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"I forgive him'

After his wife and daughter died in a fiery car wreck in 1998, Bruce Murakami turned his life to a single goal: bringing charges against the young driver he held responsible.

Over and over, prosecutors told him there was no case against Justin Cabezas, the 19-year-old whose rented car slammed into the Murakami minivan.

Murakami got a lawyer. He hired accident reconstruction experts. He found witnesses to confirm that Cabezas had been street racing before the crash. It took nearly three years, but he persuaded prosecutors to file charges.

But in a Hillsborough courtroom Wednesday, as Cabezas pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter, the man who had so relentlessly pursued him became his biggest ally.

With tears in his eyes, Murakami asked a judge to withhold a finding of guilt. Instead of prison, Murakami asked that he and Cabezas be allowed to educate people together on the dangers of reckless driving.

If something positive emerged from the tragedy, he said, "I think their deaths are not in vain."

"He's a young man," said Murakami, 53. "I forgive him."

Cabezas apologized to the Murakami family and said, "Thank you, sir, for your compassion."

The charges could have brought Cabezas 30 years in prison. Instead, Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta withheld adjudication and sentenced him to two years of probation and 300 hours of community service, with time at a program designed to discourage reckless driving among youths. He also ordered his license revoked.

"As a Christian, I have to do it," Murakami said, surrounded by his sons, Brody, 21, and Josh, 29. "...I believe this is something my wife and daughter would want, too. I talked to my boys about it, and we all pretty much feel the same way."

Murakami's late wife, Cindy, volunteered at a local hospital, counseled at-risk children and taught parenting classes. Their daughter, Chelsea, 11, was a sixth-grader at Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg.

On Nov. 16, 1998, mother and daughter were pulling out of a shopping center in the family Ford Aerostar in the 10200 block of W Hillsborough Avenue.

Cabezas, then 19, was driving a rented Dodge Intrepid when he slammed into the minivan, which struck a car and exploded.

Murakami, who was leaving home for work, saw smoke climbing into the sky and followed it to the crash. He found the wrecked Aerostar in flames, his wife and daughter trapped inside.

Witnesses said Cabezas appeared to be street racing with another car at speeds up to 100 mph just before the crash. But the Florida Highway Patrol said the accident was Cindy Murakami's fault, that she had pulled out in front of Cabezas' car. The FHP said he might have been going only a few miles faster than the 55 mph limit.

In November 2000, interim State Attorney Jack Rudy closed the case without filing charges. Murakami, who worked in construction, quit his job to pursue it. He hired criminal attorney Rick Terrana, who found witnesses who said they saw Cabezas street racing. He even found the driver of the car Cabezas had been racing.

Last June, newly elected state attorney Mark Ober, armed with evidence supplied by Terrana, filed charges. At the time, Murakami said Cabezas should be incarcerated for "a few years."

That feeling changed. Two weeks ago, Murakami met Cabezas at a lawyer's office. Cabezas expressed sympathy and remorse.

Murakami told prosecutors he didn't want jail for Cabezas. Cabezas would take responsibility for what he did. That was enough.

Prosecutor Doug Covington said Cabezas' lack of a prior criminal record made the state amenable to such a deal.

"Ninety percent of the time (with) the victim's family, they're in there asking for the death penalty on a third-degree misdemeanor," Covington said. "Mr. Murakami wanted to give the kid a chance. I'm sure some people will say, "This is crazy.' Others will say, "He gave the kid a chance.' "

Murakami and Cabezas intend to travel to Hillsborough schools together, telling their story and warning about the dangers of street racing.

"Sure, he robbed something very valuable from us," Murakami said. "But it's not going to bring my wife and daughter back by (him) sitting in a prison for 30 years. . . . I truly believe he's not a bad kid."

Cabezas, 23, lives in Sarasota and works at his family's pet shop. His lawyer, Eddie Suarez, said he was engaged and planned to take college classes. He said Cabezas was "emotionally devastated" over his role in the crash.

"It's one of the most remarkable plea agreements I've ever seen," said Joe Rousselle, one of Murakami's lawyers in a suit against Dollar Rent-A-Car, which rented the car to Cabezas. "I've never seen anything like this."

All the more remarkable, people say, considering how the trauma unfolded for Murakami.

Said Bill Winters, another of Murakami's lawyers: "You just can't imagine it. There's your wife and daughter. It's the most horrible thing ever. Because he saw the vehicles burn."

_ Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or