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Judge sentences drunk driver who fled fatal Tampa crash

TAMPA — Hank Tippins could barely get the words out between sobs that racked his body so hard he hunched over and gasped for air.

"I'm so sorry for what I did to your mom and your family," he said haltingly. "I'm so sorry. I should have never been drinking that night. I should have never gotten in the car to drive."

Tippins, a 29-year-old engineer with a wife and a master's degree, had a 0.25 percent blood alcohol level about three hours after he ran a red light and hit several cars on Dec. 11, 2011, killing 64-year-old Linda Fessell, a longtime city of Tampa employee and breast cancer survivor.

Authorities only know that because they tracked Tippins' white Hummer to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino after he fled the scene. They held him down as they drew his blood.

On Friday, he pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident. He faced up to 47 years in prison.

The decision lay with the judge.

First, the defense and prosecution brought in witnesses.

A psychiatrist who recently evaluated Tippins said the young man is ashamed and deeply regrets that night — not for how it has affected him, but for what it did to Fessell's family.

Tippins does not remember what he was thinking when he got in his 3-ton vehicle, Dr. Michael Maher said. He barely remembers a crash.

A teacher recalled Tippins' maturity. A friend pointed to his work ethic. His parents said he was a joy to raise.

He has been speaking to youth groups about the dangers of drunken driving.

"This is one of the most difficult cases," defense attorney Lyann Goudie argued at the end.

Circuit Judge Scott Stephens cut her off.

"These are always bad," he said.

Assistant State Attorney Barbara Coleman has been prosecuting cases like this for about five years. Those accused are frequently "normal, everyday people," she said.

"They make a really bad decision to drink and drive, and then someone ends up dead," she said.

This time the deceased was Linda Fessell, a retired city supervisor who helped start the Pink Dragon Ladies, Florida's first cancer survivor dragon boat team.

Her teammates spoke of a faith-filled woman who raised two children on her own. Those children also came to court on Friday — her son, Matthew DeLeo, and her daughter, Teresa Travis.

DeLeo did not want to talk much. He is a private person and rarely cries. But he couldn't hold back the tears as he talked about how his mother saved money to help send her children to college.

He is now a lawyer. Travis is a social worker.

"I'd like to think we're both doing what she wanted to do: helping other people," he said.

But who is going to help her children? Travis asked. The tiny woman turned toward Tippins as she spoke, her voice rising several octaves as she talked about seeing her dead and broken mother at the crash site.

For weeks, Travis would lie crying in a dark room. She was nine months pregnant at the time of the crash and was so consumed with grief she had trouble bonding with her new baby.

"I felt dead inside, broken and left questioning whether or not I could survive this," she said. "I would give anything to have my mother back."

After about three hours of testimony, the judge was ready with his decision.

Ten years in prison.

Ten years for killing a woman while driving drunk. Ten years for leaving the scene.

Tippins will serve them at the same time, followed by 10 years of probation and the permanent revocation of his driver's license.

His wife, Cindy Tippins, let out a wail as a bailiff handcuffed her husband. Then the somber crowd stood up.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Judge sentences drunk driver who fled fatal Tampa crash 05/24/13 [Last modified: Saturday, May 25, 2013 12:01am]
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