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TPD: Man driving wrong way on Selmon Expressway with lights off kills 68-year-old

TAMPA — For years, Bamnet Narongchai showed up to the Wat Buddhist temple on Sunday morning to grill chicken for the temple's weekly market.

He was expected to be there this past Sunday, like always. But by the time the market started, the grim news was already spreading. Narongchai wouldn't be coming back.

Shortly after midnight, police say, a wrong-way driver behind the wheel of a Ford F-250 pickup truck with its headlights off slammed head-on into the car Narongchai was driving on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

Narongchai, a 68-year-old grandfather, was killed. The pickup driver, Stephen Joseph Paleveda, tried to flee on foot after the crash but responders found him near the scene. Police say alcohol appears to be a factor in the crash and charges are pending against Paleveda, 27, of Seffner.

The news dampened what is usually a festive scene at the temple market, where volunteers serve up traditional Thai dishes like beef soup and papaya salad, said Jim Yeaman, a temple member and volunteer who knew Narongchai for at least a decade.

"It really cast a dark cloud over the people today," said Yeaman, 64, of St. Petersburg. "He was just a nice, friendly guy. A good dad, a good husband. He was very dedicated to the temple."

Narongchai was from Thailand but had lived in the United States for decades, Yeaman said. He and his wife lived in South Tampa and recently celebrated the birth of a grandchild.

Narongchai was a mechanic for Reddy Ice, a manufacturer and supplier of packaged ice, and the company regularly donated ice to the temple's weekly market to be served with soft drinks and Thai tea, Yeaman said.

Narongchai usually arrived with the ice on Saturdays and then afterward went to work a late shift. He was there this past Saturday, as usual. Yeaman said temple members believe he was on his way home from work when the crash happened.

About 12:15 a.m., a witness saw Paleveda's F-250 driving recklessly in the area of S MacDill Avenue and West Hawthorne Road, according to police. With the truck's headlights off, Paleveda failed to stop at several red lights and drove the wrong way down one-way streets, police said. The witness lost sight of the truck near West Cleveland Street.

Moments later, he entered the westbound lanes of the Selmon Expressway, heading east, and slammed into Narongchai. Police did not release the make and model of the vehicle Narongchai was driving.

Yeaman didn't know what happened until he arrived at the temple for Sunday's market.

"It was just a shock," he said. "We saw him yesterday and then he's gone."

By Sunday afternoon, the temple had planned three services for Narongchai, the first for that evening and one each today and Tuesday.

After news of the crash broke, Facebook users descended on Paleveda's profile to excoriate him for his alleged actions. Some said it should have been him, not Narongchai, who was killed. By Sunday evening, Paleveda's Facebook page had disappeared.

Jimmy Croft was among the friends who jumped in to defend Paleveda. In a post, Croft called Paleveda "an amazing person who made an awful judgement call."

In a message to the Times, Croft said Paleveda has a girlfriend and a young daughter.

"He is a kind of guy who hugs you every time he sees you ... and he is always smiling," said Croft, 32, of Tampa. "It just hurts to see people say such awful things about such a kind, friendly guy."

Times staff writer Langston Taylor and senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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