To 16-year-old Keith Domagala, sitting in the passenger seat of the Honda Prelude, the sound of the engine didn't match the situation. They were westbound on Ridge Road, fast approaching a red light at U.S. 19, but the Prelude's manual transmission was still in high gear.
Domagala glanced at the driver. Behind the wheel, 17-year-old Raimond Michael Moran was out cold, Domagala said in a recent court deposition. Moran had just taken two successive hits off an aerosol can of keyboard cleaner, Domagala testified, and now he was unconscious _ with his foot still on the gas.
"That's why I realized he had passed out, because we were coming up to a red light and he had a manual stick shift car," Domagala, now 17, said in an August deposition made public Friday. "And when I'd seen the light, and he didn't take the car out of the gear, that's when I said, "Hey, Mike, slow down.' "
Moran didn't respond, so Domagala said he reached over and grabbed the wheel. "I wasn't really worried about stopping the car," Domagala said. "I was more worried about rear-ending the minivan that was right in front of us stopped at the light."
Domagala managed to avoid the minivan, steering the 1989 black Prelude up onto a concrete median. There would be no more evasive maneuvers.
Prosecutors say the Prelude blew through the red light at more than 50 mph, shot into the northbound lanes of U.S. 19 and smashed into a Buick Regal sedan. Three people in the Buick _ Feliciano Castillo, 34; Douglas Allen, 30; and Megan Basinger, 24 _ were killed in the crash, which happened just before 10 p.m. Aug. 19, 2000.
Moran, now 19, of Port Richey faces three counts of manslaughter, which could bring up to 45 years in prison if he is convicted. His trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 7.
Domagala, who now lives in New York, is the state's key witness.
Blood tests did not show the presence of any inhalants in Moran's system. That's not unusual: An expert for the prosecution testified in a deposition that intoxicating chemicals from aerosol cans remain in the body only for a few minutes.
Without blood evidence, prosecutors are relying on Domagala's testimony to prove Moran passed out at the wheel from the effects of "huffing" the keyboard cleaner.
Moran took five or six hits from the can, Domagala testified, but it was the final two huffs, inhaled in rapid succession, that rendered him unconscious.
Domagala said he and the third passenger in the Prelude, 17-year-old Joe McDonald, also took hits off the aerosol can. The three teens were on their way to McDonald's house, where they planned to call a drug dealer about buying some ecstasy, Domagala said.
When he saw Moran passed out at the wheel, Domagala said, "It did not dawn on me to try to stop (the car)." He never considered turning off the car or pulling the emergency brake, he testified.
All three teens in the Prelude were injured in the collision. Domagala was knocked unconscious.
"When I woke up, the police were already there, the helicopters were there, and the three dead bodies were already on the ground with sheets on them," Domagala said.
A witness who ran up to the Prelude after the accident said the teens appeared to be under the influence of something.
"Their eyes were glazed over pretty badly," Richard Dupre, 53, said in a deposition. Dupre recalled turning to someone that night and remarking: "Those guys are high as kites."
Michael Chester, whose pickup was one of four vehicles involved in the accident, shared an ambulance with McDonald. He said McDonald was worried that authorities would find drugs in Moran's system.
"I hope they don't drug test him," Chester, 32, recalled McDonald saying. "Dumb a--. I told him not to drive."
_ Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavissptimes.com.