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Teens' plan to meet driving deadline went awry in deadly crash in Seminole

Suzanne Charneski hugs her daughter Courtney Charneski, 14, a ninth-grader at Seminole High, while grieving Sunday afternoon at the scene of a car accident Friday where four teens died.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Suzanne Charneski hugs her daughter Courtney Charneski, 14, a ninth-grader at Seminole High, while grieving Sunday afternoon at the scene of a car accident Friday where four teens died.

SEMINOLE — It was a typical Friday night for Nathan Richardson, Joseph Ruzecki, Keith MacCollom, LeShawn Smith and Corey Lepore.

The five teens had fun eating pizza, playing FIFA Soccer and NBA 2K9 video games and goofing around at MacCollom's house.

Then they checked the clock.

It was around 11 p.m.

They knew that at their age, legally they weren't supposed to be driving after 11 without an adult. So they piled into a black Lexus driven by Ruzecki, 16, and hurried to his house, typically a three-minute drive. The plan, according to a friend speaking for the Ruzeckis, was to drop the car off and walk back to MacCollom's house to finish playing the video game.

The decision cost all but Lepore their lives.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the Lexus was heading west on 86th Avenue N at a high rate of speed when it came up behind a Chevrolet Lumina driven by 42-year-old Richard Allen Goltl.

Just as the Lumina slowed to make a left turn onto 141st Street N, the Lexus tried to pass on the left and the two vehicles crashed. The Lexus smashed into a tree and burst into flames. Richardson, 15, Ruzecki, MacCollom, 17, and Smith, 16, were killed.

The FHP released no new information about the accident Sunday. Family members said they were told it will take two months for the investigation to be completed.

Lepore, the 17-year-old survivor, said from his hospital room at Bayfront Medical Center on Sunday that his friend Ruzecki wasn't driving at an excessive rate of speed.

"I know it wasn't really, really fast," Lepore said. "It wasn't that much over the speed limit."

Lepore, who was riding in the front passenger seat, said he saw Goltl's brake lights but did not see a turn signal. Ruzecki moved to the left to avoid Goltl, who it appeared was going to turn right, Lepore said.

"(Goltl) started moving to the right," Lepore said. "So Joey went around to the left so he wouldn't rear-end him. Then the car went left."

Lepore, who suffered several broken bones, some torn ligaments in his neck and a concussion, said that's all he remembers from the accident.

"I just remember waking up in a driveway," Lepore said. "There was a bunch of blood all over me and there was a lady standing above me, screaming, trying to help me."

He "blacked out," then came to in the ambulance, Lepore said. After repeatedly asking about his friends, a paramedic told him they had not made it, he said.

Goltl, who lives in the same neighborhood as Ruzecki, declined to comment Sunday.

For Ruzecki's father, John, the nightmare began about 11:10 p.m. on Friday.

Jennifer Smith, 46, who lives next door to the Ruzeckis, said her son Daniel, 17, was at a stoplight at Oakhurst Road when he saw an explosion.

He told his mother and she and John Ruzecki ran to the scene. John Ruzecki said he called his son on his cell phone every few minutes but got no answer. He said he had "a bad feeling.''

The rest of the night was torture. Family members and friends remained at the accident scene until 3 a.m. Authorities kept them away from where the victims came to rest.

• • •

Sunday, those they left behind remembered their loved ones.

John Ruzecki was anxious to talk about his son, whom he called an "extraordinary person'' who was "exceptionally smart, soft-spoken and very responsible.''

"He had a 1090 on his SAT on his first try and a 24 on his ACT on his first try,'' said John Ruzecki, 44. "His goal was to be an FBI agent.''

Ruzecki's sister, Kayla Witte, 21, said he "loved CSI'' and "was great'' at the video game based on the popular TV show.

He also enjoyed watching ESPN and the History Channel.

But most of all he loved his friends, who "knew they could always call him if they were in a jam,'' his father said.

"God needed a couple of good kids,'' John Ruzecki said.

Stuart MacCollom, 51, said his son "had a wicked wit'' and also excelled at school, an honors student with a 4.25 grade point average who "aspired to be an attorney like his uncle Ken.''

He said like Ruzecki, Keith MacCollom was athletic. He loved to play AAU basketball, go wakeboarding in the Intracoastal Waterway behind his house and ride his snowboard in the mountains of Vermont where his grandfather and grandmother live.

"For 17 years, he had a charmed life,'' said Stuart MacCollom. "It was too short.''

Largo High boys basketball coach Phil Price invited players, students and parents over to his house Saturday to remember former teammate Smith.

"I decided to do this so everyone could have a place where they felt safe and could just talk about what happened," Price said. "We had some food and watched tapes of some games in which LeShawn played.

"A lot of people vented and shed some tears. But there were a lot of laughs, too. LeShawn was a really likable kid."

Price said he received calls from his players after the accident and drove to the scene early Saturday. He drove Smith's grandfather to the hospital.

"It's just so sad what happened," Price said. "There's not much more to say."

Richardson played for the Seminole High baseball team, a rare accomplishment for a freshman. Coach Greg Olsen, while not ready to talk about the accident, said a decision will be made today whether to play a scheduled game with Osceola on Tuesday night, the same time a candlelight vigil is scheduled at the school.

Also on Sunday, teenagers milled around the pine tree scarred with a gash marking the spot where the Lexus made contact.

At its base were a box of Kleenex, candles, a basketball, a baseball glove and a green Easter basket with four eggs decorated with the letters RIP.

Staff writer Bob Putnam contributed to this report. Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153. Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Teens' plan to meet driving deadline went awry in deadly crash in Seminole 04/12/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 11:43am]

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