PLANT CITY — After he veered into oncoming traffic and killed a woman, Bradley McTaggart told police it wasn’t because he was drunk, court records show.
He said, in effect, that he had crashed because he tried to stop drinking.
It was the day after Christmas 2017 when the 38-year-old Seffner mechanic had a seizure and lost control of a Chevrolet pickup truck on James Redman Parkway. He slammed head-on into a Ford sedan, killing a passenger — 57-year-old Maria DeJesus-Rodriguez.
Police soon learned that McTaggart was an alcoholic who had crashed before while having withdrawal seizures as he tried to cut back on his alcohol intake, according to court records.
Now, after a yearlong investigation, Hillsborough County prosecutors have charged McTaggart with vehicular homicide. They will try to make the case that McTaggart recklessly put people’s lives at risk because he knew he would probably have a seizure if he stopped drinking and drove.
The case appears to be the first of its kind in Hillsborough County and maybe beyond, said Plant City police Sgt. Alfred Van Duyne, whose agency investigated the crash.
"The biggest challenge to this case is there weren't other similar cases we could find as precedent," Van Duyne said. "We were charting new territory."
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McTaggart told police he wanted to quit drinking out of consideration for the woman riding with him the day of the fatal crash.
His arrest report does not name the person, referring to her only as a "witness," and Van Duyne would only say she was someone McTaggart knew. The Tampa Bay Times confirmed independently that the woman was McTaggart's wife Tonya Perez.
Perez and McTaggart told police he had a long-term, severe dependence on alcohol and suffers from seizures and other withdrawal symptoms if he doesn't drink with regularity, the arrest report says.
McTaggart told police that on the day of the crash, he was "attempting to abruptly cease his alcohol use in an attempt to improve his relationship with the witness," according to the report. McTaggart said he drank four beers over several hours before the crash “to stave off a seizure," the report says. Police said this increased the chance of a crash, but there is no mention of blood alcohol content in the arrest report and McTaggart does not face any DUI-related charges.
The report note his license was also suspended at the time, and Perez was sober, had a valid license and was willing to drive.
"It is clear the defendant had no regard for himself, the the witness and the other motorists on the roadway," the report says.
Perez and McTaggart declined to comment for this story.
McTaggart was driving the 2005 Chevrolet Colorado pickup north on James Redman Parkway near Trapnell Road about 6:40 p.m. when he had the seizure, the report says. The pickup veered across the center median into the southbound lanes and struck a Ford Contour head on. The truck then struck a Ford Focus that also was heading south on Redman Parkway.
There were two people in the Contour. The passenger, DeJesus-Rodriguez, died at the scene, Van Duyne said. The driver, Manuel Flores, was hospitalized with a leg injury and released the next day.
The pickup came to rest on its side and emergency crews had to cut off the roof to extricate McTaggart and Perez. McTaggart had a broken foot and Perez suffered broken ribs, among other injuries, Van Duyne said.
None of the five people in the Focus — two adults and three children — had serious injuries.
"It's a miracle those people were not seriously hurt," Van Duyne said.
Flores could not be reached for comment for this story. Van Duyne said he and DeJesus-Rodriguez were agricultural workers and had been a couple for many years.
Van Duyne said McTaggart has been involved in several crashes in Hillsborough County that helped build the case against him. He declined to provide details. Investigators also subpoenaed medical records that bolstered the case, Van Duyne said.
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Florida court records provide a glimpse into McTaggart's driving and criminal history, though none of the records reviewed by the Times mention seizures.
In 1998, he was arrested on a hit-and-run charge in Hillsborough County. Details and the outcome of that case were not available.
He was arrested on a DUI charge in Hillsborough in 2003 and a few years later served a short stint in state prison for felony battery and attempted burglary, records show.
In October 2015, McTaggart was cited for careless driving after he was "briefly inattentive," failed to notice traffic stopped for an emergency vehicle, and crashed, a citation shows. No one was injured.
In August 2017, McTaggart rear-ended another vehicle on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Seffner and fled the scene on foot. He later reported that the Saturn sedan he was driving had been stolen, then admitted that wasn't true, records show. He was found guilty of leaving the scene of a crash and making a false report of a crime. He was also cited for careless driving and failure to report a crash.
The following month, his driver's license was suspended after his insurance was cancelled, records show.
McTaggart was arrested Jan. 19 in connection with the fatal crash more than a year earlier. He was taken into custody on a warrant at his home in Seffner.
"He appeared to be completely unfazed," said Plant City Officer Christian Lopez, the lead investigator on the case.
Said Van Duyne: "He has shown not one bit of remorse, in our opinion."
McTaggart spent a week in the Hillsborough County Jail after posting $52,000 bail. Records show he is being represented by Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt's office. A representative for Holt said the office would not comment on a pending case.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren's office declined to answer specific questions about the case and released a statement.
"Our office carefully reviews the unique facts of every criminal case, including the fatal incident involving defendant MacTaggart," the statement said. "Seeking justice for the victims and their families is our priority."
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Long-term alcohol abuse changes brain chemistry, lowering a person's so-called seizure threshold to a point below the brain's normal electrical activity, said Dr. Anthony Russell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida.
The seizures typically involve violent body jerking or shaking and the eyes roll back in the head, said Russell, who is also an attending physician on the alcohol and drug detoxification unit at UF Health Psychiatric Hospital.
Alcoholics with a history of withdrawal seizures are much more likely to have them if they stop drinking again — a phenomenon known as "kindling," Russell said. That's why patients with a seizure history who come in for detoxification are medicated and monitored around the clock, Russell said.
"That's a medically supervised process that needs to be done in a hospital," he said. "You can't do that type of thing at home and especially can't do it and drive."
In Florida, vehicular homicide is defined as death "caused by the operation of a motor vehicle in a reckless manner likely to cause the death of, or great bodily harm to, another." Reckless driving is operating a vehicle "in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property."
That means a successful case against McTaggart will hinge on whether prosecutors can prove he knew or should have known that getting behind the wheel after cutting his alcohol intake would likely result in a crash, said Denis DeVlaming, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor who has no involvement with the case.
The strength of that argument will rest on how much information prosecutors can present about McTaggart's previous seizures and the crashes they caused.
Based on the claims in the arrest report, "He was really on notice that if he stopped drinking he would have these seizures," DeVlaming said. "I think that's the worst thing for him."
Though it seems counter-intuitive, McTaggart's reported attempt to prevent a seizure by drinking some alcohol before he drove might work in his favor, DeVlaming said.
Steve Romine, another local defense attorney with no connection to the case, agreed.
"If you can show that your steps to avoid the conduct that's dangerous to drive with have worked in the past, there may not be a crime of recklessness because you didn't know or shouldn't have known you would have a seizure," Romine said.
"If you're going to raise that as part of your defense, then it's helpful there is the presence of alcohol or evidence you had the drinks."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.