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Driver loses his license to cyclists' rueful relief

Wendy Tocha could not have applauded even if she had wanted. Her right arm, which still suffers from nerve damage, was in a sling Friday afternoon, nearly four months after a man driving a Lincoln Continental plowed into her and two dozen other bicyclists.

But Tocha didn't want to cheer.

The 27-year-old, whose neck was slashed open during the July 6 accident, burst into tears after a county judge imposed the maximum punishment against Joseph Pastore, the 61-year-old driver charged with careless driving.

Pinellas Judge William H. Overton revoked Pastore's driver's license for life and fined him $500. The judge said neither jail time nor restitution could be imposed for careless driving, a civil infraction. Pastore pleaded no contest and did not appear in court. His attorney, Nelson A. Guerra, handed over Pastore's driver's license to the judge.

"I don't know how to describe it in words," said Tocha, one of 14 people hospitalized in the accident.

She paused, searching for words.

"I'd rather have him be charged with reckless driving. I don't feel it's enough of a penalty. All these people, their lives have changed," she said as she surveyed the courtroom. Then she began sobbing.

Most of the people gathered in the courtroom, primarily bicyclists wearing slings and braces, and their relatives and friends, cheered. But many also later expressed disappointment that Pastore wasn't charged with a criminal offense, such as reckless driving.

"The fact that he has lost his license forever I think is awesome," Tony Forte, 39, said outside the Pinellas County Government Center. Forte, who suffered injuries to his wrist, leg and jaw, was in the hospital for eight days. "Even though I think he should have been charged criminally it makes me feel good that he's off the street. I'm elated."

Pastore struck the cyclists from the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and the St. Pete Mad Dogs triathletes' club on a two-lane residential road, leaving a pile of twisted bicycles. The retired Pinellas Park salesman told police he was trying to pass another car when he hit the bicyclists on 30th Avenue N just west of 53rd Street. He also has blamed water in his eyes.

Investigators believe Pastore's poor health and prescription medications might have caused him to blackout just before the crash.

Pastore pleaded not guilty to the careless driving charge at his August arraignment.

Many of the bicyclists felt Pastore should have been charged criminally. Overton noted he had received more than a dozen letters regarding the case.

"We're not here to debate the charge . . . although some of you disagree," Overton told the crowd. "The proper charge has been filed in this case."

On Friday, Guerra, Pastore's attorney, changed the plea to no contest. Pastore changed his plea because he wanted to put the matter behind him right away, his attorney said.

"His life is completely different," Guerra said. "People know who he is and are making his life very difficult."

He declined to elaborate.

Guerra also asked the judge to waive the $500 fine because his client "is in dire financial straits at this time." Overton said part or all of the fine could be converted to community service to be completed at $7 an hour within 180 days.

Two of the injured, Maria Riquet, 51, and David Arnold, 48, remained hospitalized until September. Both were in the courtroom on Friday.

"He should have been charged as a criminal for hurting so many people," said Riquet, who suffered broken bones, vertebrae and ribs, among other injuries. "But I'm happy he lost his driver's license."

Arnold, sitting in a wheelchair as a result of extensive leg injuries, said: "I'm glad he's off the road."

_ Marcus Franklin can be reached at mfranklinsptimes.com or (727) 893-8488.

David Arnold and Maria Riquet were hurt in the July 6 accident. Arnold suffered multiple leg fractures. Riquet injured her back, broke four ribs, broke her leg in four places and suffered a collapsed lung and minor brain injury.

Robin Perkins, facing camera, hugs Carol Jean Vosburgh after Friday's pretrial hearing. Perkins lost part of her left thumb and fractured her left arm in the accident, and Vosburgh's husband was injured.

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