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William LaTorre, prominent doctor and driver in 1989 boating crash that killed four, found dead

Dr. William LaTorre takes the stand during his trial in the deaths of four teenagers in a boating accident. [MAURICE RIVENBARK   |   Times (1990)]
Dr. William LaTorre takes the stand during his trial in the deaths of four teenagers in a boating accident. [MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times (1990)]
Published Oct. 17, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — To his friends, William LaTorre was a man driven by a quest to heal and ease others' suffering. Yet his greatest trauma — the day he killed four teens in a high-speed boating crash in 1989 — will forever define his life for many in the Tampa Bay area.

The prominent Pinellas chiropractor shot himself in his office on 49th Street N Thursday morning, police said. Employees of the LaTorre Wellness Center found the 73-year-old dead when they arrived at work. Investigators found a gun at the scene but no note. His wife, Wendy, told police they had planned to celebrate their 38th anniversary that evening.

The re-emergence of LaTorre's name around the bay area summoned bitter memories of Memorial Day weekend 1989. That's when LaTorre drove his 35-foot speedboat through a 17-foot powerboat at high speed, killing four teenagers and injuring another in a narrow area of the Intracoastal Waterway near Indian Rocks Beach. The Times described the collision then as a "whale vs. minnow" scenario.

The doctor was acquitted in 1990 of four counts of vessel homicide. His family declined to comment Thursday.

"He was more lively before that, and then he became more introspective," said Sherry Sacino of Pass-a-Grille, LaTorre's friend for 30 years.

She recalled his love of food and new restaurants and his zeal for discovering alternative medicines.

"He believed in supplements and vitamins and was kind of always on the leading edge, looking for the next thing at his practice," Sacino said.

She chuckled as she remembered one of his most beloved ideas: a van to pick up injured patients who could not drive or walk.

"He called it the Backmobile, and he thought that was the greatest thing," Sacino said.

Laurie Stemm, 55, of Tampa said LaTorre's "curiosity for healing was so strong; he was so passionate for helping people get well." She last saw him Sunday when the LaTorres hosted a crab dinner for their friend Kevin Harrington's birthday.

"He sat right next to me during dinner, and we had so much fun opening up crabs," Stemm said. "It was blue crabs and we were giggling and laughing."

The doctor, "happy as ever," told Stemm's husband, Greg, to come into the clinic this week for treatment of nagging elbow pain.

"It almost seems like it's not possible," Stemm said of LaTorre's apparent suicide. "There wasn't that anxiety. There wasn't any angst. There wasn't anything wrong in his life."

The 1989 boat crash, she said, "was something that hurt to the core," but she believed LaTorre had found peace.

Four teens, Todd Kuhn, 19; Rick Weeks, 19; Geoffery Nash, 18; and Jan Christman, 17, were killed when LaTorre rode his cigarette boat over the top of their small Checkmate. Witnesses said LaTorre let his engine rip near the edge of a minimum-wake zone.

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Agony spread through Clearwater after the teens' death as LaTorre awaited arrest. The families of the boys sued him.

Three months later, in an interview with the Times, LaTorre defended himself against cries that he had been drinking and was a "murderer." Tests later showed he was sober at the time of the crash.

"I did nothing wrong," he said. "It's such a tragic, unexplainable thing that happened in seconds."

Of the five teens in the smaller boat, only James "Jamie" LeCher survived. He declined comment for this report. Noel LeCher, Jamie's father, said that the boat crash created numerous victims.

"It ruined a lot of lives," the elder LeCher said. "What else can I say? My son is still trying to put his life together. I pray for the families that lost their children, and I hope (LaTorre's death) brings closure for them."

His six-week trial in 1990, in which LaTorre was represented by attorney Barry Cohen, left the doctor with more than $1 million in legal bills.

LaTorre filed for bankruptcy in 1992 to avoid having to pay those fees. Cohen said Thursday that LaTorre still owed about $1 million, but the two saw each other occasionally and remained cordial.

A couple of weeks ago, Cohen said, he ran into LaTorre at the Trader Joe's specialty grocery store in Tampa. LaTorre was shopping with his wife. Cohen joked about there not being any grocery stores in St. Petersburg, but LaTorre said he enjoyed going to this one.

"He and Wendy had some tough times together," Cohen said. "He had some great kids. He loved them. He had a nice family. He was a very loving family guy."

Recalling the trial, Cohen said, he remembered how "those (dead) children's parents sat" behind LaTorre the whole time.

"The thing I remember is how sad he felt when those parents looked at him" in the courtroom, Cohen said. "They didn't know how sad he was, the tragedy of those kids."

After the trial, Cohen said, LaTorre's wife told him her husband "would go out and sit and stare at the water. He'd think about it and come back and tell her about the accident."

Times staff writers Andrew Meacham, Mary Jane Park, Mike Brassfield and researchers Carolyn Edds and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

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