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Citrus driver gets year in fatal crash

(ran PC edition)

It wasn't the ending Alicia Kimbrell had hoped for. But it was an ending.

Tuesday morning, Richard Lee Buzby, 26, pleaded guilty to driving the car that killed Kimbrell's mother and younger sister and injured Kimbrell four years ago.

His plea, however, came with a stipulation Kimbrell found hard to swallow:

The Citrus man will spend one year in jail.

From one perspective, it's sweet justice in a case that for several years went nowhere. Dixie Kimbrell, 52, and her daughter Kimberly, 13, were killed early on Aug. 21, 1999, when a Jeep Cherokee crossed the center line on County Road 488, north of Crystal River.

The four people in the Jeep had been partying with alcohol and drugs that night and couldn't remember who was driving. One person was arrested, then the charges were dropped two years later. Finally, Buzby was arrested.

But for Alicia Kimbrell, 24, who was driving her mother and sister home from the Tampa airport that morning, a sense of incessant loss weighs more heavily.

"That was half my family," she said after the hearing.

Alicia had often questioned whether anyone would ever be held responsible for her mother's and younger sister's deaths.

The accident occurred about 2:15 a.m. at CR 488 and Diamond T Lane. Authorities said the sport utility vehicle crossed the center line at a curve and collided head-on with the Kimbrells' 1998 Saturn sedan.

Alicia, then 19, was badly bruised and spent several days at Seven Rivers Regional Medical Center. Her mother and sister died at the scene.

Authorities had an immediate problem: They didn't know who had driven the SUV. Two of the people, Richard Buzby and Jose Menendez, initially told Florida Highway Patrol investigators that the Jeep's owner, Misty Lynn David, was driving.

A blood sample taken from David two hours after the crash indicated an alcohol content of 0.011, well below 0.08, when a driver is considered impaired. But prosecutors said she was impaired from a combination of alcohol and the prescription antidepression drug Xanax.

She was arrested nearly 11 months after the accident and charged with driving under the influence manslaughter.

Then Buzby and Menendez changed their stories. They told lawyers they couldn't be sure who was behind the wheel, according to court records.

The fourth person in the Jeep that night, Crystal McClure, said she had consumed alcohol and Xanax earlier in the evening and had no recollection of the events that led to the crash.

Prosecutors said even David wasn't sure who was driving.

That left authorities facing an unusual predicament. Just days before David was headed to trial in May 2002, prosecutors dropped the charges against her.

Then began a renewed investigation by the State Attorney's Office to determine the driver. More than 25 witnesses were interviewed, some reluctantly, said Assistant State Attorney David Porter, who handled the case from Ocala.

Several people said Buzby was letting David take the rap for the crash he caused, Porter said. Buzby already had told FHP investigators that he consumed five beers and 3{ Xanax tablets in a five-hour period the night of the crash.

That statement, coupled with testimony from friends and the injuries he sustained in the crash, led authorities to charge Buzby with two counts of vehicular homicide, Porter said. Buzby also was charged with fleeing from the scene of a crash involving injuries.

If convicted, Buzby could have faced life in prison. But Porter said Tuesday prosecutors did not have a blood sample or any quantifiable evidence to present to a jury if Buzby's case went to trial.

Also, Buzby's defense inevitably would have made an issue of David's earlier arrest.

In Florida, victims' families get to weigh in on plea agreements. Agreeing to the deal wasn't easy, Alicia Kimbrell said. But she and her surviving sister, 25-year-old Sarah, who now live together in San Jose, Calif., decided not to risk a trial's uncertainties.