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Police couldn't catch up to driver before Crosstown crash

Jennifer M. O’Boyle, 24, was killed in the five-car wreck last Wednesday. Her daughter, Summer Moll, now 4, was critically injured.

Special to the Times

Jennifer M. O’Boyle, 24, was killed in the five-car wreck last Wednesday. Her daughter, Summer Moll, now 4, was critically injured.

TAMPA — At 1:59 p.m. last Wednesday, a man called 911 to report a wild-eyed woman in a black Honda Pilot careening all over Bayshore Boulevard.

He said someone had better stop her.

Nobody did.

Three Tampa police officers responded, but they could not catch her in time.

Somewhere between 12 and 17 minutes later, other drivers called to report that five cars had collided on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. Brandon resident Jennifer O'Boyle was killed and her 4-year-old daughter, Summer Moll, was critically injured.

They had been struck head on by Cheryl Riemann, 25, who authorities say was drunk. She was driving a black Honda Pilot the wrong way.

The 911 caller said he does not blame the police.

"Obviously, the girl driving, it was her fault," said Ken Stoltenberg, a real estate developer in the Channel District. "But you have police and fire services for an emergency. And this was an emergency."

Last Wednesday, Stoltenberg first saw the black Pilot on his way back to work after lunch. It was rolling south on the grassy shoulder of Bayshore.

He looked through the open window and saw no one, as if the driver had slumped down out of view.

Stoltenberg pulled over and got out of his car, thinking someone might be in trouble. But a few seconds later, the Pilot started traveling normally again. He got back in and headed north.

Then, in his rearview mirror, he saw the Pilot making a U-turn and coming behind him. Now he was curious. He slowed down to let the Pilot pass. This time, he could see the driver. She turned her face toward him, but her eyes seemed to be closed. She slumped over again.

Stoltenberg swore to himself. He eased up on the gas, pulled out his cell phone and called 911. Authorities would not release a recording of the call Wednesday, citing a pending investigation, but Stoltenberg says he told the dispatcher something like this:

"I'm on Bayshore Boulevard, headed toward town, and I was passed by a black Honda Pilot, and the driver is absolutely out of their gourd on drugs or alcohol."

He knows it was 1:59 p.m. because his cell phone still has a record of the call. It says he stayed on the line four minutes and 14 seconds.

The dispatcher asked for a tag number. He pulled his Nissan Frontier pickup closer so he could make out a letter and two numbers, but he has forgotten what the numbers were. Ahead of him, the Pilot weaved, running up on the curbs.

"Oh, my God," he recalls telling the dispatcher. "I think she's gonna flip it."

Tampa police records show they got the call at 2 p.m. By 2:01, a dispatcher had told all units to look out for the Pilot, and soon after that the dispatcher sent two cars to find it.

Stoltenberg followed the Pilot past Hyde Park and over the Platt Street bridge. He saw it stopped at a red light at Franklin Street and Channelside Drive. To his left, six blocks to the north, he could see the blue tower of the Tampa Police Department.

"Where are you guys?" he asked.

It wasn't clear Wednesday exactly where those two police cars were. Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said one had been at Spruce Street and Dale Mabry shortly before the call. Both were hung up in traffic.

The Pilot ran the red light.

"Ma'am," Stoltenberg said to the dispatcher, "I'm not gonna run the red light to try to catch her."

But she wasn't going very fast, and he caught up to her at another light at Morgan Street.

Right around then, the dispatcher sent out a third car.

The Pilot ran that red light too, and Stoltenberg saw her going up the ramp.

"She's on the Crosstown headed to Brandon," he told the dispatcher just before hanging up. The dispatcher relayed this information to the cruisers.

I'm still on it, one of the officers said at 2:05. That officer searched the expressway for 16 minutes and never found the Pilot.

Traffic video obtained by the Highway Patrol showed Riemann driving over traffic cones immediately after passing through the 78th Street toll plaza. She drove east in the westbound lanes until she crossed the Palm River Road overpass. That's when the cars collided head on.

"It's very hard to catch up with a moving target," McElroy said. "It's really disturbing and disheartening when you try to do the right thing and you can't stop people from doing bad things."

Stoltenberg said he thought about following the Pilot onto the expressway, but he would have had to break traffic laws and perhaps endanger others in order to catch it. He still wonders about that decision.

"If this ever happens again," he said, "I ain't waitin' for the cavalry."

Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3416.

Police couldn't catch up to driver before Crosstown crash 09/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 19, 2008 9:47am]
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