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Year starts out deadly on roads

Only a week into the new year, Tampa police detectives who investigate traffic fatalities are mired in work.

A string of crashes, many resulting in injury or death, has them so busy they don't even have time to be interviewed by reporters, said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

"It's been a tragic start to the new year," she said.

This week, from all corners of the county, officers were called to all sorts of traffic crashes, including one case involving the Tampa police chief.

Locally so far this year, there have been five traffic-related deaths; this time last year, there were none.

In all of 2003 there were 45 fatalities, then a drop in 2004 to 38.

With traffic high on the list of concerns for residents, the department beefed up traffic enforcement last year, issuing 46 percent more traffic tickets than in 2003, she said.

All over the city and the county this week, tragedy struck:

+ Monday, Joseph Robert Blanchard, 80, was struck from behind and killed while driving his riding mower across a Riverview road in the dark. A 2003 Nissan driven by Linsey Owens, 18, was heading west on Riverview Drive at about 35 mph when it struck the lawn mower, sheriff's deputies said. Owens, of Tampa, said she did not see the man.

+ Also Monday, 22-year-old Jordan Carpenter died when a pickup struck him and another bicyclist as they biked down Taylor Road, a dimly lit back street in Seffner.

The driver of the 1998 Toyota pickup, Taffy Rimes Carter, 52, said she did not see Carpenter or his companion, Sarah Veazey. The truck hit both bicyclists, and Carter stopped to call for help. Veazey was treated for minor hand and knee injuries.

+ About 6:30 Wednesday morning, Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue was veering off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to get onto Interstate 75 when he ran into the back of a 2003 Volkswagen Jetta, triggering a chain reaction crash involving three cars and a truck. Hogue was cited for following too closely.

+ Also Wednesday, shortly after 10 a.m., Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Brandon McElderry was shot after trying to make a traffic stop. McElderry suffered a wound to his thigh and was in fair condition. Darian Maurice Wright, accused of shooting the trooper, was arrested.

+ Wednesday afternoon, 19-year-old Joshua Le died at a hospital after crashing a Honda Accord that was stolen from an Orlando home. Le was driving the car south in the northbound lane of Dale Mabry Highway about 6:15 a.m. Wednesday, police say. Valrico resident Samuel Ralph Mato, 70, was traveling north on Dale Mabry in a Dodge van. Both drivers veered into the southbound lane to avoid a crash, but collided head-on.

Le died hours later at Tampa General Hospital. A passenger in the Honda, Derreck Lamar Redditt, 20, of Tampa, was critically injured.

+ Later Wednesday, the high-speed pursuit of a felon with a history of dangerous driving ended in West Tampa when the fleeing car smashed into a Tampa family's Buick, killing its driver, George Galindo, 50, and injuring his brother and sister-in-law. The Buick overturned and hit a black Saturn, leaving that driver with minor injuries and major damage to his car.

+ Thursday, three pedestrians suffered minor injuries when two cars collided on a downtown street and one of the vehicles skidded onto the sidewalk and struck them.

+ And late Thursday night, Middleton High School senior Lonnie Mann Jr., 18, died and four other people were injured after a three-car crash at 36th Street and Hillsborough Avenue.

"It appeared to be a trend there that fatal crashes were down," McElroy said, "but you can't predict it. We wish we could control them, but we can't."

Times staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this report.