ST. PETERSBURG — The city's lively downtown entertainment scene turned deadly early Saturday morning when a driver fleeing police ran two red lights and plowed into two pedestrians as restaurants and bars were emptying for the night.
Struck dead was a popular 31-year-old chef who was heading home to his wife, also a downtown chef, who is nine months pregnant and due to give birth to their second child this week.
"We were just starting our lives,'' said Ana Granucci Davis, 28, executive chef at 400 Beach Drive Seafood and Tap House, tearing up as she talked of her husband, Aaron, head chef at the Kitchen St. Pete. They had often talked about his late hours and the dangers of driving home amid drunken drivers.
"He wasn't even driving,'' she said. "He was walking.''
Throughout Saturday, people who knew the couple gravitated to an impromptu memorial near the accident scene at Central Avenue and Second Street, leaving flowers amid the yellow crime scene tape and writing messages on a white chef's apron draped over a traffic barrier.
Ana and Aaron Davis met four years ago at 400 Beach, when she returned from vacation to find a handsome new prep cook using her favorite red cutting board that no one else dared touch.
"I yelled at him and said 'That's my spot on the table,' " she recalled Saturday afternoon.
They began dating and, after her promotion to head chef, he moved to the Kitchen to avoid boss-employee awkwardness. They married in 2013 and soon came daughter Audrey, 21 months. Just last week, she said, Aaron decided to quit smoking and put the savings toward their children. She is due to give birth to a son Wednesday.
Friday night about 10, Ana texted her husband that her big belly made her too uncomfortable to sleep.
"I'll be home soon to rub your feet," he texted back.
About 2 a.m., St. Petersburg police DUI squad tried to stop a 2015 Dodge Charger rental car that was speeding as it exited the interstate onto Fourth Avenue N, a police spokeswoman said.
The driver, Jason Lanard Mitchell, 25, sped off. Officers immediately turned off their red lights and did not pursue, police said, but Mitchell ran several red lights before striking Davis and co-worker Brian Lee LaFrance, 28, of St. Petersburg as they crossed Second Street in the north crosswalk of Central Avenue. The men, on the way to a parking garage after work, had the green light, authorities said.
LaFrance was sideswiped and spun onto the pavement. The impact sent Davis vaulting onto the car's hood, over the roof and onto the west sidewalk of Second Street about 100 feet south of Central.
The Dodge then careened into two concrete light pillars at the intersection's southwest corner, ripping off its right front wheel and knocking over one of the pillars, before coming to a stop, police said.
Mitchell and his passenger, 27-year-old Rayvorris Altuan Oliver of St. Petersburg, fled down an alley to Push Ultra Lounge, where police caught them later.
Davis died at the scene, police said. LaFrance was taken to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg and released later in the day.
Mitchell, of 2301 20th St. S, also tried to escape from police headquarters while undergoing a breath test, police said. He faces charges of DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide, aggravated fleeing and eluding, leaving the scene of a crash involving a death and DUI serious bodily injury. He was held in the Pinellas County Jail with bail set at $60,500. Mitchell has a history of arrests for grand theft auto, fleeing police and drug possession dating to at least 2007, county jail records show.
Oliver was given a misdemeanor notice to appear in court for marijuana, but will not be charged in connection with the fatal crash, a police spokeswoman said.
Marcus Byer said he was at Detroit Liquors on Saturday morning when he heard a loud boom. "We saw the gentleman flying across the street, like a cartwheel," he said.
Byer, 42, said he realized it was his friend Davis. He rushed to the nearby Pelican Pub to get a blanket or towel to comfort Davis.
"He was still conscious but his eyes were going in and out,'' Byer said. "That's what broke my heart. It kind of seemed life was going in and out of him."
Sous chef Seth Adams, 28, stood outside the Kitchen red and teary. "He was a friend and a mentor," said Adams, recalling how Davis once offered him money when he was short. "He was a solid dude. He was a great dad and great to work with."
As darkness overtook light Saturday evening, Byer bent down before the crime scene — a piece of concrete covered in dead flowers and a busted concrete pillar barricaded with police tape.
He unwrapped 21 candles, red and white and green, and placed them in a circle. He tried to light the candles, but the wind kept blowing them out.
• • •
Ana Davis slept some after last talking to her husband, but awoke at 3 a.m., a half hour after he was expected home. She left messages on his phone. An hour later two men in uniform knocked on the front door and told her that Aaron was dead.
Drawn to the scene, where she lay bouquets and a yellow ceramic pot of white, yellow and pink flowers at the base of the fallen concrete pillar encircled by a metal fence wrapped with yellow police tape, Ana began to confer with witnesses who gathered around daybreak.
One told her it appeared Aaron died on impact and didn't suffer.
"It gave me some closure at least. I needed to know what happened."
Now, she must figure out how to go on. She plans to keep articles about his untimely death to show their children, she said, and "the rest of my life I'll definitely be an advocate against drunk driving. And hopefully the rest of their lives they will too because they're going to miss out on so much," she said. "But I got the best of all: He left me those two."
That includes her unborn son. The couple was planning to name him Andrew. Now she plans to call him Aaron.
Times staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this report.