BROOKSVILLE — Josefa Rodriguez was doing what she could to live longer than her 73 years. A healthy woman, she took care of herself and went on walks often. Sometimes they were for exercise, and other times she just wanted something from the store and a change of scenery.
Rodriguez was on one of her walks July 28 when she died.
As she crossed Spring Hill Drive heading to Target that morning, authorities say James Conaty sped through a red light on his 2007 Suzuki motorcycle and struck and killed her. Conaty, 30, a Spring Hill resident, sustained serious injuries.
Rodriguez's loved ones, however, are grieving for their lost mother.
"I don't think I'll ever be able to talk about it," Rodriguez's daughter, Carolina Guerra, said in the family's first public comments this week. "I'm destroyed."
Guerra's husband, Joe Costanzo, said his wife and her mother shared a strong bond.
"We don't have any children, but her mom was like her own (child)," he said. "Her mom was her life."
He said she went for walks every day because she had always done so in her native Venezuela. For the past eight years, Rodriguez had been shuttling between Venezuela and United States as she worked to attain permanent residency and join her three children in America; another lives in Venezuela. She had just received her residency in January.
Costanzo said he doesn't understand how someone with a driving record like Conaty's could still be driving.
"It's a shame the cops keep arresting him and the courts keep releasing him," he said. "It's not right."
Conaty's driving record includes three charges of DUI that led to injuries for the other drivers. He also has had speeding and careless driving citations. His license was valid when he killed Rodriguez on July 28.
In April 1999, Conaty was arrested in Tampa on his first DUI charge, records show. A police report stated Conaty swerved into the opposite lane of traffic and struck a 65-year-old man's Buick. The man almost died from head injuries. 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.
An investigator noted that beer bottles littered the ground around his wrecked GMC and that it didn't look like Conaty had been wearing a seat belt. He served more than two years in prison and was ordered to pay $510,500 in restitution.
"He took from us someone we loved very much," Costanzo said, adding that he wouldn't hesitate to testify in a trial against Conaty. "He deserves the full extent of the law, whatever that may be."
Steve Gaskins, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, said any potential charges await the release of a toxicology report. He confirmed that Conaty was released from Bayfront Medical Center earlier this week.
Conaty's mother, 50-year-old Maryann Verdi, said her son has a broken back and a punctured spleen. Still, she said he might walk again. Her son told her that he thinks his most recent accident was karma for his 1999 DUI.
She said this week that after speaking to her son about the incident, she feels he did not run the red light or that he was speeding when he hit Rodriguez.
"I want to know who was out there clocking with a radar gun," she said.
Jessica Stuckey, Conaty's cousin, said she was not surprised to hear about the fatality. She said he is basically a good person who makes mistakes and has bad luck with motorcycles.
"It sucks that someone had to die," she said.
Rodriguez's family does not have immediate plans for a memorial.
"The family is too devastated," said Marty Downing, owner of Downing Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Spring Hill.
News researcher Natalie Watson and staff photojournalist Will Vragovic contributed to this report. Melvin Backman can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.