The victim had boasted that he was once in the Soviet police. The main witness was later arrested on prostitution charges. Her husband had once been accused of selling secrets to the Soviets.
And the defendant? A St. Petersburg teenager who had been drinking beer at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game.
It was not the usual DUI-manslaughter case, Assistant State Attorney Gary White said this week. "It's like a Tom Clancy novel," he said. Defense attorney Louis Kwall called the case "very bizarre."
In the end the teenager, Paul J. Hildebrand, pleaded no contest and was sentenced to a year in the Pinellas County Jail.
Acting Circuit Judge Thomas Freeman also gave Hildebrand, 19, a year of house arrest and eight years of probation. Then Freeman fined him $5,000, ordered him to perform 250 hours of community service and revoked his driver's license for life.
The crash that brought Hildebrand to court occurred on Interstate 275, about a quarter-mile north of 38th Avenue N, at 12:25 a.m. Oct. 31. Hildebrand was driving his 1993 Saturn about 70 mph when he hit the rear of a 1987 Ford Escort.
The impact flipped the Escort several times, ejecting a man who hit a concrete pole. He suffered a fatal head injury.
The victim was Stanislaw Damszel, 54, of Gulfport. A native of Poland, he was known to his friends as "Russian Mike" and boasted he was once a policeman in the Soviet Union, White said. More recently he had seen the other side of the law, pleading guilty in 1993 to sexual battery.
A second person in the Escort suffered minor injuries. Donna Huckleby, 28, a convicted felon who last month was charged with soliciting for prostitution, told investigators that she was a passenger and Damszel was driving.
But Huckleby's husband, Charles Slatten, said she was lying to stay out of trouble, Kwall said.
Slatten, 30, is himself no stranger to trouble. A decade ago, while in the U.S. Army, he was charged with selling secrets to the Soviets. Now he is awaiting trial on federal charges that he tried to get back at his landlord by setting off a pipe bomb at the home of the landlord's parents.
According to Kwall, Slatten said Damszel had hired his wife as a prostitute and the pair had shared some cocaine, then started fighting in the car, Kwall said.
Investigators did find cocaine in Damszel's blood, and neither passenger was wearing a seat belt. Kwall suggested those circumstances contributed to Damszel's death.
But White argued that what caused the crash was Hildebrand's high speed and his alcohol consumption. Hildebrand told a Florida Highway Patrol trooper that he had had two beers at a Buccaneers game several hours before, but nothing since.
Yet at the time of the crash, White said, Hildebrand had a blood-alcohol level of 0.10, which is above the level at which Florida law presumes a driver to be impaired. White said Hildebrand must have downed 12 beers, not two.
"Mr. Hildebrand took a man's life after making the choice to drink and drive," Patricia Reinhold, president of the Pinellas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told the judge.
But when Hildebrand pleaded no contest last week, about 30 relatives and friends came to court to tell the judge the teenager deserved a second chance.
"He's a good kid," Kwall said. "This was just one of those things that happen. Now he's going to have to live with it."
_ Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.