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Drunken driver who killed 3 in 2014 Christmas Eve crash gets 23 years

Paul Pulkownik, 53, drove the wrong way, causing the fatal crash.
Paul Pulkownik, 53, drove the wrong way, causing the fatal crash.
Published Sep. 3, 2016

LARGO — Matthew Martins wishes he could only remember the happy moments of Christmas Eve 2014: the family dinner, the kisses and hugs as they said goodbye, his mother and grandparents getting into a car.

But those memories are overshadowed by images of the mangled Hyundai Sonata, the deployed airbags, the smell of burned metal, the blood as Martins opened a car door to reach his dying family.

"A total nightmare," Martins said during the sentencing of the man driving the other car in the wrong-way crash that killed his mother, Isabel Martins, and his grandparents, Joao and Arminda Martins. "No one imagines the possibility of losing everything you love."

Paul Pulkownik, 53, pleaded guilty Friday to three counts of DUI manslaughter and was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

"I'm sorry for making the most tragic decision of my life," Pulkownik said, his voice breaking. "I wish there was more I could do."

The Martins family's story begins in Portugal, where Joao and Arminda fell in love. In 1949, the couple migrated to the United States and settled in New Jersey, eventually moving to Florida. They had two sons, John and Joseph Martins, who grew up to become engineers. Although Joseph died in 2001, his wife, Isabel, remained close to the Martinses.

On Dec. 24, 2014, the family gathered for its Christmas Eve celebration in Redington Shores, a time for worship, gratitude, singing Silent Night. After midnight, Isabel, Joao and Arminda got into a Hyundai to head home in Largo.

Isabel's son, Matthew, was right behind them in another car. As they approached 131st Street N, a Ford Explorer heading west in the eastbound lanes of Park Boulevard barreled into the Hyundai.

Matthew called his uncle John Martins, who rushed toward the police lights and sirens. Isabel, 58, died at the scene. At Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, Joao Martins, 84, was pronounced dead. His wife of 63 years, Arminda, 82, died days later.

In court Friday, prosecutors said that shortly after the wreck, Pulkownik had a blood-alcohol level of 0.319, or nearly four times the level at which Florida law presumes impairment. He had told investigators he consumed two or three beers that night.

If Pulkownik had gone to trial, he could have faced up to 45 years in prison. But as an eyewitness, Matthew Martins would have to testify in court.

"For the family to relive it vividly through the trial, they'd rather have the plea so they could start moving on," Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser said after the sentencing.

Pulkownik, who did not have a prior criminal record in Florida, was released on $60,500 bail after the crash. Born in Chicago, he is a married father with two sons and a daughter. He was a branch manager for Chase Bank in 2014.

On Dec. 24, 2014, Pulkownik wrapped and delivered gifts to needy families and later went to a co-worker's holiday party, according to his attorney, J. Kevin Hayslett.

On his way home to Largo, Pulkownik slammed into the Hyundai.

"The Martinses will have to deal with this for the rest of their lives," Pinellas Senior Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird said before accepting Pulkownik's plea. "You will have to deal with it, and that's the tragedy of the entire situation."

The fatal crash flashes back in John Martins' mind, he said, during Christmas commercials or on his drive home when he passes 131st Street N.

In the median, three small crosses stand in the grass.

"That night," he said, "the Martins family was forever changed."

Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.