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Sheriff: Driver flees traffic stop, causes fatal crash in St. Petersburg

The  Pinellas County Sheriff's Department investigates a fatal crash at the intersection of 5th Ave. N and 49th Street N in St. Petersburg on Aug. 2, 2018.  The suspect who was driving car in foreground, 28-year-old John Owa of St. Petersburg, is in custody. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Department investigates a fatal crash at the intersection of 5th Ave. N and 49th Street N in St. Petersburg on Aug. 2, 2018. The suspect who was driving car in foreground, 28-year-old John Owa of St. Petersburg, is in custody. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Aug. 2, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — John Owa was scared he would go to jail.

So scared, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, that he fled a traffic stop and sped through St. Petersburg streets at 70 mph, blowing multiple red lights and t-boning a black Ford Mustang at 49th Street and Fifth Avenue N.

The impact killed Donald Young, 56, of South Pasadena.

Gulatieri held a news conference at the scene just after 8 a.m. Thursday, about four hours after deputies first attempted to stop Owa. The black Mustang, which, deputies said, had been travelling east on Fifth Avenue N as Owa blew through another red light while driving north on 49th Street in the southbound lane, lay diagonally across the lawn of Spillman Family Dentistry on the intersection's northeast corner. A pedestrian crosswalk signal lay on its side, ripped from the ground at its base by the Mustang. Owa's gold 2001 Chevrolet Malibu, with its mangled front end, came to rest a few feet away.

Gualtieri said deputies first attempted to stop Owa, 28, about 4:15 a.m. near 22nd Avenue S and 22nd Street. They attempted a stop after running his plates and finding he didn't have a valid license. As soon as the deputies' emergency lights came on, Owa sped away. Deputies, Gualtieri said, did not pursue.

"We don't pursue for minor offenses because people get hurt as a result of pursuits," he said.

Instead, Gualtieri said, undercover units monitored Owa as he drove through residential neighborhoods at about 10 mph. When he got to 49th Street, Gualtieri said Owa took off, hitting a curb and blowing a tire as he climbed to an estimated 70 mph. Still, deputies did not pursue, the sheriff said.

Owa blew about four solid red lights as he drove north on 49th Street. He passed First Avenue S, Central Avenue and First Avenue N before the crash at Fifth Avenue N, the Sheriff said.

Owa is in custody of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Aside from a theft-related arrest in 2013, Gualtieri said Owa has an unremarkable criminal history.

Had he stopped in the first place, he might have just gotten a ticket, Gualtieri said.

"If you have a suspended driver's license and you don't have knowledge it's suspended, it's not even criminal. You get a simple ticket. Take care of it, he said. "If you have knowledge that your license is suspended and you're driving anyway, then it is criminal, but nine times out of 10, you're not going go to jail for it."

This is a developing story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.

Times staff writer Devin Rodriguez contributed to this report.

Daniel Figueroa IV can be reached at dfigueroa@tampabay.com. Follow @danuscripts

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