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One year later, lives remain torn over crash on Harbour Island Bridge

TAMPA — One year ago, two telephone calls shattered the sleep of families separated by more than a thousand miles.

Cindy Collins remembers being puzzled. The line at her Largo condominium seldom rang, especially not at 6 a.m. She didn't pick up. When the cell phone went off, she knew it had to be important.

It was Oct. 30, 2010, and Russ and Kathy Kozar were asleep in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. Russ barely heard the police officer. Groggy and disoriented, he hung up, then called back, struggling to make sense of the words.

Hours earlier, on a sidewalk on a bridge in Tampa, Collins' only daughter, Kate Kohlier, and the Kozars' youngest son, Doug, had been hit by a speeding car driven by a drunken driver, police said. Both died instantly.

The families learned as much as the public did about the crash. There was video of the dentist who police say was behind the wheel. There were the trips to court where lawyers argued and a judge set and reset dates.

But those who knew Doug and Kate also knew what was lost in an instant that early morning.

• • •

Matt Kozar is older than his brother by three years. In photos, they resemble each other.

After Doug died, Matt moved from Las Vegas, where he worked as a TV news reporter, to Connecticut. The move was, in part, to be closer to his family.

His parents won't look at pictures. But on his father's upper arm, a tattoo of a tall green tree is inked above the bold text "Douglas." Matt got a tattoo similar to one Doug had, depicting St. George slaying a dragon.

Matt looks at pictures. Snapshots of his brother taking fish out of the water near their home, and their proud smiles posing at a graduation.

He sees his family's pain in every grieving family he interviews as a journalist. Now, more than ever, he understands loss.

In Las Vegas, he recorded public service announcements about drunken driving. He has written op-ed pieces, including one for the St. Petersburg Times.

The family clings to memories of Doug. They last saw him, only briefly, two months before his death. They were driving back north from their second home in Naples and met him in a parking lot off Interstate 75 to give him some fishing equipment.

Kathy stays home. She was studying to get certified as a nutritionist before Doug's death. Grief has kept her from picking it back up. She equates the pain of losing a child to that of losing a limb — you don't recover, you learn to adapt. Russ visits Doug's grave at a cemetery near their home every day. They cry.

Doug was the younger of the two sons, a lean and handsome kid whose love of the outdoors helped instill in him the belief that he could do anything. He loved Florida's warm weather and the nearness of water.

He had spent a semester at Pace University in New York before transferring to the University of Tampa. He switched his major from business to criminology.

There, he met Ashley LeBlanc, a nursing student. He drew her pictures of Johnny Depp and the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. She liked his outlook. He was adventurous, always camping, canoeing or hiking.

He liked to fish alone, practicing the skills he learned at the reservoir near his family's home.

"You know, Doug, I like to go fishing, too," Ashley told him.

He laughed as she tried casting a line off Davis Islands. He laughed more when she reeled in a bottom feeder and was too repulsed to touch the fish.

In January 2010, he got a job in the catering department at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel.

"I've never worked so hard in my life," he told his parents.

He wanted to work his way to head of security, if not at the Marriott, then another hotel.

Doug never said much about his co-workers. They were little more than acquaintances. But Katie Kohlier had told friends that Doug was on a list of people she trusted enough to walk with her to her car after work.

• • •

In the narrow entry of Cindy Collins' second-story condominium, where Katie grew up, a framed collection of photos serves as a private memorial.

There are pictures of Katie swimming in high school, snapshots from Disney vacations, a shot of Katie with a dolphin, her mouth agape with a wide smile.

Nearby, words of inspiration:

We do not remember days. We remember moments.

One moment came last year, the weekend before Halloween. Cindy was at work when Katie called and said she was sick. Cindy sensed that her daughter wanted to ask her something. Later, they talked again, and Cindy did the asking.

"Do you need me to come over?"

"Yeah, I do."

Cindy made soup and hot tea. They sat on Katie's couch and watched a movie.

"Sometimes kids just need their mommas," Cindy said.

Katie's parents were divorced, but she maintained a relationship with her father, Roy Kohlier, throughout her life. She loved her dad, Cindy said.

Little things awaken memories. The splashing of swimmers in a pool. Making dates. Katie once wrote in her monthly calendar, "skipping school today." The black cat, Serious, that Katie found as a kitten.

In her teens, Katie grew rebellious. But beneath the rebel, a responsible child remained. She stayed active in school and kept a steady job from age 16. At 18, Katie told her mom, "Thank you for not giving up on me."

In college at the University of South Florida, she dabbled in marine biology and engineering before deciding she wanted to work with children or hospital patients. She was on the verge of graduating with a degree in psychology when she died.

Afterward, people from all over reached out to Cindy with stories of how Katie had touched their lives. Katie didn't judge, they said. Katie hugged. Katie spread happiness.

"I really thought I was close to my daughter," Cindy said. "There were a lot of other people who loved her, too."

• • •

For the Kozars, the anniversary of the crash will pass quietly with little overt acknowledgement of the day's significance. In early November, they plan to have a gathering of friends and neighbors at their home to remember Doug. They will also plant a tree in their yard and dedicate it to him.

Cindy Collins will mark the occasion privately with friends and relatives. A big group always accompanies her to court hearings in defendant Matthew Moye's criminal case. Afterward, they sometimes visit the crash site on the Harbour Island Bridge. It is a peaceful place, they say. It helps them feel closer to Kate.

• • •

Moye's next court hearing is set for Nov. 17. No trial date has been set.

Both families plan to see the case to its conclusion. It is a duty that Kathy equates to attending a child's parent-teacher conference at school.

They hope to see him convicted. They want the maximum penalty.

Whatever happens, the Kozars will be there for Doug. Cindy Collins will be there for Kate. They will wait for justice.

Dan Sullivan can be reached at dsullivan@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3321.

One year later, lives remain torn over crash on Harbour Island Bridge 10/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 11:32pm]
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