TAMPA — Benjamin Douglas Ehas said he downed a double shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky at 11 a.m. Thursday.
Thirteen minutes later, investigators said, Ehas’ pickup truck barreled onto Bayshore Boulevard’s raised sidewalk and struck a pedestrian, turning one of Tampa’s most scenic stretches into a crime scene.
The impact flung the pedestrian into Hillsborough Bay and tore off chunks of Bayshore’s balustrade, exposing bare rebar.
Witnesses later recalled how they had seen Ehas’ white Ford F-150 — a Pinch A Penny pool supply truck — swerving in and out of traffic on Bayshore before the crash, according to an arrest report. They estimated that he was going 60 or 70 mph in a 35-mph zone.
Ehas struck the man near the intersection of Bayshore and W Julia Street at about 11:13 a.m., police said. Passersby jumped into the water to try to save the man, but he was later pronounced dead.
He was identified by friends as George Gage, 70, a retired financial trust officer who had been out for a walk near his home on a breezy day.
Ehas told officers he smoked marijuana at about 7 a.m., then imbibed the whiskey later that morning, according to his arrest report. Investigators said he had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.234, or almost three times the level at which Florida law presumes impairment, 0.08. His blood was drawn at the hospital on Thursday. Ehas, 31, was booked into the Hillsborough County jail on Friday.
Tampa police did not confirm the identity of the man killed in the crash, citing the department’s interpretation of Marsy’s Law.
Police did not release any other details about the investigation. But they did release 16 audio recordings of 911 calls that bystanders made after Thursday’s collision.
In breathless, panicked voices, they described a horrific scene.
“I’m on Bayshore,” a woman said. “We need an ambulance immediately. … A truck just lost control and he crashed into a person on the sidewalk. … Oh my God. … They were looking out into the water and the truck just spun out of control and ran over them.”
“I think they’re dead,” she said. “I’m across the street. There’s a lot of people here.”
Some callers said they heard or saw the crash from nearby high-rise condo towers. Others witnessed it from the street.
One woman spoke with a call-taker while apparently aiding the truck’s driver.
“Ben, stay still,” she said. “You’ve got guys in the water. They’re trying to get him out of the water."
A police mugshot of Ehas showed his face was bloodied after the crash. He currently has a valid driver’s license, records show, but he also has a history of minor traffic infractions.
In 2007, Ehas was cited in two different cases, once for permitting an unauthorized person to drive and later for driving a vehicle in an unsafe condition. Records show he paid both fines.
The next year, he was cited for failure to obey a traffic sign and later paid that fine.
In 2013, he was pulled over while driving a Mercury sedan near N MacDill Avenue and W North A Street. An officer cited him for driving with an expired tag and driving with a suspended license. Ehas later pleaded no contest to the license charge while the expired tag charge was dismissed, records show. His state driving history indicates the suspension stemmed from failing to pay a fine or fee in court.
He pleaded guilty in 2016 to a felony charge of providing false information on a pawnbroker form and was sentenced to a year of probation. Details of that case were not available.
His employer, Pinch A Penny, issued a statement Thursday saying the company was “shocked and saddened by the tragic incident that occurred this morning involving an employee of a franchised location in Tampa.”
Ehas lived in a single story house on W McElroy Avenue, a small residential road just south of Gandy Boulevard. A woman who answered the door declined to comment Friday.
He and his girlfriend moved in just over a year ago and were renting a room from the owner, said neighbor Matthew Ethridge.
Ehas used to ride a 49cc scooter to work, Ethridge said. The neighbor said he had never seen Ehas drive a car or truck. He described his neighbor as a pleasant man who he would talk to about gaming and anime.
“Every so often I would notice alcohol on his breath,” Ethridge said. "It didn’t seem like he would lose his faculties.”
Friends said Gage had a wife and two children. His family declined to speak Friday, but his church, Hyde Park United Methodist, released a statement from the Rev. Magrey deVega:
“He was a faithful and active member of this church and he will be greatly missed. Out of respect for the family’s privacy we would prefer not to divulge more information than that.”
Bayshore’s reputation for beauty has been tainted by a series of tragic, deadly crashes. Beloved by pedestrians for its panoramic views of Hillsborough Bay, the road is also a hot spot for speeding.
A 39-year-old mother, Melissa McKenzie, was killed in 2004 as she prepared for a jog, struck by a Navy petty officer driving 80 mph on a motorcycle.
In May 2018, another mother, Jessica Raubenolt, 24, was pushing her 21-month-old daughter, Lillia, in a stroller through a Bayshore crosswalk when a Ford Mustang hit them. Mother and daughter both died. The car was going 102 mph six seconds before impact, police said. Two teens face charges of vehicular homicide in that case, accused of racing before the crash.
After that incident, the city made several changes, including lowering the speed limit to 35 mph, narrowing lanes and installing flashing signs at crosswalks.
Zhenya Nichols, a Bayshore organizer who has pushed for a memorial for Raubenolt and her daughter, said Friday that city leaders have not done enough to make the road safe.
“It’s a death trap structure right now," she said, calling for fewer lanes to slow people down. "What we really need to have is a physical barrier between the moving traffic and the pedestrian part of Bayshore.”
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, the city’s former police chief, released this statement: “Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the victim in this horrific tragedy. As a city, we’re committed to Vision Zero and have made and will continue to make a number of safety upgrades to Bayshore Boulevard and many other Tampa roadways." Vision Zero is a worldwide push to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries.
“Unfortunately, yesterday’s incident was caused by someone’s reckless decision to get behind the wheel intoxicated, which resulted in taking the life of another."
A vigil for Gage is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the scene of the crash, Bayshore Boulevard and W Julia Street.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Charlie Frago and Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.