TAMPA — Nakeeba Ryan faced the possibility of years in state prison after she hit a teen girl with her sport utility vehicle on a Tampa street two years ago and then drove away.
Instead, the 26-year-old Tampa woman will spend a couple of months in the county jail as part of a plea agreement she signed late last month.
Ryan pleaded guilty on Dec. 20 to leaving the scene of a crash involving a death. Prosecutors say she struck 14-year-old Asucena “Susie” Gomez-Hernandez on North 15th Street in January 2020, stopped briefly and then left.
The charge carries a maximum of 30 years in prison, with a mandatory minimum sentence of four years. But state law allows defendants to ask a judge to waive that mandatory sentence if they were not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash. A judge can grant the request in cases where imposing the mandatory sentence “would constitute or result in an injustice,” the law says.
That’s what Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christine A. Marlewski decided as she agreed to the plea deal.
As part of the agreement, Marlewski withheld adjudication — which means Ryan is not a convicted felon — and sentenced Ryan to 60 days in jail followed by five years of probation. Her driver’s license has been revoked for three years and she must complete 100 hours of community service.
Ryan turned herself in at the Hillsborough County jail on Monday, records show.
Ryan’s punishment is appropriate for a defendant who has no prior criminal history and was not at fault in the crash itself but then “panicked” and left the scene, said Grayson Kamm, a spokesperson for Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren’s office.
The agreement, Kamm said in an email, balanced “punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”
“In situations where a driver flees to conceal drunk driving or has had multiple run-ins with the law, a harsher punishment would be appropriate,” Kamm said. “But those do not apply in this case, and we cannot undo the victim’s tragic death by over-punishing a first-time offender driver who was not speeding, not impaired, and not at fault in the crash.”
Kamm said prosecutors shared the outcome and the reasoning behind the agreement with Gomez-Hernandez’s family through their attorney, and the attorney said the family had no questions or comments after the offer was relayed to them.
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Gil Sanchez, an attorney representing the family, did not return messages left at his Tampa office.
A freshman at Freedom High School, Gomez-Hernandez was with friends trying to cross 15th Street just south of the intersection with 122nd Avenue about 7:15 p.m. that day when she was struck by Ryan’s southbound Chevy Equinox.
Ryan stopped, got out, walked over to the girl, then looked at the damage to the front of her vehicle, court records say. Ryan then moved the SUV to a nearby parking lot, “became overwhelmed” and left without helping the girl or calling 911, records say.
She was arrested the next day on a charge of leaving the scene of a crash involving injury and spent a day in jail before posting $7,500 bail. At the time of the crash, Ryan worked for the Department of Children and Families in a customer call center in Tampa dealing with inquiries about an economic self-sufficiency program. She was hired by the department in February 2019 and was immediately fired after her arrest.
Gomez-Hernandez was taken to Tampa General Hospital with a head injury so severe that surgeons removed large portions of the girl’s skull to try to relieve the swelling, her family said. Despite the efforts, the girl was deemed medically brain dead and her family took her off life support. Ryan’s charge was upgraded.
Ryan’s attorney, Brian E. Gonzalez, called his client a “wonderful person” who is extremely remorseful for the bad choice she made due to “a combination of her shock over what had just happened and the fact that crowds were gathering and people were upset and screaming.”
Though not near the magnitude of what Gomez-Hernandez’s family has endured, Gonzalez said, Ryan has suffered psychologically from the incident, and her felony arrest will probably make it difficult for her to find the sort of public service job that she envisioned when she graduated from college.
“Despite that, I believe she’s going to be an outstanding member of our community who’s going to do good for the people she comes into contact with, whether it be professionally or personally,” Gonzalez said.
After the crash, Gomez-Hernandez’s family called on the county to make improvements in the area and the girl’s mother, Ana Hernandez-Diaz, is suing the county over her daughter’s death.
In a pre-suit demand sent to the state of Florida, the family’s attorney said the county’s Public Works Department failed to maintain the intersection near where the girl was struck by making sure the crosswalk’s white lines were clearly visible.
The county does not comment on pending litigation. But officials have acknowledged how hazardous that portion of 15th Street is — the 1-mile stretch between Fowler and Fletcher Avenues is among the most dangerous in a county that routinely ranks as one of the deadliest in the nation for bicyclists and pedestrians.
That portion of 15th is on the list for a complete-streets renovation — adding extra features such as bike lanes and crosswalks. But because the project isn’t funded yet, it could take a decade or longer before the improvements are installed. After Gomez-Hernandez’s death, the county moved forward with smaller changes, including seven raised crosswalks that work like speed bumps and feature flashing beacons. That work was finished in August 2020.
Additional improvements are planned for this year, according to Leland Dicus, a division director for Hillsborough’s public works department. The county will install rectangular rapid-flashing beacons at all midblock pedestrian crossings and build sidewalks to fill in existing gaps, Dicus said through a county spokesperson.
Dicus said the Sheriff’s Office has been enforcing pedestrian crossing compliance in the area and there have been no pedestrian or bicyclist deaths there since the improvements were made.
“From observations, people walking in this area are using the crosswalk safety improvements and drivers are stopping for pedestrians,” Dicus said. “The techniques installed seem to be effective in addressing pedestrian safety.”