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Former PSTA driver found guilty of DUI in 2007 bus crash

CLEARWATER — A Pinellas County jury found a former public bus driver guilty of DUI on Wednesday for smashing into a Central Avenue check cashing store in 2007.

Travis Merriex, 39, was under the influence of prescription drugs when he drove his PSTA bus into a curb, cars, trees and a light pole before plowing into Amscot, 3266 Central Ave., on Sept. 12, 2007.

In the destruction, James Westerhoff was pinned between two cars and had to be extracted by six men. He broke his ankle and was covered in bruises.

The jury deliberated for about two hours Wednesday before finding Merriex guilty of driving under the influence causing property damage and injury. A judge will sentence Merriex this morning.

All told, the bus struck 13 things that day.

"This is 13 different accidents," Assistant State Attorney Christie Ellis told the jury. "This was someone that was completely out of control driving a 26,000-pound bus."

Merriex, who didn't testify, went to a hospital on a stretcher after the accident. He wore a neck brace and kept staring his hands, police said. An officer described his behavior as slow and lethargic, which the defense argued could have been from the accident.

Blood tests revealed Methadone, Alprazolam and Lorazepam in his system, drugs he told police were for a back injury. It's not illegal to drive while on medication, but drivers can be charged with DUI if they show impairment.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority fired Merriex for failing to disclose the medication. Police arrested him in October 2007 after the blood test came back.

A mechanic did three hours of inspections on the bus and didn't find brake problems.

But mysterious things go wrong with cars all the time, argued Assistant Public Defender Jenna Finkelstein.

The jury opted to find Merriex guilty of a lesser charge. The toughest charge he faced was felony DUI causing serious injury. Finkelstein, citing an old case, argued that Westerhoff's injuries did not meet criteria for "serious."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Former PSTA driver found guilty of DUI in 2007 bus crash 05/12/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 11:28pm]
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