Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

FHP continues investigation of Land O'Lakes boy's death

LAND O'LAKES — The Florida Highway Patrol continues to investigate an accident Wednesday that killed a 9-year-old boy and injured his mother and brother.

John Ryals, 21, of Land O'Lakes was given a careless driving citation — not a criminal charge — after he told troopers he didn't see the boy, Jorge Cruz, his mom, brother and dog walking along Bahia Loop about 7:45 a.m. Ryals said he was focusing on an oncoming car, and the family was under a tree's shadow, FHP Sgt. Steve Gaskins said.

Troopers are conducting a traffic homicide investigation. "This case is not closed," Gaskins said in an email.

Meanwhile, friends of the family are raising money for Jorge's funeral, as his mother, 33-year-old Anita Pallares, and brother David Cruz, 7, begin to recover.

Pallares, who was seriously injured in the incident, has slept in her room at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point almost all the time since, said Fersan Canelas, the family's pastor. She told him Ryals was driving much too fast.

But on Thursday, Gaskins said speed was not a factor. Ryals was driving about the speed limit. Though alcohol involvement was ruled out, he was asked to give a blood sample and refused, Gaskins said.

Without consent, investigators need probable cause to take a blood sample or request cellphone records to determine if Ryals was texting while driving, Gaskins said.

Three defense attorneys not connected to the case said Thursday that investigators would need to show Ryals was texting while driving, or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol to be charged with reckless driving.

Without that charge, they said, it would be difficult to then build a vehicular homicide case.

"Often, only speeding isn't enough to qualify for vehicular homicide," Clearwater defense attorney Denis deVlaming said.

The investigation will likely take two to three months, Gaskins said, which is long after Ryals will attend a mandatory court hearing for the careless driving ticket. Dade City defense attorney Bill Eble said that should happen in about five to six weeks.

Canelas hopes to hold Jorge's memorial service next week.

The family can't afford a funeral, he said. When he heard Jorge died, he first thought, "I can't believe it." Then he opened an account to raise money for the funeral.

As of Thursday, his account and friends' efforts had raised more than $1,300.

Canelas has known the family for six years, since they started coming to his church in Land O'Lakes. He said Pallares and her sons were inseparable, attending church three times a week.

When Pallares isn't sleeping, he said, she's crying for Jorge and David, who joined her after he was released Thursday from St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

Smart, mature for his age and thoughtful, Jorge always impressed Canelas — especially because every time he came to church, he prayed that his father, who works all day, could join him.

"Jorge, even though he was a little kid, his father was his priority," Canelas said. "He wanted him to be with them in church."

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