Family members of motorcyclist killed in fall off interstate have many questions

ST. PETERSBURG — The family of motorcyclist Jose Antonio Pagan spent Friday grieving for their loss. But his death was not the only thing that weighed on their minds:

Why did it take 15 hours after his motorcycle was found on an interstate Thursday for authorities to find his body underneath it?

Did anyone search underneath the overpass for the missing rider? Could Pagan, 23, have been saved had help reached him in time?

And what caused the fatal crash in the first place?

The Florida Highway Patrol said it is still investigating his death, but Friday revealed a crucial new detail: Investigators now believe the motorcycle ended up 700 feet — more than two football fields — west of where the rider was found beneath Interstate 375.

Yet there were no obvious skid marks, the Highway Patrol said, and nothing to indicate that troopers might have looked for the rider in the wrong place.

"No one knew where to look," said Sgt. Larry Kraus.

• • •

The first call to 911 came in at 12:16 a.m. Thursday. A caller reported seeing a motorcycle on its side on Interstate 375, west of where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street crosses Fifth Avenue N.

Here was the first of many complications: The Highway Patrol said a bystander moved the motorcycle from the middle of the westbound lanes onto the shoulder before troopers got there.

The bike wasn't seriously damaged, the Highway Patrol said. Troopers with flashlights began looking for the rider in that area.

"I know they checked the embankments, and they checked the surrounding areas," Kraus said. "According to the troopers there wasn't much evidence to support that he would have gone over the overpass. It didn't look like he hit the concrete barrier at all."

The Highway Patrol said troopers also checked hospitals for the rider and tried to call the motorcycle's owner and his family at 12:33 a.m.

A dispatcher used the emergency number the rider gave the state for his mother, Sonia Pagan, and left a message. But it was long out of date, family friend Rudy Masi told the St. Petersburg Times on Friday.

Troopers started to think someone had abandoned the motorcycle, which is not uncommon. They searched for the rider for two hours, but couldn't find him. It would be 13 hours before someone else did.

• • •

Police got the call about 2 p.m. Thursday. A woman found a man's body beneath I-375.

He was inside a fenced area at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue N and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, 28 feet below the interstate. A black motorcycle helmet was found nearby.

Paramedics estimated the man had been dead for several hours. But 2:27 p.m. was listed as the time of death.

St. Petersburg police identified Pagan from his wallet and searched for his black 2005 Honda. According to records, he was cited for DUI in 2008 and for careless driving in March.

Then a trooper showed up and made the connection: Pagan's motorcycle was the one found 15 hours earlier on the interstate above.

The discovery of Pagan's body led the Highway Patrol to rethink where the crash took place. The entire area is blanketed by the interstate above. The only place someone could have fallen through is a sliver of space between where the Eighth Street N on-ramp curves on the right and joins I-375.

That could be where he was thrown. His motorcycle then skidded 700 feet west on the interstate, where someone later found it and called police.

Troopers have found no one who saw the crash occur.

• • •

Sonia Pagan spent the night in a hospital after she fainted when two troopers broke the news to her about 6 p.m. Thursday.

When she got out Friday, she was surrounded by her family. Jose Pagan was the youngest of seven children, the baby.

"Bubba," as his sisters called him, ran track at Rivera Middle. He played football and was voted freshman prince at Northeast High. He enjoyed boating and fishing and playing volleyball on the beach. He liked to ride his ATV, and he worked two jobs.

"He was free as a bird," said his sister, Andrea Pagan. "He lived his life to the fullest everyday. He woke up and he did what he wanted."

"He was always laughing, he always had a smile on his face," his mother said. "His laugh was infectious. Whenever he wanted something he just had to smile and I said okay."

Motorcycles are in her family's blood, but Sonia Pagan said she begged her son to stay off them. She didn't know he had bought one in January until the title came by mail four months later.

"I felt it when I held that title in my hand, my heart just dropped," she said, crying. "Because I knew it. I knew I wasn't going to see my son again."

• • •

Jose Pagan's family has many questions about his death.

When the mother was told her son was dead, the family said she wasn't told about the delay in finding the body. Family members said they found out from others. They also want to know if he could have been found sooner.

Kraus said information about the crash given to the media Thursday night — particularly about the delay in finding the body — also should have been given to the family. He said troopers may have been unable to tell them after the mother fainted. Kraus said he was still researching that question Friday.

But he said a supervisor called an aunt on Friday to discuss the crash. That followup call is standard procedure, Kraus said.

The medical examiner has not yet determined a cause or time of death. Nor has the Highway Patrol finished reconstructing the accident or questioning witnesses near where the body was found.

But the Highway Patrol will investigate every aspect of the case, the sergeant said, including its own actions.

"We don't know what caused it," Kraus said. "We don't know if a car caused him to go down or if he went down on his own. We don't know how experienced a rider he is. It's just one of those cases we're trying to put together, piece by piece."

Times staff writer Kameel Stanley and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Family members of motorcyclist killed in fall off interstate have many questions 06/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 26, 2010 12:29am]

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