TAMPA — One early morning 16 months ago, an Audi R8 ripped along Interstate-4 through Tampa. Florida Highway Patrol investigators later pegged its speed, based on data from an on-board computer, at 154 mph.
Just before N 50th Street, the sports car slammed into the back of a Toyota Camry, launching the other vehicle into the air and causing it to explode.
The Camry’s driver, Douglas Eugene Cade Jr., and his passenger, Jason Rzechula, both from St. Petersburg, were killed.
On Thursday, a jury decided the Audi’s driver, Jorge Britton, was criminally responsible for their deaths. The panel of four men and two women deliberated about 2 1/2 hours before finding Britton guilty of DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide and other charges stemming from the December 2021 crash.
Britton, 36, will be sentenced on May 25. He faces 30 years to life in prison.
State prosecutors asserted that Britton was drunk when the crash occurred, and said that his driving was so reckless that he was guilty of vehicular homicide. Britton’s defense attorney, Jeffrey Brown, argued that there was no evidence that Britton was intoxicated to the point of impairment, and suggested his conduct behind the wheel amounted merely to culpable negligence.
“To find him guilty because he was driving at a high rate of speed is not justice,” Brown told the jury. “It’s not following the law.”
A significant focus was what Britton did in the six hours before the crash, how much alcohol he consumed and whether it was enough for him to be impaired.
A blood alcohol test administered about an hour after the collision indicated that Britton’s blood alcohol content was close to the .08 limit at which state law presumes impairment. A second test about two hours after showed his blood alcohol at .067.
“He wasn’t falling-down drunk. He wasn’t sloppy drunk. He was impaired,” Assistant State Attorney Darrell Dirks said in closing arguments.
Daniel Buffington, a pharmacologist who testified as a defense witness, said the timing of Britton’s consumption of alcohol wouldn’t have been enough for him to have been impaired.
The verdict capped a three-day trial in which Britton took the witness stand and asserted he drank little the previous evening, said he wasn’t drunk and denied that he drove recklessly.
He, too, was injured, but survived, as did two female passengers.
The collision happened hours after he’d attended a Tampa Bay Lightning game, where he said he sipped one beer, and a gathering afterward at the Penthouse Club, a gentlemen’s club on Westshore Boulevard.
He said he was trying to get into cryptocurrency, and had gone to the club to meet with colleagues who knew about crypto.
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“I am an engineer,” Britton said. “I build homes from scratch. That’s what I was doing.”
Britton said he pulled in at the Penthouse Club about 11 p.m. and met with his colleagues. They shared a bottle of tequila. Britton testified that he consumed no more than two drinks that were watered down with a Red Bull energy drink and ice.
His last sip was a little before 1:30 a.m. He decided to head to the Hard Rock Casino to play Blackjack and eat at a noodle bar.
He left in the Audi with his female companion and another woman who’d joined them.
Investigators later found that the car bore a false vehicle identification number and was not properly registered. Although the car was a two-seater, the women shared the passenger seat.
They headed east on Interstate-275. Britton said he tapped the gas pedal as he came up the on-ramp, but slowed as he merged onto the highway. He estimated he got up to 100 mph, but said he slowed down as he merged onto the highway.
He cruised along I-275 and later moved onto I-4, heading east.
The speed limit was about 55 mph. Britton acknowledged he might have been moving a little faster than that, but said his speed wasn’t excessive.
He remembered other cars and a semi truck, but claimed no memory of the crash, which occurred about 1:40 a.m.
“You made some really bad decisions that night, didn’t you?” Dirks, the prosecutor, asked on cross examination. Britton insisted he wasn’t impaired.
“I might have been a little bit careless, but not reckless,” he said. “But not to the point where I could hurt someone or take the lives of two irreplaceable people.”
Dirks asked: If he did crash into them, particularly at more than 150 mph, wouldn’t that be good evidence of reckless driving?
“I’m not an expert ... So I don’t know how to answer that question,” Britton said.
Tampa police Officer Steven Zawacki entered I-275 from N Dale Mabry Highway at about the same time Britton passed. He was on his way home at the end of a 12-hour patrol shift. He remembered seeing the Audi and another car moving fast. He estimated the Audi was going more than 100 mph.
After Zawacki turned onto I-4, the sky lit up. He saw flames and debris across the highway. The officer’s body-worn camera recorded video of what he saw as he got out of his car.
The jury saw the video, which showed the Camry as it sat facing west in the highway’s eastbound lanes. Flames engulfed its interior, rising 10 feet high. A horn blared.
Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Travis Donakowski testified that the Audi struck the Camry with such force that Cade and Rzechula would have been killed instantly.