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Parents question cause of van incident at Ed Radice Park

A van plowed through a ball field at Ed Radice Park, damaging a dugout.

Special to the Times

A van plowed through a ball field at Ed Radice Park, damaging a dugout.

CITRUS PARK — The minivan that plowed across a Little League field on a busy Saturday morning did plenty of structural damage, but miraculously no one was hurt.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigated the scene and chalked it up to a blown tire and an unfortunate accident.

Yet, three weeks later, parents remain miffed that authorities haven't charged the van driver. They continue to submit statements to the Sheriff's Office and have uploaded videos to YouTube that they believe refute details in the crash reports. They talk to anyone who will listen, alleging a cover-up.

The driver "turned towards children," said Arlana Guckenberger, whose daughter plays for a team at the park. "How does that not show intent?"

But the Sheriff's Office says their investigation doesn't support that.

"There's been no evidence that has been determined to say he was careless or he was (driving under the influence)," sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said.

Deputies have fielded numerous phone calls and even met with parents. Traffic homicide detectives conducted a follow-up investigation — a rarity for an accident in which no one was hurt.

"We actually went way far beyond what we normally do just to assure that this guy wasn't impaired," McKinnon said.

It started April 16 at Ed Radice Park, near Race Track and Mobley roads. The Rockets softball team, composed of girls ages 6 to 9, was on the field playing defense as their parents watched from lawn chairs. About 12:30 p.m., the adults heard a commotion coming from behind.

Peter James Lewis — a 22-year-old Tampa man who works for a vending machine company — was behind the wheel of the minivan. It had already barrelled through two other Little League games in progress by the time it crashed onto the Rockets' field.

Desiree Chambers said the driver appeared alert during the entire ordeal: "Hands on 10 and 2 and looking straight ahead like it was nothing."

"We were running for our lives," Brigette Coble recalled this week. "I still have the memory of the car accelerating."

The Sheriff's Office responded to the crash and called a DUI investigator to perform a field sobriety test on Lewis. They took statements from several witnesses, although some Rockets parents said they felt deputies ignored them. Some witnesses that day said they saw the driver's tire shred and that it was flat when the van stopped. There also was a hole in the tire's sidewall, according to the sheriff's report.

Investigators concluded a blown tire caused the crash. Also, debris in the vehicle might have lodged behind the accelerator as the van careened across the fields.

Lewis had a cut on the side of his head and might have blacked out during the crash, the accident report said.

After paramedics cleared him, Lewis left the accident scene. He did not return phone calls from the St. Petersburg Times seeking comment for this story.

The Rockets parents later learned that an hour before the ball field accident, Lewis had rear-ended a car in a separate incident. He was cited with careless driving in that crash, a common ticket issued to at-fault drivers that usually results in a fine.

The report for the first crash mentions that Lewis had tried to brake but didn't stop the minivan from running into the car.

Some parents speculate that Lewis had faulty brakes, yet kept driving nonetheless. They blame the Sheriff's Office for allowing him to drive away after the first accident.

McKinnon said Lewis' first crash that day was a minor, routine accident.

Those who saw him at the ball field said he appeared aware enough to control the minivan's path. They wondered how he passed a field sobriety test after the accident if he indeed blacked out during it, as authorities say.

"I'm dying to move on, but I have so many questions as to things that don't add up," said Bob Guckenberger, Arlana's husband. "Until they start giving us some real answers, then we're going to keep asking questions."

Because of the complaints, the crash remains an open investigation.

"The case is still active," McKinnon said. "We're still reviewing evidence and will continue to work on the case."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Parents question cause of van incident at Ed Radice Park 05/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 4:30am]
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