Sunday, November 19, 2017
Public safety

Head-on crash in Plant City kills 4, including Marine veteran

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PLANT CITY — Joe Vizcarrondo Sr. braced for it every day his son was overseas. He came to expect that the Marines would arrive one day bearing the news he feared most — that his son wasn't coming home.

For the five years Joe Vizcarrondo Jr. fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom, his father waited for that knock at his door. But it never came. And when his boy came back home, the father's mind was eventually put at ease.

But early Friday, a different knock came. In the 4 a.m. darkness, Joe Sr. cracked open the door of the family's Valrico home and saw two state troopers. His son was killed in an accident, they said.

Just after midnight, the 26-year-old former Marine was at the wheel of his 1999 Cadillac DeVille, headed west on State Road 60 in Plant City. He was giving a ride home to a friend, Lauren Phillips, 19. His roommate, Jenna Kelly, 25, rode with them.

As they approached the intersection of Clarence Gordon Jr. Road, a 2006 BMW coming in the opposite direction bounded out of control and onto the grass median, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. It hit a speed limit sign before veering into the westbound lanes and slamming head-on into the Cadillac.

Rolando Silva, 31, of Plant City, who was speeding in the BMW despite having a revoked license, died. All three in the Cadillac were killed.

At midday Friday, Joe Vizcarrondo Sr. sat in a plastic patio chair on the front porch of their Valrico home, gazing with dazed eyes across the front yard, speaking in a subdued voice about the man his oldest son had become. Beside him, Joe Jr.'s stepmother, Jennifer Vizcarrondo, paced the concrete walkway, whimpering.

The son was born in Georgia but lived most of his life in Florida. He was a freshman at Durant High School in Plant City the year of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. About that same time, he began considering the Marines.

He spent the four years that followed training in the school's Reserve Officers Training Corps, always focused and never shying away from the battles he knew awaited him after graduation.

When his diploma came in 2005, Iraq was quick to follow. There, he drove heavy metal trucks designed to withstand bomb blasts. He rode the desert sands from Baghdad to Fallujah. He got a Devil Dog tattooed on his arm, and "Death Before Dishonor" across his back.

You don't have to worry about me, he told his family. They won't blow up this truck.

But for all the tough talk, he still couldn't escape what he saw. He was most haunted by the Iraqi children, his family said.

"They were his younger brother's age," Jennifer Vizcarrondo said. "And they could blow you up."

In time, he moved on. He was discharged as a lance corporal. When he came home, he worked in fast-food restaurants. Lately, his goal had been to return to school to study broadcasting.

When he wasn't working, he spent time playing video games with his brother, Jamey, 16. On weekends, he would go with his dad to Sarasota to meet with their fantasy baseball league.

The crash happened after he had driven to Highlands County to pick up Phillips, who was studying at South Florida State College in Avon Park. The trio in the Cadillac had known each other since their school days.

State patrol officials wouldn't say how fast Silva, the driver who hit them, was believed to be going. But the Vizcarrondo family said troopers told them it was more than double the speed limit.

"He was going, they said, way over 100 mph," Vizcarrondo Sr. said. "The horror that must have been going through their minds seeing this car go across the road like a pinball."

State records show Silva had a lengthy arrest record for mostly petty crimes and was serving a four-year sentence of drug offender probation that began about a year ago. His state driving history shows he had been found guilty five times of driving without a license since 2000, and charged in 2008 with DUI.

While the crash remained under investigation, troopers said alcohol was not believed to be a factor.

"God has his intentions," Joe Vizcarrondo Sr. said. "I just hate to think that there's two other sets of parents going through the same thing we are."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.

Correction:

This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: A Cadillac driven by Joe Vizcarrondo Jr. was headed west on State Road 60 near Plant City when it was struck head-on early Friday. An earlier version incorrectly reported the direction the car was traveling.

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