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MLK crash kills five, including two Tampa children ages 9 and 10

Mango Elementary classmates of Maria, 10, and John Bernal. 9, made cards to express their grief and sympathy.
Published Oct. 28, 2016

TAMPA — Marianela Murillo spent the last evening of her life in one of her favorite places.

The 39-year-old Colombian immigrant attended services Wednesday at the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall off E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The congregation prayed and read the Bible.

Afterward, Murillo piled into her Toyota Sienna minivan with her three children and a niece and headed for their apartment about a mile and a half away.

"I hugged and kissed them goodbye," said friend and fellow church member Marcia Santana.

Pablo Cortes III spent the last evening of his life in one of his favorite places, too.

The 22-year-old Brandon man attended a meet-up of fellow car enthusiasts at the Grand Prix go-kart track in Tampa, a friend said. Cortes showed off his metallic blue Volkswagen Golf with the custom rims and tricked-out suspension, then left with a friend in his passenger seat.

Soon after, the Volkswagen and Toyota collided on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard Jr. in one of the most horrific local crashes in recent memory.

Murillo and two of her children, Maria, 10, and John, 9, died at the scene. So did Cortes and his passenger, 19-year-old Jolie Bartolome of Lithia.

Cortes was exceeding the posted 50 mph speed limit, but investigators were still working to determine his actual speed, said a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman, Sgt. Steve Gaskins.

Although early reports at the scene indicated the crash may have been caused by street racing, Gaskins said troopers don't have any evidence to support that. A preliminary report states Cortes was driving in a "careless or negligent manner."

UPDATE: SnapChat video appears to show driver going 115 mph on night of crash that killed 5

"There were no cars around him right where the crash occurred so racing was not a factor," Gaskins said. "But speed was."

Investigators say Cortes lost control near Coconut Palm Drive, just east of the Tampa Bypass Canal, and crossed the grassy median.

Murillo was heading east and was about to turn into her apartment complex when the Volks­wagen collided nearly head-on with the Toyota.

The Volkswagen then rotated and hit a Toyota Scion. Its driver, Carla Marie Wyman, 54, of Seffner, suffered serious injuries. The force of the collision crumpled the Golf into a mass of metal that hardly resembled a car. The Sienna caught fire.

Murillo's 18-year-old daughter, Lina Bernal, and 15-year-old niece Luisa Louisa, who was visiting on vacation from Colombia, were taken to Tampa General Hospital with critical injuries.

Murillo's husband and the father of the children, John Bernal, was at the hospital but too distraught to talk, said Santana, the family friend.

Lina was in critical condition but able to ask what happened.

"They don't want to tell her yet," Santana said.

•••

On Wednesday night, Murillo's sister, Paola Murillo, looked over at the crash scene with her brother-in-law, refusing to believe her family could be inside the scorched mini-van, according to a Facebook post she wrote in Spanish.

The nightmare of Wednesday night keeps playing back in her head, she wrote. She recalled her brother-in-law telling her, "that is the car of my wife and my kids."

"I answered no. It's a car that looks like it. It's not hers," Paola Murillo wrote. "Then why isn't she answering her phone . . . and why haven't they arrived home?

"Until the end, God knows I had all the hope."

Santana said the couple has lived in the United States for about 15 years and that Marianela became a citizen just a few months ago.

Her passion was her church and knocking on strangers' doors to tell them about God's promise to create a paradise on earth. She loved to cook and was known for her pupusa, a tortilla stuffed with beans, meat and cheese.

The kids were sweet, happy and loving, like their mother, Santana said.

Maria and John attended Mango Elementary, said Hillsborough School District spokeswoman Tanya Arja. Maria was in fifth grade, and John was in fourth, Arja said.

Grief counselors were at the school Thursday to help students and staff. The students expressed themselves in sympathy cards.

"I was crying," one classmate wrote. "They were to young to die."

•••

Cortes was proud of his high-performance Volkswagen. The car dominated his social media accounts.

Brown-haired and bespectacled, Cortes drove the VW to area meet-ups where he shared his love for automobiles, said local car enthusiast Sean Le­Roux.

LeRoux, 24 , of Clearwater said Cortes was known to be on the "aesthetics" side of the car community. His car wasn't meant to be a full-blown race car, but it was souped up and modified. LeRoux said Cortes wasn't known to race other drivers.

Meets-ups like the one he attended Wednesday were a time to show off modifications: custom rims, grills, suspensions.

"You hang out," said Dakota Hull, 21, of Valrico.

On Wednesday night, Hull stayed home sick while Cortes went to a routine meet-up with friends. It was the first time most of them had met Jolie Bartolome. She was a 2015 graduate of Gulf Breeze High School in the Panhandle and an avid dancer, according to a memorial page on Facebook.

When Hull got the call about the crash, he rushed to the scene. He saw Cortes' car from the roadside, barely recognizable.

Friends wrote on the group's Facebook page that Cortes would forever be missed. They also mourned Murillo and her children.

"Family members of Cortes and Bartolome could not be reached for comment.

Santana said her friend would forgive Cortes for whatever role his actions played in the crash. So will her friends and family.

"Their family is suffering the same way Marianela's family is suffering," Santana said. "And I hope they find peace."

Times staff writer Paul Guzzo and senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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