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Rays prospect Andrew Bellatti reflects on fatal crash, forgiving widow

PORT CHARLOTTE — His words were about the life that was lost.

Her words were about the life that should be saved.

If it was by the grace of God that Andrew Bellatti walked away from the accident he caused that killed a man, it was by the grace of the woman he made a widow that he is free to continue his promising pitching career with the Rays.

Bellatti was 18 and home in the San Diego area after his first pro season on that January 2010 afternoon when he sped across the yellow lines on a rain-slicked road by his old high school, lost control of his Ford Mustang and crashed head-on into a van.

The driver — 50-year-old David Reid, a career Navy man known as Steele Canyon High's "Drama Papa" for his volunteer work — was killed. His son, Garrett, was hospitalized with injuries that required surgery. Bellatti's then-girlfriend, Bree Pfunder, whom he was driving to her basketball game, was hurt, too. Bellatti? Barely a scratch.

Facing vehicular manslaughter and other charges that could have sent him to prison for seven-plus years, Bellatti hand wrote a heartfelt letter to David's widow, Lynette Reid, detailing his sorrow.

"There really wasn't anything I could say to make the situation better," Bellatti said last week. "But I just really wanted to say I'm sorry. And when I wrote the letter, it was like I couldn't have said enough 'I'm sorry's.' "

Lynette didn't need to read the half-page letter to influence how she felt. As devastated as she and her kids were, as many reasons as she had to seek vengeance, she saw no reason to ruin another life, believing mercy is what David would have wanted. She instructed her lawyer to ask the judge for leniency, limiting Bellatti's penance to a short stint in county jail.

"I just couldn't see where him going to prison would help me or my children or anything else," said Lynette, remarried and relocated. "I've always felt like it's kind of the Shakespeare thing — the quality of mercy is not strained. And I really believe that."

Bellatti, through a plea agreement, was sentenced to eight months, and between time served and time off, he spent less than 90 days behind bars.

Still, walking into a 7- by 11-foot three-bunk cell in the underground South Bay Detention Center was punishing for Bellatti, especially without then knowing how long he would be there, wearing a blue jumpsuit.

"I was 19 years old, and to be honest, right when I got in, I couldn't see light at the end of the tunnel," Bellatti said. "I thought my life was over."

He kept to himself and out of trouble, taking advantage of some jail staff members recognizing him as a former high school star. He got out in time for the next spring training.

His five years' probation is set to expire in November, lawyer Patrick Hall said. Bellatti was forced to surrender his license for a year, and scared by the judge's threat that even a minor violation would lead to a probation revocation, he hasn't driven since, relying on family at home, teammates in-season. "There's just no point," he said. "It would be catastrophic to me."

Bellatti is 23 now, far enough along in the Rays' system after a solid year as a reliever at Double A to earn his first invitation to major-league camp. The team stood behind him the entire time, with farm director Mitch Lukevics saying Friday he is "an outstanding young man who was involved in a sad and unfortunate accident.''

The passage of time, along with faith and family, has eased Bellatti's burden. The flashbacks and sleepless nights have ended, and he finds himself thinking less about the experience, though also more able to talk about it — noticeably devoid of much emotion — when asked.

"Right after it happened, it was incredibly tough," Bellatti said. "It was just like kind of, gosh, I was asking why. I still haven't gotten that answer. I don't think I ever will."

What he has come up with, in short, is that he didn't set out that day planning to do anything bad, that he was wrong for speeding, that what happened was tragic and also that it could have been worse, including him dying.

Some accounts suggest an extenuating circumstance, that a car pulling out in front of Bellatti led him to cross lanes to try to pass. Prosecutor Curtis Ross, though, accused Bellatti of "selfish, reckless conduct" and said he had been seen speeding in the same area the week before.

"I just think he was a young, dumb kid that got caught in a stupid action," Lynette Reid said. "We've all been 19 and done something dumb, and usually you're okay. You luck out and nothing bad happens. That just wasn't the case. It was a terrible set of circumstances."

Bellatti said he was stunned when he heard of Lynette's plea for compassion and will be forever grateful. "She could have said anything negative she wanted and I wouldn't have argued," he said. "For her to kind of show mercy … that was incredible."

(There also was a civil lawsuit and a confidential settlement that Lynette Reid acknowledged will provide more money if and when Bellatti gets to the big leagues. But she insisted that was not her motivation in pushing for a reduced sentence, nor her satisfaction in him doing well now.)

Reid expects Bellattti to get a better sense over time of what he did wrong and what changes he needs to make. Bellatti said he grew up fast from the experience. "I really had to take a long look at myself," he said, "and I had a while to do that."

Understanding "it's going to be part of my life forever" — especially with a life in the pro sports spotlight — he also hopes to not be defined by it. "I don't think I should be," he said. "Everyone has something in their lives; who knows what it is. But how I've carried myself on and off the field, I personally haven't let this define who I am. And I really don't think anyone else should."

After all, Lynette Reid is willing.

"I don't feel any ill will toward him," she said. "I think Andrew has owned up to it and tried to come out the other side of it a better man."

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

Rays prospect Andrew Bellatti reflects on fatal crash, forgiving widow 02/28/15 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2015 10:33pm]
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