TAMPA — The driver who police say caused a fatal crash that killed a couple and their 8-year-old daughter on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway had two seizures earlier in the day and one right before the crash, her attorney said Monday.
Amber Nicole Perera faces three counts of DUI manslaughter, among other charges, for the crash Thursday that killed Luiz Felipak and, pending confirmation from the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office, his wife Rita Felipak of Tampa and their 8-year-old daughter, Giorgia. But Perera blacked out during the seizure and was disoriented immediately after the crash, not intoxicated from her medication as Tampa police have charged, said defense attorney Hubbell Losson.
"All of our investigation leads to this," Losson told the Tampa Bay Times. "We know that she had a seizure. We know that the accident was the result. Amber was not impaired by any alcohol or controlled substance."
Witnesses told police that Perera, 29, drove her Kia for at least a mile at speeds close to 90 mph. She passed other vehicles before making a sharp left turn and crashing into the rear bumper of the Felipak's Hyundai sedan as she approached slow moving traffic in both eastbound lanes of the expressway, prosecutors said in a court document.
The impact of the crash launched the Felipak's sedan through the expressway median and into the westbound lanes, where it was struck by a Jeep and an Infiniti sport utility vehicle before bursting into flames, police said. While the Medical Examiner's Office was able to positively identify Luiz Felipak as the vehicle's driver, a spokesman said Monday that confirming the identity of the other two deceased passengers will require DNA testing.
The crash also caused Perera's smashed Kia to careen into the grass median, but she then regained control of the vehicle and sped away from the scene, court documents said.
Police said Perera drove about 2-1/2 miles until a wheel fell off of her Kia, forcing it to a stop near the intersection of Platt Street and Willow Avenue, court documents said.
Losson said his client only realized she'd been in a crash after she regained consciousness and discovered her car was heavily damaged. She didn't see any other cars around, so she called her partner.
"She knew she had a seizure," Losson said. "She waited for law enforcement. It wasn't a situation where she tried to get away."
Perera was sweating profusely, slurring her words and struggling to maintain her balance during a field sobriety test, police said. She cooperated with police when taken to Tampa General Hospital to provide a blood sample, police spokesman Steve Hegarty said.
But after Perera's blood was drawn, court documents said she "removed the vials of blood and concealed them in her underwear" while a nurse entered information into a computer, leading to a destruction of evidence charge. After a second blood sample was taken, Perera pulled down her pants and urinated on the hospital room floor, the court documents said.
Perera's arrest report makes no mention of a seizure but said she reported using prescription medications Ativan and Lexapro.
Losson said Perera first started having seizures last fall. After visits to her primary care doctor and a neurologist, she was diagnosed in November with psychogenic nonepileptic seizures, he said. The episodes come with the symptoms of an epileptic seizure, Losson said, such as head thrashing, body stiffening and eyes rolling back in the head. After the seizures, patients go into a "postictal state" marked by confusion, disorientation and drowsiness, among other symptoms.
"She experienced different levels of seizures but they are quite frequent," Losson said.
About 7:30 a.m. on the day of the crash, Perera took a dose of her two medications, Losson said. Later that day, while working as a paralegal at the Tampa office of attorney Mark Stopa, she had two seizures, according to Losson. Both were witnessed by coworkers, he said. She left early because she was not feeling well and was on the way to her home in Brandon when the crash happened at 4:12 p.m.
Perera had felt the seizures coming on in the past, so she felt comfortable driving, Losson said.
"I don't think she felt this one coming on and if she did, it was too late," he said.
Losson declined to comment on the allegation Perera hid the blood samples, saying he was still investigating that charge.
A spokeswoman for the Tampa Police Department said investigators have not received the blood test results and declined to comment.
Stopa confirmed Monday that Perera worked Thursday and said she no longer is employed by his firm. He declined further comment.
Under Florida law, a person with epilepsy can still maintain a driver's license upon their doctor's recommendation, but only if it has been two years since their last seizure. A person under regular medical supervision may apply for a driver's license once they've gone one year without a seizure, but that application must first be approved by the Medical Advisory Board of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the law states.
According to her Florida driver's record, Perera received citations for knowingly driving with a suspended license in Citrus County in 2006, in Orange County in 2008 and in Hillsborough County in 2013.
The possibility that a seizure forced Perera to crash into the Felipak's sedan brings little comfort to the grieving loved ones the young family left behind, said Josh Unser, a high school friend of Rita Felipak's.
"It's not fair that her wonderful life, and especially the life of her child, were taken away so quickly without any explanation or reason — just bam, gone," Unser said. "I can sympathize with illness or addiction, but the fact is this woman made the choice to get behind the wheel, flee the scene of a crime and hide evidence, and it makes me mad that those irresponsible choices ended three innocent lives."
Perera is also charged with DUI with serious bodily injury and leaving the scene of a crash involving death. She is slated to appear in court Wednesday for a pretrial detention hearing. Losson said prosecutors are expected to ask that Perera be held without bail. Losson will argue for her release pending the resolution of the case.
He said his client was "devastated" by the news that three people died in the crash.
"I speak for my client and the rest of her family when I say our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and loved ones of the Felipak family."
Giorgia Felipak was a third grader at Chiles Elementary School in Tampa, said Hillsborough County School District spokeswoman Tanya Arja. Grief counselors were at the school Monday to speak with students and staff, Arja said.
Times staff writer Dan Sullivan and senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.