TAMPA — After she slammed into the back of a car on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, causing a fiery crash that killed a couple and their young daughter, Amber Perera said she’d had a seizure.
Prosecutors said she was driving under the influence.
Two years later, days before her case was to go before a jury, Perera pleaded guilty to charges that could send her to prison for decades.
Perera, 31, entered a guilty plea Friday to nine charges including three counts of DUI manslaughter and one count of leaving the scene of death. The counts combined carry a maximum sentence of 91.5 years in prison.
A sentencing hearing is set for Oct. 18.
The Brandon woman stood behind the defense table wearing orange jail garb, her hands cuffed in front of her and her head bowed, as Assistant State Attorney Camaria Pettis-Mackle read a summary of the events on Aug. 10, 2017.
Killed in the collision were Luiz Felipak of Tampa, his wife Rita Felipak and their 8-year-old daughter, Giorgia.
Perera was driving east about 4 p.m. in a Kia Optima when she slammed into the Felipak family’s eastbound Hyundai near the expressway’s West Euclid Avenue exit. Data taken from the Kia showed that five seconds before the crash, Perera was driving 121 mph. Witnesses said they didn’t see the Kia brake before impact.
The force of the crash sent the Felipaks’ sedan across the grassy media and into the westbound lanes, where it collided with a Jeep and an Infiniti. The Felipaks’ car immediately caught fire.
“The entire Felipak family was killed as a result of the actions of the defendant, Amber Perera,” Pettis-Mackle said.
The bodies of the mother and daughter were burned beyond recognition.
The driver of the Jeep, Tracy Lee Kelly of Seminole, was seriously injured and required surgery on her back.
Perera kept driving then stopped when a wheel came off her car. She performed poorly on field sobriety exercises.
At Tampa General Hospital, Perera hid vials of blood that had been collected from her. She confessed to slipping them into her underwear when confronted by law enforcement. Investigators took another sample that showed her blood alcohol level five hours after the crash was .10. Florida law presumes a driver is impaired at .08.
More testing revealed Perera had “three levels” of marijuana in her system, Pettis-Mackle said. She did not elaborate at Friday’s hearing, but court records say the sample contained three cannabis-related compounds, two of them at concentrations high enough that “would likely have an effect on Perera’s brain."
Investigators also learned that Perera purchased beer twice on the day of crash, at 10:02 a.m. and again at 2:11 p.m.
In the days after the crash, Perera’s attorney Hubbell Losson appeared ready to mount a defense based at least in part on Perera’s 2016 diagnosis of psychogenic nonepileptic seizures.
At a bail hearing six days after Perera’s arrest, the witness who followed Perera said he asked her if she knew what had happened, and she replied, “I had a seizure.”
During the same hearing, Losson called to the stand a coworker of Perera’s who testified that Perera had two seizures in short succession the morning of the crash and left work early.
A judge denied Perera bail and she’s been in the Hillsborough County Jail ever since.
The case had been set to go to trial on Monday. Friday’s plea hearing was placed on the docket Thursday.
Before the hearing, Perera talked quietly with Losson, peering at the plea agreement papers through thick-framed eyeglasses. She answered Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella’s questions in a soft voice. Loved ones of the Felipak family filled two rows of the gallery. Some quietly wept.
Perera also pleaded guilty to DUI resulting in seriously bodily injury, DUI resulting in property damage, reckless driving resulting in serious bodily injury, reckless driving resulting in property damage, and evidence tampering.
Losson declined to comment after the hearing.