Jessica Kinnear didn't trust motorcycles. Nothing exclusive. She didn't like riding in cars on highways, either, or flying in airplanes.
"Skittish,'' is how Dee Dee Patton describes her good friend. "Careful.''
But about three weeks ago, Jessica accepted Dee Dee's invitation to take a ride. Dee Dee's boyfriend, Dale Robinson, a manager for a marketing company in St. Petersburg, had been riding motorcycles without incident for most of his 42 years. He was a no-nonsense biker, and she felt secure behind his broad shoulders.
That first ride made her nervous, but she liked it. Still, when Dee Dee invited her to join with other friends on a charity ride July 10 through western Pasco County, she declined.
At the last minute, something changed her mind. Jessica, a 30-year-old waitress with an 8-year-old son, met up with 50 other riders at the American Legion post in Holiday. This would be the first of five stops in a "poker run'' organized by the Suncoast Brotherhood bikers' rights group, which has a reputation for helping disadvantaged children.
Riders buy playing cards at five stops. The winning hand means money, but most often it ends up back in the pot for the charity. On this Saturday night, beautiful and cool for July, motorcycle enthusiasts — most with good jobs and families — set out to benefit the Pinellas County Foster & Adoptive Parents Association.
Jessica climbed aboard Dale's 2008 Harley Davidson Street Glide, a touring beauty that cost $20,000 new. She chatted away in Dale's ear, excited and energized. "She was just having a great time,'' Dale recalled later.
At 6:20 p.m., as the parade of motorcycles passed Gulf Drive, heading north on U.S. 19 through New Port Richey, Dale cruised in the center lane. The last thing he remembers is a "flash of black'' out of the corner of his right eye.
"You're always looking out for the other guy,'' he said, "but I was blindsided. It was like somebody walked up behind me and blindsided me with a baseball bat.''
New Port Richey police officer Chris Denton said the Ford pickup moved suddenly from the right lane and struck the motorcycle. Dee Dee Patton, a 39-year-old national sales coordinator for Bright House Networks in St. Petersburg, trailed behind her boyfriend on her own Harley Softail Deluxe.
"All I saw was a black blur,'' she said later. "I was so freaked out. I thought they were both dead. I keep asking myself, 'Why didn't you see it? Why didn't you see that truck?' But it all happened so fast.''
The truck sped away as Dale and Jessica lay bleeding on the highway. Neither wore a helmet. An off-duty paramedic who had been pulling a boat behind his truck comforted the victims before an ambulance arrived. Jessica did not seem to be breathing, Dee Dee said. A helicopter flew them to Bayfront Medical Center's trauma unit in St. Petersburg.
A week later, Dale recuperated from numerous fractures at his home in Clearwater while Jessica remained in critical condition and in a coma. Her husband of 13 years, Danny, hasn't left her side, even though they have been separated for eight months. He is project engineer for a veneer stone manufacturing business in Tampa. "I love her,'' he said. "I'm here for her.''
His mother, Kathy Joseph, is caring for their son, Joey, who is about to enter third grade at Sunset Elementary in Tarpon Springs. "It's heartbreaking to hear my grandson crying for his mother,'' she said.
Jessica's friends have rallied, including on Facebook. Dawn Galla, customer relations manager at Karl Flammer Ford in Tarpon Springs, put up more than 100 fliers near the accident site asking potential witnesses to contact the New Port Richey police. She has contacted auto body shops, figuring somebody with a black Ford pickup has significant damage to the driver's side.
Jessica's fellow servers at Rodie's Restaurant & Pancake House in Tarpon Springs are planning to donate their tips Saturday.
"It's a small thing,'' said Lydia Clark, part of the tight-knit restaurant staff and one of Jessica's best friends. "She's a fighter, but she's not alone. She has so many friends.''
A tragedy that occurred during an act of benevolence has created the need for another. With questions about how much Jessica's care will be covered by insurance, her friends promise never to give up.