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Driver in fatal crash was drunk, tests find

Five people, including the driver, were killed in the Interstate 75 crash in July.

When he got the official word Wednesday, Jim Malmquist was prepared. He'd suspected it all along.

The driver of the car that crossed the median on Interstate 75 and struck the van carrying his three daughters and ex-wife was legally drunk, the Florida Highway Patrol announced Wednesday.

Rose Marie Johnson, 42, of Ridge Manor in Hernando County, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 percent, according to the results of blood tests taken just after the July 22 crash that killed five people. Florida law presumes that a driver is impaired at a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or greater.

Two of Malmquist's daughters, 9-year-old Gail and 12-year-old Jackie, and his ex-wife, Alexis Malmquist, died as a result of the crash. Last week, Jim Malmquist pushed Jackie's twin, 12-year-old Katie, out of a Tampa hospital in a wheelchair. She suffered a broken arm, a severed leg muscle and cuts on her forehead.

Johnson and her boyfriend, Vernon "Mike" Padgett, 41, also were killed in the crash. FHP investigators haven't said whether Padgett had alcohol in his blood.

"It doesn't make me any angrier," Jim Malmquist said Wednesday from his home in Naperville, Ill. "I knew they were either drunk or trying to commit suicide."

Malmquist said troopers told him soon after the crash that they suspected Johnson had been drinking.

"They knew I wanted to know," he said. "They knew I had the biggest stake in this."

The two investigators assigned to the case had the day off Wednesday and couldn't be reached for comment on whether they believed alcohol was a significant factor in the accident.

Malmquist said troopers told him that, based on witness accounts, it appeared that Johnson was swerving erratically in the northbound lanes of the interstate just before the 1 p.m. crash in south Pasco County.

According to reports, Johnson, driving a 1986 Honda Accord, veered suddenly to the left and down into a ditch in the grass median. The car, traveling about 70 mph, flew into the air and smashed head-on into the southbound GMC van that Jim Malmquist said his ex-wife bought because she thought it would protect her daughters in a crash.

Alexis Malmquist, an accountant, was taking her daughters on a summer vacation to visit her mother in Englewood.

"They were doing everything right," Jim Malmquist said. "They didn't deserve to die."

Johnson's family could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Penny Trujillo, Padgett's sister, said the fact that Johnson was legally drunk makes her mad.

"Two little girls and a mother were killed. My brother was killed. It's so sad," she said. "I can deal with (losing) my brother, but not those two little girls and their mother."

Trujillo said her brother and Johnson spent their last morning in Tampa running errands. They planned to pick up Padgett's three children and bring them back to their Ridge Manor house, "but the kids had other plans," she said.

She did not know where Johnson and Padgett spent their final hours. And she said it was out of character for Johnson to drink and drive.

"She always told me she would never drink and drive," Trujillo said.

"Right now, I'm very angry with her for drinking and driving," she added. "At first, I was dealing with this as an accident. Now I'm dealing with with it like they were killed by a drunken driver. It's a slap in the face.

"It's like they say, "It's no different than taking a loaded gun .

.

. '

"

Padgett's mother, Patsy Sturgill, was equally baffled by the results of the blood tests.

"I have a hard time believing she was drunk," Sturgill said. "I had never known her to drink and drive. If they went someplace and she drank, (Padgett) always drove."

Jim Malmquist downplayed his feelings of anger, saying, "That won't bring my children back."

He vowed to fight for "the rest of my life, if I have to, to make someone put up a barrier" in the median of what he called "the deadly stretch of interstate."

"If I have to come down there with a construction crew and do it myself, I will," he said. "If my girls were alive today, they would say, "Make sure this doesn't happen to another family.' "

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

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