Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Public safety

Just a citation in traffic death

SPRING HILL — Minutes after he ran a red light and plowed into an elderly pedestrian last July, James Paul Conaty lay in the back of an ambulance, conscious but disoriented.

Searching for the injured motorcyclist's driver's license, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper found in Conaty's wallet two unfilled prescriptions for pain medications, including oxycodone. This raised suspicions that Conaty might have been driving under the influence.

What started that morning as a traffic homicide investigation, however, would end months later with only a traffic citation for Conaty, a 31-year-old Spring Hill resident who previously served prison time for severely injuring a man in a drunk driving crash.

Authorities recently determined that there are no grounds to criminally charge Conaty. That angers the family of 73-year-old Josefa Rodriguez, the woman he hit on July 28.

"Most likely this will happen again," said Joe Costanzo, Rodriguez's son-in-law, earlier this week. "This guy does not need to be on the street."

Witnesses told authorities that Conaty was speeding westbound on Spring Hill Drive when he drove his 2007 Suzuki through the light at Spring Park Way and collided with Rodriguez, likely killing her instantly.

An FHP trooper visited Bayfront Medical Center to get a blood sample from Conaty as evidence for a traffic homicide investigation. The only drug to show up in the sample was midazolam, a minor tranquilizer. Investigators learned that paramedics treating him had administered the same drug at the scene.

After the lengthy wait for the toxicology results and medical records, FHP's homicide investigators determined there was no probable cause to file a criminal charge such as DUI manslaughter. Nor was there evidence to charge Conaty with vehicular homicide. That charge is brought when there is evidence that a death resulted from reckless driving.

The State Attorney's office agreed.

"It was a situation where there was no way we could prove to the standard required that he was intoxicated by drugs," said Bill Catto, the prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office who reviewed the investigation report.

Witnesses told investigators that Conaty weaved in and out of lanes as he approached the intersection, and that he appeared to be traveling between 55 and 70 miles per hour when he ran the red light. But investigators estimated Conaty's minimum speed to be between 45 and 47 miles per hour at the time of impact. The posted speed limit is 55 mph, dropping to 40 mph just west of the intersection.

Under Florida law, running a red light is a moving violation.

There was another factor in the crash. Rodriguez entered the crosswalk after the red hand lit up warning pedestrians not cross Spring Hill Drive. A motorist waiting to turn west onto Spring Hill Drive from Aerial Way said her signal turned green just after Conaty passed through the intersection.

Conaty was flown to Bayfront Medical Center after the crash and declined to speak to investigators. He could not be reached for this story.

He was given a traffic citation for running the red light and is required to attend an infraction hearing slated for July 2.

Likely to come up during that hearing is a driving record that includes tickets for speeding and careless driving and three charges of DUI that led to injuries for the other drivers.

The first of these came in 1999, when Conaty swerved into the opposite lane of traffic and struck a car driven by a 65-year-old man, who nearly died in the crash. Conaty had a blood-alcohol level of 0.205, more than twice the threshold at which Florida law presumes that someone is unable to safely drive a motor vehicle.

He served more than two years in prison and was ordered to pay $510,500 in restitution.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]

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