TAMPA — The man accused of plowing a pickup truck into the balustrade on Bayshore Boulevard, killing a pedestrian, told a detective that he’d taken prescription drugs and consumed alcohol in the hours before the crash.
The new details emerged Wednesday in a court hearing in the case of Benjamin Douglas Ehas, who prosecutors say was impaired when he swerved off the road in a Pinch-a-Penny pool supply truck.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Catherine Catlin granted a prosecutor’s request that Ehas be held without bail pending a trial. The judge found that Ehas poses a threat of harm to the community.
Ehas, 31, did not speak during the hour-long hearing Wednesday. He appeared in handcuffs and a red jail uniform.
His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Rocky Brancato, questioned whether the state had enough proof to establish that Ehas was driving the vehicle while impaired. He also asked whether there were reasonable restrictions that could be used to protect the public if he was granted bail. He noted that Ehas has no history of drunk driving offenses.
“He did what a lot of people do as far as driving, but he happened to be involved in a tragic accident at the time it occurred,” Brancato said.
Wednesday’s court hearing featured a cameo appearance from Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, who took the witness stand and described seeing the pickup truck straddling both lanes of the two-lane road as it swerved past his car at a high speed.
“It was totally out of control,” Gonzmart said of the way the truck passed him. “I thought he was doing it to try to aggravate me because of the way he cut me off.”
Gonzmart said he tried to spot the truck’s tag number.
“I thought to myself, ‘he’s going to kill somebody,’" Gonzmart said
Just north of the intersection with Julia Street, the truck spun out, plowed across the sidewalk and hit a man before crashing into the balustrade.
Friends later identified the man who was struck as George Gage, a 70-year-old retired financial trust officer who was out for a morning walk. Gage was thrown over the seawall and into Hillsborough Bay. Bystanders immediately jumped in and held his head above water while awaiting rescue crews. He was later pronounced dead.
Ehas was seriously injured.
Tampa police Cpl. Matthew Belmonte, a traffic homicide investigator, testified that he arrived at Tampa General Hospital in the hour after the crash. Ehas was unconscious, had a tube in his throat and was breathing through a ventilator. Belmonte said he could smell the scent of alcohol coming off the machine.
Ehas later awoke and spoke with him, Belmonte said. After being read his rights, Ehas said he had taken a Xanax the night before. That morning, he had smoked marijuana and taken a dose of Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid dependence, for which Ehas had a prescription.
Police obtained a receipt and surveillance images from an ABC Liquor Store on Gandy Bouelvard, which showed Ehas had purchased a double-shot bottle of Fireball cinnamon whiskey minutes before the crash.
An arrest report stated that a blood test at the hospital showed Ehas’ blood alcohol content at 0.234, nearly three times the limit of .08 at which state law presumes impairment.
Ehas faces charges of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide.