NEW PORT RICHEY — Betty-Jo Tagerson, the woman who drove her Jeep into a group of children playing tag on a lawn and killed 5-year-old Delaney Rossman, leaned on a walker Tuesday as she made her way to the front of the courtroom.
She cried. She asked the judge for mercy.
"The sentence I receive today will not bring sweet Delaney back," Tagerson said, her voice quivering.
She said she has been living in her own personal hell — a "life sentence," she said — because of her grief over killing Delaney, a triplet. The surviving sisters, Isabella and Gabrielle, now 7, were not in the courtroom Tuesday, though they had testified during Tagerson's trial in January. Gabrielle was severely hurt by the Jeep and spent two weeks in a medically induced coma. Isabella remembers Delaney lying on the grass and not breathing. On birthdays and holidays, the girls now visit a memorial for Delaney and bring her flowers and balloons. They are in the first grade.
"I am truly sorry for what's happened," Tagerson said. "My life will never be the same. Every day I wake up to the pain that her mother and sisters wake up to every morning."
Circuit Judge Michael Andrews sentenced Tagerson to 13 years in prison, followed by 5 years' probation. He permanently revoked her license.
Delaney's mother, Danielle Malm, had asked Andrews to give Tagerson the maximum sentence: 25 years in prison.
"She had the ability to prevent this, and she didn't," Malm said.
Andrews told Malm he wished he could say something that would ease her pain for the loss of "that beautiful, bubbly child."
"There is nothing I could say that, in the end, would lighten your load," Andrews said. "But at the same time, I am asked to look at this impartially."
He said Tagerson did not get the maximum sentence because she had no prior criminal history, other than a scheme to defraud charge from 2007. She pleaded no contest Tuesday to stealing $19,000 from a doctor's office in New Port Richey, where she worked as an office manager. She was sentenced to five years' probation in that case.
"My daughter is a very loving and caring person," Tagerson's mother, Theresa Ambrowsky, told the court. "She has made some mistakes in her life but in no way did she intentionally set out to harm those children that day."
Ambrowsky said she was with her daughter when Tagerson found out Delaney was dead.
"What was her reaction?" asked Tagerson's attorney Dennis Watson.
"She wanted to die," Ambrowsky said on the stand. "She didn't want to live."
"Did she show remorse?" Watson asked.
"She just went hysterical crying and kept saying 'No, no.' She wanted to kill herself. We stayed with her day and night because we weren't sure she wouldn't."
At Tagerson's trial, a six-member jury found her guilty of vehicular homicide, culpable negligence manslaughter and two counts of reckless driving with serious injury. Tagerson lost control of her Jeep on Nov. 5, 2010, and careened into a yard full of children playing on King Manor Avenue in Hudson. A doctor testified Delaney had tire marks on her face and her skull was crushed.
Tagerson argued with her boyfriend, stormed into her Jeep and sped away. She quickly lost control, jumped a curb, smashed a mailbox and began rolling toward the yard full of girls. She hit a parked truck and the children and then fell out of her open driver's side door, which had a broken latch. She testified she did not bother tying her door shut, as she usually did with a cord, and she didn't wear her seat belt. An expert testified she would not have lost control of the car if she had been buckled in, because she wouldn't have been fighting to stay in the car.
Drugs weren't brought up during her three-day-trial, but the Florida Highway Patrol's report on the crash said she had prescribed levels of oxycodone in her system that night.
Malm said she is "content" with the sentence. She said Tagerson never took responsibility for the crash, but now she will be held accountable. Malm said she is glad this chapter in her life is done. Now she can focus on her daughters — and not on Tagerson. "I don't ever have to think about that woman again," she said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.