nicoletti, who said he would always remember playing catch and fishing with his son. He said his son, who had been on life support, was an organ donor.

When asked about his feelings toward the man who admitted to leaving the scene of the crash, Nicoletti said he would let the justice system do its job. He added, "We're very, very angry."

Across town, 27-year-old Andres Trujillo spent the night in Orient Road Jail without bail, held on an upgraded charge of leaving the scene of an accident with death, plus hit-and-run and violation of probation charges.

Kelsie Cubit, 19, says she was just five steps ahead of her friends Saturday, and heard a crash. Thinking a car had hit a box, she said she turned and witnessed something she has replayed again and again in her mind:

Her friends, flying.

"There were no screams. There were no screeches. By the time I ran to my friends," Cubit said, "the car was gone."

• • •

Riley, a softball player, aspiring firefighter and engineering student at Penn State, flew into Tampa at 5 p.m. Friday to spend the weekend with Cubit. They celebrated a friend's 21st birthday that night. Early Saturday morning, they decided to walk to the nearby Metro Food Mart.

Nicoletti joined them.

This is what police say happened at 1:13 a.m.:

Trujillo was driving west on Kennedy at North Boulevard. Nicoletti and Riley were either standing on the sidewalk or already crossing the street when they were hit — police are still working to determine which. Trujillo fled.

A short time after Riley and Nicoletti were taken to the hospital, sheriff's deputies reported an abandoned, beige 1993 Chrysler New Yorker with a caved-in windshield in a ditch on N. Dale Mabry and Lambright Street, its front end smeared with blood and hair.

They traced it to Trujillo, a sous chef at Pizzaiolo Bavaro with multiple arrests since 2003 on charges including disorderly intoxication, aggravated battery, driving without a valid license and fraudulent use of a credit card.

Detectives impounded the car and tracked down Trujillo's family. They said his relatives, especially his grandmother, pressured him to turn himself in. At 5 p.m. Sunday, he surrendered. He told police he took his eyes off the road for a split second while reaching to pick up a lit cigarette he dropped. He said he thought he'd hit a small car or a motorcycle. He said he panicked, and that he was sorry.

But Cubit, who stayed by with her friends as help came, said she doesn't believe his cigarette story. He might have run because he had something to hide.

"He'd better go to jail for life," Cubit said. "That's what he deserves.''

• • •

Before authorities had officially announced Erik Nicoletti's death, his friends created a group on Facebook to remember him. More than 600 joined. They posted dozens of photos of him — at his high school graduation, goofing off with his friends, in France with his classmates after he was chosen to attend the Cannes Film Festival. Among juniors and seniors, he stood out as the only sophomore that went.

They remembered the first day of kindergarten, the Halloweens, playing Power Rangers and Mighty Max. Chemistry class and working at Hollister. A really deep conversation in Cannes.

They wrote messages as if they were speaking to him.

Cait Walsh wrote, "visit me soon I really need you."

Jessica Lynn Miller told the Times she'd known Nicoletti since childhood, when they spent summers together in Massachusetts with other friends. They'd go swimming, fishing, play board games, truth-or-dare and spin the bottle. He liked sports, especially basketball. He smiled a lot.

"In his short time here," she said, "he made a huge impact on everyone he ever knew."

Tom Garrett, an associate professor in the school's department of communications, cried the entire day he heard about the crash. Garret was his adviser. He said Nicoletti admired clever dramas like Pulp Fiction, The Departed, Children of Men and American Beauty. He posted the movie titles on his Facebook page.

"He was a just a good kid," Garrett said, "very selfless and always respectful and humble."

This marks the second tragedy that the school has endured this year. In August, a gunman killed senior Ryan McCall during a robbery.

Bob Ruday, the university's dean of students, said it's been difficult figuring out what to tell students regarding this tragedy. Normally when a student is injured, school officials would send out safety reminders. But in the instance of a hit-and-run involving a pedestrian, it's hard to know what to say.

The intersection of W Kennedy Boulevard and N Boulevard is known for not giving pedestrians enough time to cross the street, said Kyle Miller, a 23-year-old University of Tampa student.

"When you see the light for the "go-ahead," we make sure we run across," he said. "For that reason we don't venture over here that much."

The school sent out an alert to students, faculty members and staffers Monday about the accident and safety measures to take while on campus.

The mood on UT's campus Monday was somber. Students and faculty members were rare, as the majority had already left for Thanksgiving break. Flowers marked the scene of the crash. A counselor urged those who remained to talk through their grief.

Nicoletti's friends got memorial tattoos.

And in the hospital, Cree Riley spoke to her mother, Linda Gordon. She couldn't remember the accident, she told her mother. She asked if it was her fault. Then, she asked about the boy she'd met on Friday — was he okay?

Her mother didn't want to say.

Times staff writer Emily Nipps contributed to this story. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

With one student dead and another critically injured, University of Tampa holds vigil in wake of hit-and-run crash 11/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 12:17am]
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