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Fatal St. Petersburg scooter-wheelchair crash raises unusual questions

ST. PETERSBURG — A fatal accident involving a scooter and a motorized wheelchair has left police to ponder an unusual question.

Was the man in the motorized wheelchair driving a vehicle? Or was he a pedestrian?

"A lot kind of hinges on that definition," said St. Petersburg police traffic commander Bill Korinek.

The accident took the life of 59-year-old Thomas L. Wiemken of St. Petersburg, who was ejected from his scooter after it collided with the wheelchair about 10 p.m. Tuesday at Fourth Street N and 14th Avenue. Wiemken, who was not wearing a helmet, died at Bayfront Medical Center. His role in the crash is still under investigation.

On Wednesday, police turned their focus to the other man in the accident, Robert W. Kurczaba, 56, also of St. Petersburg. Police said he was crossing Fourth Street diagonally in the middle of the block.

Investigators have not determined whether charges will be brought against Kurczaba, who was in good condition at St. Anthony's Hospital.

If considered a pedestrian, a charge could be as simple as jaywalking. If he was operating a vehicle, it could be as serious as reckless driving.

The decision could boil down to the size of the wheelchair motor.

"There's issues in there about wattage, horsepower, things like that," St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz said. "Speed is also a factor. They want to get to a point where they have a comfort level."

The case could have repercussions in a city where motorized wheelchairs, also known as mobility scooters, are common on streets and sidewalks.

People operating wheelchairs typically are considered pedestrians. But because Kurczaba's wheelchair is motorized, police said they will examine the accident in greater detail before considering whether charges should be filed.

Pinellas prosecutors, who would ultimately decide about charges, could not be reached for comment.

Jeff Keel, a Tampa lawyer and former Hillsborough County prosecutor familiar with traffic laws, said he doubted Kurczaba would be charged, based on the circumstances.

"I don't see how they could elevate that to a criminal matter unless he was impaired in some way," Keel said.

Police said they are still investigating whether alcohol or drugs were involved.

Why Kurczaba was crossing Fourth Street late Tuesday night perplexed Todd Priest, the resident-care coordinator at Peacekeepers Den, where Kurczaba lived for more than a year.

Kurczaba frequently ventured up and down the street to nearby stores and restaurants, but rarely crossed the road, Priest said. It was too dangerous.

Most of the residents don't feel comfortable crossing the road, he said. "I just don't understand where he could have been going," he said.

Priest said he was shocked to learn that Kurczaba was involved in a fatal crash. He described Kurczaba as a friendly guy with a good attitude. He was never grumpy. He liked to roam the building, making quips, he said.

"He'd be the last person I'd expect for something like that to occur," he said.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Thomas L. Wiemken, 59, died after his scooter collided Tuesday night with a motorized wheelchair driven by Robert W. Kurczaba, 56, on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg. 

Courtesy of Gilbert Rainault

Thomas L. Wiemken, 59, died after his scooter collided Tuesday night with a motorized wheelchair driven by Robert W. Kurczaba, 56, on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg. 

Fatal St. Petersburg scooter-wheelchair crash raises unusual questions 12/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 11:27pm]

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