TAMPA — The day before he caused a crash that killed a woman, Bradley McTaggart welcomed his estranged wife back home with a promise: I’m going to try to stop drinking.
“Good people have addictions, and he was trying to overcome it to get me back,” Tonya Perez recalled.
McTaggart, 38 at the time, knew he was prone to alcohol withdrawal seizures when he limited his drinking, authorities said, but on the day after Christmas in 2017, he insisted on driving Perez’s Chevrolet pickup truck.
As they headed north on James Redman Parkway in Plant City, McTaggart said he wasn’t feeling well. Perez, who was lying down in the truck’s back seat because she also felt unwell, recalls telling him at least twice to pull over. She said he told her he’d get them to their destination, a Walmart, and then let her drive.
Then McTaggart fell silent. Perez looked up and saw his arms flailing. He was having a seizure, and the truck was accelerating.
One of Perez’s next memories is waking up to find firefighters working to free her from the twisted wreckage of her truck. They’d been in a crash, and a woman in another car, 57-year-old Maria DeJesus Rodriguez of Mulberry, had been killed.
The crash prompted Plant City police to launch an unusual criminal case that a police spokesman said had little to no precedent in Florida: McTaggart was charged with vehicular homicide because, prosecutors said, he knew he could have a seizure when he cut back on drinking but got behind the wheel anyway.
The case came to a resolution last week when McTaggart, now 41, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and reckless driving. As part of a deal with prosecutors, Circuit Judge Barbara Twine Thomas sentenced the Seffner mechanic to 10 years in state prison followed by a decade of probation. He received credit for 476 days served in the county jail while the case was pending.
McTaggart faced up to 20 years in prison. His sentence is consistent with state guidelines for the charge and his criminal history, said Grayson Kamm, a spokesperson for Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren’s office.
“This was no ‘accident’ — Bradley McTaggart knew he was putting people in danger when he got behind the wheel and that’s why we charged him for taking a woman’s life,” Kamm said. “Like all plea agreements, this locks him up with a guaranteed conviction, where he can’t appeal or get off on a technicality, and there’s no chance a jury acquits him and he gets away scot-free.”
McTaggart was represented by Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt’s office. Holt’s office generally does not comment on cases, and Holt did not respond Wednesday to a message seeking comment.
Taggart was driving Perez’s 2005 Chevrolet Colorado near Trapnell Road about an hour after sunset that day when he had the seizure, according to an arrest report. The Chevy veered across the center median and struck a southbound Ford Contour head on, then hit a Ford Focus that also was heading south.
DeJesus-Rodriguez, who was riding in the Contour, died at the scene. The driver, Manuel Flores, was hospitalized with a leg injury and released the next day.
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Flores and DeJesus-Rodriguez were agricultural workers and had been a couple for many years, Capt. Alfred Van Duyne, a Plant City police spokesperson, previously told the Tampa Bay Times.
The pickup came to rest on its side and emergency crews had to cut off the roof to extricate McTaggart and the other person in the truck.
Perez and McTaggart told police he had a long-term dependence on alcohol and suffers from seizures and other withdrawal symptoms if he doesn’t drink with regularity, the report said. McTaggart told police he wanted to quit drinking out of consideration for Perez but drank four beers over several hours before the crash “to stave off a seizure.”
The report noted McTaggart’s license was suspended at the time, and Perez was sober, had a valid license and was willing to drive.
After a yearlong investigation, police arrested McTaggart in January 2019. He spent a week in the Hillsborough County Jail and was released after posting $52,000 bail, though he was later jailed again after a battery arrest.
“The biggest challenge to this case is there weren’t other similar cases we could find as precedent,” Van Duyne told the Times then. “We were charting new territory.”
Van Duyne said this week the department had no comment on McTaggart’s plea deal and sentence.
Flores could not be reached for comment for this story. Kamm, the state attorney spokesperson, said DeJesus-Rodriguez’s family supported the approach prosecutors took in the case.
Long-term alcohol abuse changes brain chemistry, lowering a person’s so-called seizure threshold to a point below the brain’s normal electrical activity, Dr. Anthony Russell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2019 for a story about the unusual arrest.
Alcoholics with a history of withdrawal seizures are much more likely to have them if they stop drinking again, a phenomenon known as “kindling,” so patients with a seizure history who seek help from professionals to detoxify are medicated and monitored around the clock, Russell said.
Perez said she was with McTaggart during his own previous efforts to detoxify and has seen him have seizures, though never while driving.
Perez said she and McTaggart argued over who would drive that day and she would not have relented if she had known his license was suspended. She said he seemed OK until he said he didn’t feel well.
Asked if a 10-year sentence was fair, Perez said she’s wrestling with that question. McTaggart caused a crash that killed someone, so in that respect, the punishment is just, she said. But she also feels sorry for him because he didn’t mean to hurt anyone, including her. She suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung, among other injuries.
Along with lingering pain and a scarred face, Perez also bears the weight of regret.
“I couldn’t imagine losing a loved one just driving down the road,” she said. “I am sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, sorry. No one deserves that. That’s why I wish I would have took the keys and dealt with the aftermath.”
Perez said she hopes McTaggart finally gets — and stays — sober.
“I can’t help but love him and hope that he’s OK,” she said. “I will always be one of his best friends, and I forgive him.”