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Driver found guilty in '98 DUI fatality

Jack Bass, 71, could spend the rest of his life in jail for the death of his friend.

Having bartended for 11 years, Sherrill Arledge said she has gotten pretty good at spotting a drunk.

So she said with confidence Friday that Jack Bass didn't look impaired when he left the Fraternal Order of Eagles club No. 3992 to have lunch with his friend Lewis Stephen Bullock. He had maybe one beer.

"He seemed to be doing fine," Arledge testified Friday, as did three members of the Eagles club.

Within minutes of leaving the club, Bass, then 71, drove off the road in his 1986 GMC Caballero entering a curve on State Road 44, about 11:35 a.m. on Sept. 16, 1998. His car collided with a utility pole after skidding more than 300 feet, killing Bullock, 65.

Late Friday, a jury found Bass guilty of driving under the influence-manslaughter after deliberating for about 90 minutes. He faces 10 to 17 years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 10, a likely death sentence, his attorney said.

"He's had all this time since it happened to spend with his family," said Lynn Ruziecki, 34, one of Bullock's daughters. "My dad missed the birth of another grandchild. It's justice."

Though several witnesses testified during the two-day trial that Bass didn't seem drunk, jurors had three pieces of evidence that were hard to get around.

One was a medical blood test taken about an hour after the crash that showed a likely blood alcohol level of 0.19 to 0.23 _ nearly three times the legal limit. The second was a blood test taken nearly two hours after the crash that showed a level of 0.22.

The third was the result of a breath test conducted at the Citrus County Detention Facility five hours after the accident. It showed that, even with all that time, Bass still had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14, nearly twice the 0.08 limit at which Florida law presumes someone is unable to drive safely.

"I think this is a case where, given the nature of the blood tests, I think the jury can't help but push the burden (of proof) on the defense," said Jim Cummins, the defense attorney for Bass.

Through his own witnesses and through cross-examination, Cummins attempted to prove over the course of the trial that his client was not unsteady on his feet or in his speech before or after the crash. His argument: While his client may have been legally drunk, his drunkeness didn't cause the fatal crash.

Instead, he advanced the argument that Bass swerved to avoid an oncoming truck that had swerved into his westbound lane as he and Bullock headed into Inverness for lunch at Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q.

"This case is about the cause of this accident," Cummins argued. "Jack Bass drove the road as it should have been driven."

But Cpl. Leo Wells, a traffic homicide investigator for the Florida Highway Patrol, said there was no evidence on the scene to back up the account. Rather, he said, Bass entered the curve just east of Inverness traveling at 94 mph, realized he couldn't cut the curve, braked, and slid off the roadway in an uncontrolled skid.

"It's how it had to happen," Wells said. "It's like putting a puzzle together. There was no marks on the roadway itself or anything that indicates it was an escape between two drivers."

Defense traffic crash expert Boyd T. Cochrane of St. Petersburg testified that marks on the road were consistent with an attempt to avoid an oncoming car. He also said Wells used faulty assumptions to estimate the speed of the Caballero, which he placed at 52 mph.

It was difficult to tell how much stock jurors placed in the dueling testimony, though an engineer sat on the jury, as did a bartender.

Either way, jurors reached the right verdict, said Ricki Bullock, who had married Bullock six months before his death after dating him for more than two years.

"They kept bringing up in the trial how he (Bass) was 71," Mrs. Bullock said. "My late husband never reached 71."

Assistant State Attorney Donald McCathran Jr. said he did not yet know how stiff a sentence he will seek against Bass in October.

"It's a loss all around," he said. "Bass will probably be in prison the rest of his life."

"All because of some beer," added Richard Buxman, who prosecuted the case with McCathran.