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Two more wrong-way drivers arrested in Tampa Bay

Monday: Cornelia Johnson, 64, of Bradenton.
Monday: Cornelia Johnson, 64, of Bradenton.
Published Nov. 4, 2014

Florida born and bred, Loraine Lachance grew up on these roads. She once hit a deer, she said, but never in her 59 years had she seen anything like what came at her Sunday night on U.S. 19 in Pasco County.

Two headlights. No time to think. Had she been looking at the radio, or her phone, she said, she might not have swerved in time to avoid a major impact.

"My guardian angel was looking out for me," Lachance said.

She is the latest victim of wrong-way driving in Tampa Bay, which so far this year has claimed 11 lives and been at the center of even more crashes and arrests. This past weekend, three people were arrested and accused of driving down bay area roadways in the wrong direction.

Lachance suffered only minor injuries. No one else was struck in the other weekend incidents.

Hours after Lachance was sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver going the wrong way on U.S. 19 in Hudson, construction crews and authorities stopped a Bradenton woman who was driving the wrong way on Interstate 275 near downtown exits in Tampa.

Cornelia Johnson, 64, was pulled over about 2 a.m. Monday, according to Tampa police. She refused to submit to drug and alcohol testing, authorities said, and she and a female passenger would not say how or why they came to be heading north in the southbound lanes of the interstate.

Johnson faces misdemeanor charges of DUI and refusing the tests. She also faces felony charges of cocaine possession and introducing contraband to a detention facility. She was being held Monday on $5,500 bail in the Hillsborough County jail.

In 2002, state records show, her license was suspended for a year after she refused to take blood-alcohol tests. Jail records show she was arrested on a misdemeanor DUI charge in that incident.

Two counties to the north, Gregory Michael Henry, the 60-year-old Port Richey man who troopers say hit Lachance and fled — still driving the wrong way — was booked Sunday night on charges of driving under the influence and leaving the scene of a crash, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. He was also cited for driving in the wrong direction and driving without insurance or registration. He was released Monday from the Hernando County Jail on $500 bail.

Lachance, a Pasco County resident who lives in San Antonio, said she was driving south to Sarasota from Hernando Beach after helping her sister paint, when she spotted the headlights near Aripeka Road.

"They were coming right at me," Lachance said.

To her left were barrels marking a construction zone. To her right was another driver. She recalls slamming on the brakes and trying to swerve, but it all happened too fast.

The oncoming Ford Escort took a football-sized chunk from her bumper, she said, and scraped the entire left side of her Dodge Caravan. Henry's car was unregistered, and police said he does not have insurance.

"I guess my income tax money is spent now to try to get it fixed," Lachance said of her van. The patrol estimated the damage at about $4,000.

Henry told investigators he had been at Skinny's Bar and Grill in Hudson before the crash.

After the collision, troopers said, he continued driving the wrong way on U.S. 19 into Hernando County, and a witness tracked him toward the county line while trying to record his license plate ID. Hernando deputies later caught up to Henry on U.S. 19 south of State Road 50.

State records show that Henry moved here from New York and was issued a Florida license just two months ago.

The first of the weekend's wrong-way driving arrests was Saturday night. Lale Atkinson, 46, of Tampa was accused of driving south in the northbound lanes of N Nebraska Avenue near E Brawin Avenue in Tampa. She was arrested on a DUI charge.

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @zacksampson.