Conrad Hernandez cracked a joke, something about giving his extra pounds to a teeny tiny family member.
He was talking to his mother on the phone on his way home to Parrish from work, stuck in rush-hour traffic as he crawled south over the Howard Frankland Bridge. Hernandez was always cracking jokes, turning waits at the airport or nights watching “Jeopardy!” into comedy routines, family and friends said.
But on that Dec. 17 day, shortly after 6 p.m., there were no more jokes.
Suddenly, Rosa Hernandez couldn’t hear her son over the phone. Instead, she heard some kind of “big noise,” she said, hard to describe even a month later.
She called his name, “Conrad, Conrad.” Then, seconds or minutes later — she couldn’t remember, in the blur this night would become — she heard a voice:
“Oh my God. Oh my God.”
The line went dead. Rosa Hernandez tried to call him back, no answer.
She dialed his wife.
• • •
Mari Anne Hernandez was at the couple’s Parrish home with their three children, waiting on her husband to join them.
A winding path had brought them there, to the house and the kids and the technology job that was a little far away but good, secure, enough to think about a bigger house with the pool Conrad, 37, always wanted.
The couple met almost two decades ago, while they were both working at Applebee’s. Conrad, not knowing she went by both names, called out for “Mari! Mari!” to grab the orders for her table. She snapped back, “Call me Mari one more time.”
He was smitten, and soon all their coworkers knew it. They watched as he showed up for a dinner shift with his hair cut short after Mari Anne told him she didn’t like it long.
But it was unrequited. Conrad was 19 at the time. Mari Anne was 25 and a single mother wondering what a man so young could possibly have to offer her.
Years passed. Conrad came in and out of her life, but he was always there when she needed him, one night swooping in for a last-minute job babysitting her young son and gently answering his probing questions: “Do you like my mom? Will you be nice to my mom?”
She decided to give him a chance, and they went on their first date somewhere Mari Anne, 43, can’t recall now — Conrad was the one who remembered those details.
A few years later, in 2008, they got married. Her best friend, on “Team Conrad” from the beginning, said I told you so.
That night in December, after her mother-in-law filled her in, Mari Anne’s gut told her, “Go find him.” She left the kids with her oldest son, Jailyn Stewart, and got onto the interstate, repeatedly calling her husband to no avail.
Dread crept in. She dialed someone else, her best friend, who works as a nurse at a St. Petersburg hospital.
• • •
Cortney Adkins was on shift at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg when her phone rang. Mari Anne never called, so she picked up bracing for bad news.
They’d been friends since Adkins was 16, she said. They were there through each other’s tough relationships and tougher break-ups. For a time, they worked at Applebee’s together, lived together, hung out together.
She saw how Conrad adored her best friend, always investing in her life and their friendship and never treating her any differently even while she kept him at arm’s length.
When Mari Anne and Conrad started dating, he embraced that the friends were a package deal, growing so close to Adkins’ daughter that she called Conrad her “grownup best friend.” The friends would joke they needed to find Adkins her own Conrad.
That night at the hospital, after learning he was missing, two trauma alerts were admitted into the hospital. Adkins, 36, could tell the first person wasn’t him because of their age.
The second person had no description, just “unknown.”
She called the emergency room and told a nurse Conrad’s age and what he looked like. The nurse called back minutes later and said they had someone who matched the description.
Adkins broke down in tears, clinging to the hope that maybe it was someone else, or that he’d survive. But by the time a nurse led her to his room, a sheet covered the body that was unmistakably his.
Back on the phone, Mari Anne broke down and parked at a Wawa off Gandy Boulevard. Adkins met her there, ripped open the car door and caught her best friend collapsing into her arms, screaming.
• • •
Here’s what happened that night, according to the Florida Highway Patrol and court documents:
At 6:12 p.m., Conrad Hernandez, driving a white 2013 Toyota Prius, was stopped in traffic in the center southbound lane of Interstate 275 near mile marker 28 — the Gandy Boulevard exit. Bryant Aubrey Haney, 42, was driving a black 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee and didn’t stop for the congestion.
He plowed into the back of the Prius so hard that both cars caught fire, and three more cars piled up from the impact. Witnesses helped pull Conrad from the Prius, and he was taken to Bayfront, where he was pronounced dead. Photos from the scene show the mangled, charred Prius, the entire front half crushed like a soda can.
Troopers said they found cans of White Claw hard seltzer littered around the Jeep. At the hospital, where Haney was also taken, his blood alcohol content level came in at 0.287 — more than three times the limit at which Florida presumes impairment, which is 0.08. Investigators said witnesses told them he was driving erratically before the crash.
Haney was arrested on charges of DUI manslaughter and driving with a suspended license causing injury or death. It was his fourth DUI arrest, according to court records. Two prior arrests, both in 2006, resulted in convictions. A third case, from December 2019, is still pending.
He was booked into the Pinellas County jail and released Wednesday after posting $25,000 bail. Court records show he has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Haney could not be reached for comment at several numbers listed for him. He is represented by the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office, which doesn’t comment on pending cases.
A woman who police said the Jeep was registered to also couldn’t be reached for comment, via a Facebook message and phone calls to several numbers listed under her name.
• • •
A month later, the women who endured that night are grieving in their own ways.
Rosa Hernandez, 69, keeps asking God why. Her other son died in a crash in 2003, she said, rushing to work on his motorcycle.
“It was horrible for me, but I knew in a way it was his fault,” she said. “But this time he was standing there, completely stopped, and doing nothing but patiently talking to his mother and father on speaker phone while he was waiting for the traffic to move.”
Mari Anne Hernandez is planning to enroll 9-year-old Zander and 11-year-old Maia in grief counseling. She’s working on compiling a book of memories from friends and family so they’ll know not only what Conrad was like as a father, but as a man, too.
“He was proud to say he was my husband, he was a father, that he took care of my family,” she said. “He was just amazing. He really was.”
She’s dealing with anger, too, that, if Haney’s convicted, the maximum prison sentence he faces is 15 years. To Mari Anne, it’s not enough, particularly considering his past history.
Adkins returned to her job at the hospital. It’s gotten easier with time, and support from her coworkers, but still she replays the night over and over and over again.
“This is literally everyone’s worst nightmare,” she said. “We’re told our whole lives, ‘You’re not guaranteed tomorrow, and anything could happen,’ and we’re all like, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, it could, but what are the odds,’ you know? Then one day you’re sitting in traffic, and a drunk kills you.”
Adkins did end up finding her own Conrad. She and her fiancé, Joe White, had planned to get married during a September cruise. Mari Anne and Conrad were to be their joint officiants.
The crash convinced them to reprioritize. They didn’t want to put it off any longer, so they moved it to this weekend on a camping trip to Live Oak, amid the trees and twinkly lights.
Mari Anne will officiate.