Saturday, December 16, 2017
Public safety

Scholarship still helps young athletes 20 years after fatal Clearwater accident

CLEARWATER — Since he was a boy playing Little League baseball, Gregory Richardson's family noticed he had a talent for the sport.

"He was a pitcher. He threw hard," said his brother, Chris Richardson. "He just had a God-given ability."

Through the years, Gregory's athletic skills strengthened. He played on his high school baseball and basketball teams, as well as a community baseball team. Before starting college, he was scheduled to try out for the Houston Astros.

But he never got the chance. Gregory, 18, was killed on July 17, 1994, when a drunken driver slammed into his family's van on Clearwater Memorial Causeway while they were on vacation.

After his death, Gregory's family started a scholarship program in his memory. Twenty years after the fatal crash, the Gregory Richardson Athletic Scholarship Award continues to provide scholarships to graduating high school athletes. Since 1994, the program has awarded nearly $20,000 in scholarships.

"Greg didn't get his opportunity to participate in college sports," Chris Richardson said, "so we wanted to do something to honor him and also recognize other people that will get that opportunity."

Each year, the scholarship fund aims to grant $500 to two students, one from Fairfield High School and another from Gettysburg High School, both schools that Gregory attended in Pennsylvania.

Donations once poured into the fund but have dwindled in recent years.

"After 20 years, people forget," Chris Richardson said. "My family's paid out of pocket on several occasions to meet the $1,000."

Chris, 46, still remembers the day his little brother died.

The family arrived in Clearwater Beach from their home in Orrtanna, Pa., on a Saturday. The following day, Chris and his brothers went to a Phillies game. On their way back to the beach, Chris, who was driving the van, caught a glimpse of a speeding pickup truck as it jumped a median and veered into their lane on the causeway.

"I remember having time to think, 'This is going to screw up our vacation,' " he said. "He hit us with tremendous force. The van disintegrated around us."

After the impact, the family scrambled out of the wreckage. Everyone was mostly unharmed — except Gregory, who was slumped unconscious in a seat.

Chris became nauseated as a helicopter rushed Gregory to Bayfront Medical Center, where he later died. News of his death spread to Pennsylvania, where his high school friends mourned his loss.

"We were all going to college in the upcoming months," said Gregory's high school friend, Jeremy Bowden. "I think as a group it made us grow up a little quicker. It made us realize the importance of being safe on the road."

Clearwater police arrested the pickup driver, Joseph Altamura, and charged him with DUI manslaughter. His blood alcohol level was 0.204 percent. The state presumes impairment at 0.08.

Altamura was found guilty in 1995, but the conviction was overturned because the jury had found him guilty of a lesser charge of vehicular homicide, a crime he had not been charged with. The following year, he was tried again and convicted of vehicular homicide. Altamura, then 30, was sentenced to five years in state prison.

For years, the Richardsons had vacationed on Clearwater Beach. But after Altamura's trial, they never returned.

"Nobody," Chris said, "had the strength to go back."

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.

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