ST. PETE BEACH — Seth Whalley approaches the palm tree in front of the pizza shop, searching for something that looks familiar. Anything.
For seven months he has stayed away from Florida and this spot on Blind Pass Road. Now he retraces the path he took with his wife, Heather, that sunny April day.
He knew her for 20 years, yet he can't remember the last time he looked into her green eyes, what they talked about as they walked, or even where they were headed that day.
It was here that a van jumped the curb and ran into them on the sidewalk. The driver had four prescription drugs in his system but never got so much as a ticket. To understand how that is possible, Seth had to come back.
"I just want the truth, and I want the truth to be judged," he says.
He circles the palm tree, where Heather's face smiles from a flowery memorial, and tears come to his eyes. He crumples into one of the pizzeria's chairs.
He wants to know: Why did he live when she died?
• • •
Seth Whalley is 34, a chemist, the father of three: Ashley, 12, Kyler, 9, and Julia, 4. The kids are back in Massachusetts with friends and relatives.
He met Heather in a high school art class in Massachusetts. She was 14 and he was 15. They married young and had their first child while he was still in college. She taught kindergarten but quit after two years to homeschool the kids.
A few years ago, they moved to Charlotte, N.C., after Seth got a new job. They looked forward to a warmer climate.
"We went from having a great marriage to having a storybook marriage," he said of the move to Charlotte. "I call it our last kiss goodbye. I know it sounds corny."
They traveled often to Florida to visit Heather's mother, Laura Kell, who lives on Sunset Beach.
On the last day of a visit to Kell in April, they decided to grill outside before Seth took their son to a Rays game. But first, they would squeeze in a walk to pick up food. They left around 11 a.m.
"It was supposed to be a relatively insignificant walk," Seth Whalley said, "and now it's defined who I am."
• • •
Ray Rigney stops his alcohol delivery truck in the middle turn lane of Blind Pass Road, puts on his flashing lights and jumps out. He crosses quickly to the sidewalk where Seth Whalley waits.
Rigney, 44, saw it all happen like a drive-through movie before him. He lives in Pasco County but his delivery route takes him to St. Pete Beach every day. He had pulled into the same turn lane on April 10, preparing to make a left turn to deliver some alcohol to a small store.
He saw Heather and Seth on the sidewalk in front of Fortunato's Italian Pizzeria. He saw Aaron Scott Rimar's Chevrolet van coming down the road behind them. Then the van just veered off the road, like a bowling ball headed for the gutter.
It jumped onto the sidewalk, heading straight for the couple. As far as Rigney can tell, Rimar never hit the brakes, never turned his wheel.
The van struck the Whalleys, then was stopped cold by the palm tree.
"I watched you fly through the air like rag dolls," Rigney tells Seth. "You ended up on this curb. She was over here on her back. Your wife was breathing and then she stopped, like she was gasping for air."
"Did she say anything?" Seth asks.
"No, neither one of you was conscious," Rigney replies. "Both of you had deep welts on your head."
Seth pauses. He wants to ask the question, the one that prompted this unlikely reunion, the one that keeps him up at night.
Heather died of head injuries two days after the accident. Seth was in a coma for several days but survived. Did he save himself at his wife's expense? Was that why she died and he lived?
Seth's question comes out quietly, "Did we know?"
Rigney does not hesitate.
"You guys were talking. You guys didn't see anybody," Rigney says. "I just wish I'd had time to honk my horn."
• • •
Aaron Rimar has received 21 traffic tickets in Pinellas County, for everything from speeding and careless driving to running a stop sign and driving on the wrong side of a divided highway, according to court records.
His last speeding ticket was resolved just a month before the accident that killed Heather Whalley. He also was charged as a teenager and young adult with a handful of crimes, including aggravated assault, shooting at an undercover officer (he said he thought the undercover officers were burglars casing the neighborhood) and possession of a marijuana pipe.
Rimar, 35, declined to be interviewed for this story. Public records show that he's affiliated with Gulfcoast Networks, a business a few blocks from the accident scene. He told police that the last thing he remembered before the accident was looking down at his briefcase. He woke up in the hospital.
There, police asked for a blood sample to see if he was intoxicated. They found prescription drugs, including butalbital, a barbiturate; oxycodone, a narcotic painkiller; diazepam, also known as Valium; and Nordiazepam, a sedative similar to diazepam.
Rimar told them he used the drugs for a shoulder injury.
St. Pete Beach investigator Robert Micklitsch, who interviewed Rimar two weeks after the accident, said he asked him if he was under a doctor's care. Rimar said he was not.
Jack Helinger, an attorney for Rimar, did not return calls seeking comment, but he has said his client has the "highest sympathy" for the Whalley family.
"There's no doubt this is a just terrible tragedy. It breaks everybody's heart," he said in August. "But there are accidents that are not crimes."
• • •
Seth Whalley stands next to his lawyer looking stunned.
"The decision has been made. They're not going to charge Rimar for anything," says Tom Carey, a civil lawyer Seth hired to file a wrongful-death lawsuit.
The two have just emerged from a meeting with a prosecutor from the State Attorney's Office at the courthouse in Largo.
Rimar had drugs in his system, the prosecutor said, but not in high enough quantities to judge him impaired. Two doctors, including an outside toxicology expert from Shands hospital in Gainesville, have said so.
Whalley and his attorney tried to convince the prosecutor that there was at least a circumstantial case. What about the fact that Rimar didn't turn the wheel or use his brakes for 50 feet? Wasn't that reckless driving?
"The guy was at or below therapeutic levels on these drugs," Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said in a later interview. "We can't charge people because we don't like what they did."
Since witnesses say Rimar wasn't driving recklessly before the accident, prosecutors say they can't charge him with reckless driving.
"Did he black out or go to sleep?" Bartlett continued. "We don't know. We don't have any evidence."
Heather's mother takes the news hard outside the courthouse.
"I've been waiting for this day," she says, dissolving into tears. "I haven't been angry at the justice system because I was hoping they'd do their job. But I don't want to be angry. I'm afraid of my anger."
• • •
Seth flew back to Charlotte to pack up his house in North Carolina this past week. He is moving back to Massachusetts to be closer to family. As he sat among the boxes, he was overcome with how much he had lost.
His home. His wife. His hope for justice.
But he did gain something from his trip to Florida. He learned there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. And that was a relief.
Times researchers John Martin and Will Gorham contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8640.