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Fatal crash that followed attempted police stop to cost Tampa taxpayers $125,000

Published Aug. 17, 2015

TAMPA — The death of Antonio Lang in a crash with a man charged with fleeing police at more than 80 mph and blowing through a red light will cost Tampa taxpayers $125,000.

That's because although Delvin D. Williams is charged in the fatal wreck, Lang's widow blamed someone else.

Taina Serrano Lang filed a negligence and wrongful death claim over the actions of Tampa officers in the moments before the crash the night of Feb. 19, 2014.

The settlement, recently approved by the Tampa City Council, closes a matter in which police had not publicly said officers had tried to pull over Williams before he crashed into Lang's car.

"Failing to call off a pursuit" was the "proximate cause" of Lang's death, said the claim, filed by attorney David Farash.

Police concluded differently.

City Hall denies any liability in Lang's death. Internal affairs found officers tried to pull over Williams, but braked and turned off their emergency lights after learning the sport utility vehicle he was driving was not stolen.

So, police said, officers were not chasing Williams when he crashed into Lang more than a quarter-mile from where they slowed down.

Lang suffered a fractured skull. Known as Anthony, he was deaf and worked as a stock clerk at a Dollar General store. He had hoped to open a soda shop for deaf teens. He had a legal settlement from the death of a relative that conceivably could have helped fund that dream.

Married six months, Lang and his wife had no children, but had hoped to conceive. He died nine days after the crash at age 30.

"He had plans," said his mother, Hattie Adams. "All of that was taken away that night."

Williams, 35, is being held without bail in the Hillsborough County jail. He has pleaded not guilty to charges that include vehicular homicide, fleeing officers at high speed, leaving the scene of a fatal crash, driving with a revoked license and possession of marijuana.

He told officers he didn't stop because he didn't have a license and was carrying a bag of marijuana, police records show.

• • •

When the Tampa Bay Times first asked about Williams' arrest last year, police said he sped through a stop sign, lost control and crashed into Lang's car. They said an officer around the corner heard the crash, went to the scene and saw Williams running away.

But what happened was more involved than that.

About 11:15 the night of the wreck, Officer Shawn Purcell saw a black Chevrolet Tahoe run a stop sign in East Tampa, police records show. He put on his car's emergency lights and gave two bursts of its siren, then began to follow as the SUV sped away.

"It's moving pretty good," Officer Todd Stevens radioed from his position behind Purcell.

"We lit it up, and it fled," Purcell said over the radio. "We got no tag."

Stevens used his radio to ask whether the Police Department's "hot list" of stolen vehicles included any black Tahoes. Police policy allows officers to initiate pursuits if they reasonably believe a driver has committed a felony involving violence or force. That includes breaking into a car to steal it.

No, another officer radioed back, no Tahoes on the hot list.

At that point, Stevens said both he and Purcell turned off their cars' emergency lights and braked.

Surveillance video from a business about five blocks from the crash scene first showed the Tahoe passing by and going fast.

The first police cruiser appeared six seconds later.

Six seconds after that, the second cruiser passed by. Neither had its emergency lights on.

Clocking how long it took the vehicles to pass between two power poles in the video, a detective estimated the Tahoe's speed at 77 mph on a street with a 25 mph limit. (Checking the SUV's OnStar tracker, police found it was going 81 mph five seconds before its airbag deployed.)

By comparison, the police cruisers were going an estimated 54 and 56 mph, respectively, when they passed the power poles, the closest of which was 1,458 feet from the crash scene.

A surveillance camera of a second business captured the crash itself. A third officer arrived from a different direction 14 seconds later. Purcell and Stevens arrived 21 seconds after the collision.

"Officer Purcell and Officer Stevens were not in pursuit of the defendant's vehicle prior to the traffic crash," police commanders concluded, and there was no evidence they violated policy.

• • •

Still, the city settled the claim rather than take it to court.

City Attorney Julia Mandell declined to say why because she does not discuss ongoing litigation. (Part of the settlement is the subject of competing claims from Lang's widow and mother in Hillsborough probate court.)

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he wasn't familiar with the reason for settling. But he knows how controversial chases can be and how important it is for officers to follow proper procedure.

"Seemingly, the fact that they backed off was appropriate," he said. "That's what they're trained to do."

Times staff writer Katie Mettler and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.