Troopers identify driver in deadly I-275 wrong-way crash

Published Feb. 12, 2014

TAMPA — The man who authorities say caused one of the deadliest car crashes in Hillsborough County in recent years was quick to lend a hand to strangers, friends said.

Daniel Lee Morris, 28, of Tampa liked to work on cars. He was a father figure to his wife's daughter from a prior relationship. He was looking forward to starting a new job after returning from Michigan recently.

The few details that emerged about Morris' life after troopers released his name Tuesday did nothing to explain how it ended.

The Florida Highway Patrol says Morris was hurtling the wrong way on Interstate 275 early Sunday in a friend's SUV when he crashed into a car carrying four University of South Florida fraternity brothers.

The fiery crash killed Morris and the four fraternity brothers.

"I feel like I lost one of my own kids," said Sue Smith of Wimauma, about Morris.

Morris spent part of last week fixing vehicles for Smith and her husband, George, who have known him for years. The image of the man that drove headlong into traffic didn't fit with that of the boy that grew up with her kids and acted like a member of the family, Smith said.

Morris went to East Bay High. He had lived in Michigan and Florida. He had worked at Port Manatee and was preparing to start a job there again Monday, Smith said.

The Smiths put Morris up for a while before he left for Michigan, where his mother and stepfather had moved.

When George Smith could no longer help out during East Bay High School football games because of a disability, it was Morris who stepped in to help.

Morris married Tanya Dunn in 2007. She described him as upbeat. He was a mechanic who loved fixing cars and, even after their separation, still stopped by to visit her teenaged daughter.

"Even during hard times he always had a smile on his face," Dunn said.

Morris was healthy, Dunn said, but in recent years had suffered fainting spells and blacked out. Once, when they were living together, he fell as he walked out of the bathroom. She said he had seen a doctor at least once but did not come away with any medical explanation.

Morris has no criminal record in Florida.

His Florida driver's license was suspended indefinitely in July 2010 for not paying a traffic fine in Hillsborough County, state records show. His driving history also includes being found guilty of driving with a suspended or revoked license in Hillsborough County in January 2007 and driving 86 mph in a 70 mph zone in Sumter County in 2008. Adjudication was withheld in an October 2006 case in Hillsborough County, in which Morris was charged with failure to yield the right of way, according to state records.

Morris had a valid Michigan license at the time of his death. It was suspended briefly in 2012 for a seat belt violation and reinstated about two months later.

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The night of the crash, Dunn said, she had heard that Morris had gone to a party.

Troopers said Morris took a 2001 Ford Expedition from a friend, Scott E. Enfinger, 27. Morris had been staying with Enfinger after a recent move back to the bay area from St. Clair Shores, Mich.

Shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday, Morris crashed head-on into a Hyundai Sonata carrying the four friends. Dammie Yesudhas, 21, Jobin Kuriakose, 21, Imtiyaz Jim Ilias, 20, and Ankeet Patel, 22, all died at the scene.

Identifying Morris as the SUV's driver took several days because his body was "very badly burned," FHP spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins said.

Other questions remain unanswered after the crash, including why Morris entered the interstate in the wrong direction.

A cellphone video appears to show the white SUV speeding, and a witness who swerved to avoid it moments before the crash told the Tampa Bay Times that Morris showed no signs of stopping or changing lanes.

Troopers are trying to determine if drugs or alcohol played a role in the crash. Toxicology reports will take six to eight weeks to return, Gaskins said.

It's also unclear where Morris entered the interstate, Gaskins said.

Witnesses reported seeing the driver, who was traveling south in a northbound lane, as far north as the E Bearss Avenue exit, Gaskins said. The Ford Explorer had to be going more than 70 mph, he estimated, based on the cellphone video captured by another driver. The crash occurred about 2,000 feet north of the E Busch Boulevard exit. He said Morris could even have made a U-turn from another lane.

"We may never know," Gaskins said.

Tampa dispatchers received several 911 calls about a wrong-way driver in a white SUV about a minute before the crash took place, police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said.

More than 15 minutes after the crash, a Tampa 911 dispatcher took a call from a woman about an SUV that had been taken. The dispatcher, knowing that an SUV had been involved in a crash that killed five people, "put two and two" together and indicated that the reported stolen vehicle was very likely the one involved in the wreck, Davis said. Working with the Highway Patrol, police responded to the person who made the call and turned their information over to troopers.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Richard Danielson and Claire Wiseman contributed to this report.