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Driver in crash jailed again

BROOKSVILLE — James Paul Conaty had a long arrest record by the time his motorcycle slammed into 73-year-old Josefa Rodriguez two summers ago.

Conaty, 32, had served time in prison for driving under the influence, grand theft and burglary. Then, in July 2011, he ran a red light at Spring Hill Drive and Aerial Way and killed Rodriguez as she crossed the street. Investigators suspected he was impaired, but prosecutors decided not to charge him because of inconclusive toxicology results.

Now Conaty, 32, is in jail again.

Conaty was arrested last week and charged with burglary with assault and harassing a witness, authorities say, after he walked uninvited into his mother's Spring Hill home, demanded money and threatened to kill her.

Conaty's mother, Mary Ann Gallagher, gave a Hernando County sheriff's deputy this account:

Conaty called Gallagher on Jan. 22 and asked for $200. Gallagher refused. Twenty minutes later, Conaty walked through an unlocked back door of her home on Lansfield Street and started to yell and demand money.

Gallagher told him to leave and picked up her cellphone to call 911. Conaty snatched the phone, threw it against a door and then grabbed his mother by the arm and pushed her to the ground.

"Mary advised that James told her he would kill her … if she called the police on him," Deputy Tony Aguiar wrote.

Gallagher broke free and fled to a neighbor's house to call 911.

Conaty left before a deputy arrived. Gallagher's roommate — Conaty's former girlfriend — was home at the time and corroborated Gallagher's account.

Conaty was arrested early Jan. 24 at his home on Island Drive. He remained in the Hernando County Detention Center on Wednesday in lieu of $65,000 bail.

The arrest comes about a year after prosecutors opted not to charge him in the 2011 crash.

Witnesses told Florida Highway Patrol investigators that Conaty appeared to be going much faster than the posted speed limit of 55 mph and was weaving in and out of lanes just before he entered the intersection.

Conaty suffered critical injuries in the crash. While searching for Conaty's driver's license at the scene, a trooper found in Conaty's wallet two unfilled prescriptions for pain medications, including oxycodone.

More suspicious, however, was the prescription bottle of alprazolam later found in another pocket. Sold under the brand name Xanax, the drug is in the class of benzodiazepines used to treat anxiety disorders.

Toxicology results for blood drawn from Conaty while he was in the hospital showed only the presence of another benzodiazepine called midazolam. Investigators learned that paramedics had administered the same drug at the scene. That meant there was no way to confirm whether Conaty had a benzodiazepine in his system at the time of the crash, and if he did, whether it was enough to impair him.

As punishment for running the light, a judge suspended Conaty's license for six months and ordered him to pay a fine of $1,149.

That disappointed Rodriguez's family, especially given Conaty's checkered driving history and criminal record.

In Tampa in 1999, Conaty had 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 impairment.

He served two years in state prison and was sent back in 2005 after convictions on grand theft and burglary charges. All told, he served five years.

Conaty was convicted in Hernando County in 2007 on a charge of fleeing to elude law enforcement and in 2010 on a misdemeanor battery charge. He was arrested last January, but prosecutors dropped the charges of grand theft and dealing in stolen property.

Last September, two months after the judge suspended his license for running the red light at Aerial Way, Conaty was caught driving. He pleaded no contest to driving with a suspended license and was fined $418, records show. He also received six months of probation, so it was unclear why he is still eligible for bail.

Rodriguez's son-in-law, Joe Costanzo, declined to comment on Conaty's latest arrest.

"We're definitely putting it behind us," Costanzo said.

News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes.

Driver in crash jailed again 01/30/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 7:17pm]
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