TAMPA — Amber Perera asked for a second chance. Her victims’ family wanted her to spend the rest of her life in prison.
A judge decided on half a century.
Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella on Tuesday sentenced Perera, 31, to 50 years in state prison for driving drunk and causing a crash on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway that killed Luiz and Rita Felipak of Tampa and their 8-year-old daughter, Giorgia.
Just before handing down the sentence, Sabella made reference to a jail call, recorded after Perera’s arrest and played in court by prosecutors, in which she told a family member, "My life is ruined.”
“Yes, ma’am," Sabella said, “your life is ruined, but you also ruined a lot of lives and ended three lives.”
Sabella announced his decision four days after a lengthy, emotional hearing Friday. The judge heard from investigators, experts and loved ones on both sides of the courtroom, then said he needed some time to weigh the facts and testimony.
Prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Perera to life in prison for crashing into the back of Hyundai sedan carrying the Felipak family while speeding east on the expressway on Aug. 10, 2017. The force of the impact pushed the Hyundai across the grassy median and into the westbound lanes, where it struck a Jeep and an Infiniti and caught fire.
All three of the Felipaks died at the scene. The Jeep's driver, Tracy Lee Kelly of Seminole, was seriously injured.
Perera’s Kia spun out in the median but she was able to regain control and kept driving, stopping about two miles away after a tire fell off her car.
A blood sample taken hours after the crash put Perera’s blood alcohol level at .10, and a Tampa police officer testified Perera’s blood-alcohol level could have been as high as 0.226 at the time of the crash. A driver is presumed impaired under Florida law at 0.08 or higher.
Store receipts showed Perera bought beer twice on the day of the crash, and investigators found an empty 24-ounce beer in her car.
More testing revealed Perera also had three cannabis-related compounds in her system ― two of them in concentrations high enough to effect Perera’s brain, according to testimony.
Perera, who has been diagnosed with non-epileptic seizures, told a witness after the crash that she’d had a seizure before it happened. Her attorney, Hubbell Losson, tried to convince Judge Sabella that her seizure disorder was a factor in the collision.
Sabella dismissed the argument in his announcement Tuesday. He noted that the data recorder on Perera’s car showed she was driving 120 mph five seconds before the crash, then slowed to about 100 mph and turned the steering wheel just before impact — evidence that she tried to take evasive action.
Perera then continued driving for about two miles before the tire fell off and hid vials of blood that had been drawn from her at the hospital.
“Miss Perera, you attempted to flee until your car no longer allowed you to flee,” Sabella said, “and to the extent that has been attempted to be explained by the seizure, you continued to avoid any responsibility for this crime in the hospital when you attempted to conceal the tubes of blood that had been taken from you.”
Last month, days before her trial was set to begin, Perera pleaded guilty to nine charges, including three counts of DUI manslaughter and one count of leaving of the scene of a crash involving death, leaving herself at the mercy of the court.
Sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of at least 35 years. Losson asked Sabella to depart from the guidelines and give his client 20 years in prison followed by at least 15 years probation. Losson argued that her criminal history was minimal and she had no intention of hurting anyone.
Others testified that Perera shouldn’t live free for another day. Rita Felipak’s father, Michael Ceranni, took the stand Friday and told Perera she deserved to spend the rest of her life in prison.
Later, Perera’s mother and other family members told Sabella she is a good person who is remorseful for the terrible decision she made to drive that day.
Perera has been in custody since the crash. Waiting for Tuesday’s hearing to begin, the former paralegal sat in orange jail garb, at times sobbing and lifting her thick black eyeglasses to wipe away tears. After the verdict, she turned to look at her family once more before a bailiff led her away.
Cerrani and other family members of the victims declined to comment after the hearing.