TAMPA — She had vowed to try everything, so Tammy Ferrer tucked a small pouch of her son’s ashes into her bra and drove to Old City Hall, prepared to tell the story again. Maybe this time, she thought, someone would do something.
It had been seven weeks since an 85-year-old man behind the wheel of a Saturn sedan collided with her son’s speeding motorcycle, flinging him into the median. The day after, Ferrer discovered that the same driver was involved in a crash at the same Tampa intersection while making the same maneuver three months earlier. He’d hit a car while crossing multiple lanes of traffic — sending three people, including himself, to the hospital.
Ever since, Ferrer had poured over state statutes, learning what she could about taking away someone’s license if they aren’t fit to drive. She’d searched for clues on the grassy Hillsborough Avenue median where her son, Cody Kurtz, landed that August afternoon. She knocked on doors to identify witnesses. She found footage of the crash from a local business, even though she says police told her all nearby cameras weren’t working. She called the mayor, a customer at her family’s boat shop, seeking to have the case assigned a new detective.
And now she was standing before the Tampa City Council in October, fighting back tears with her husband, Frank, by her side.
“We are here today to raise a red flag as a matter of public safety,” said Ferrer, 50. She described the similarities between the two crashes. She told them that the driver, Franklyn Christophers, had an active license, and that she believed his driving ability should be reevaluated.
Before her time was over, she held up the small pouch containing a portion of her son’s remains, which she carries with her each day. “This is what I have left.”
More than 450 people died in crashes in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties last year, according to state data. Tampa officials have called the city’s persistent road safety issues a public health crisis, writing in a recent grant application: “Our roads are unsafe for everyone.”
In car-centric Florida, where more than a fifth of the population is over the age of 65, older drivers were involved in more fatal crashes than any other state in the country in 2021, according to federal data.
The Ferrers drove home making sure to avoid Hillsborough Avenue. The straight, wide thoroughfare is consistently described by planners as one of Tampa’s most “severe crash corridors” and where yet another memorial, one for their son, now stood.
“He flew off”
She didn’t want her son to buy a motorcycle. She hated the thought of him weaving through the frenetic streets of Tampa and Hillsborough County, where more motorcyclists were killed in crashes last year than any other county in Florida.
But he’d saved up. He was working hard for the family business and living at home. When he bought the motorcycle in June, Ferrer left a voicemail with the dealership, pleading with them to reverse the sale.
He was a boyish 26, headstrong and goofy with a bright smile that lit up his face. He loved the open water and hoped to one day be a hands-on father, spoiling his children the way he spoiled his nephew with McDonald’s Happy Meals and long days fishing off the dock.
Her son didn’t have a spotless driving record. Earlier this year, he received a ticket from a Tampa red-light camera. Two years prior, he’d received another. In 2019, he was involved in a crash and ticketed for following a motorist too closely. That same year, he completed traffic school after receiving a speeding ticket for going 49 mph in a 40 mph zone.
On the last Sunday in August — as Hurricane Idalia churned in the gulf — he decided to take his bike out for a spin.
It was going to rain soon, Ferrer cautioned as she peeled potatoes in her pajamas. “Take your car instead,” she said.
“I won’t be more than two hours,” he said, and went to walk out the door.
“Are you leaving without kissing your mother goodbye?”
He rolled his eyes, 6-foot-4 and smiling.
“I love you, baby,” she said.
“I love you, too,” he said, planting a kiss on her forehead. “I’ll be right back.”
An hour or so later, he was plowing past the motels, dollar stores, auto body shops of Hillsborough Avenue at 65 mph — 20 over the posted limit — police would later estimate. (In Florida, unlike a handful of other states, speed alone is generally insufficient to base charges of “reckless driving.” But the risk of death from a crash generally increases with driving speed.)
Three lanes move in each direction. Kurtz was in the middle, wearing a helmet.
Meanwhile, Christophers was leaving his bungalow, the front gate rusty and the yard strewn with old refrigerators and lawnmowers. He climbed into his 2007 sedan, one of his brake lights secured with tape and a walking cane on the seat.
Video footage shows that he drove along 45th Street, pausing at the stop sign. He turned onto Hillsborough as he often did, trying to cross three lanes of traffic to reach a break in the grassy median to make a U-turn and continue his journey west.
He saw the motorcycle five blocks away, he told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview outside his home. He thought he had enough room to make a wide righthand turn. But his fender collided with the motorcycle, spraying metal and plastic from the bike across three lanes.
Congregants poured out of a nearby church. At least four onlookers called 911.
“He flew off. He hit the tree,” one woman told the dispatcher. “We need you guys now.”
“Two times, people have hit me”
Three months earlier, in May, Christophers was involved a similar crash while pulling onto Hillsborough Avenue.
He collided with Yahaira Thomas, a 25-year-old day care worker heading home. Her daughter was strapped into a car seat in the back. Thomas was driving in the far-left lane, she told the Times, three lanes over from Christophers, when he turned into her path.
Christophers told the Times that Thomas was on her phone, which she denies.
“He acted like he didn’t see no cars,” she said. “He tried to cut across all the lanes.”
Both cars were towed. An ambulance took Thomas and her daughter to St. Joseph’s Hospital. She went to physical therapy a handful of times for neck pain but said she stopped when she realized she’d have to pay out of pocket or petition her insurer to pay.
An ambulance took Christophers to the hospital, too. “I still have a problem with my back,” he said.
He received a $163 civil traffic citation for failing to yield the right of way, which he is contesting. The case remains open in Hillsborough court.
“Not every accident involving death is a crime,” said Stephen Romine, a Clearwater-based criminal defense attorney with decades of experience working driving-related cases. “A tragedy is not necessarily a crime.”
When it comes to having a driver reevaluated, the presumption of innocence is important, said Tampa Bay defense attorney Roger Futerman. “You cannot take action based solely on a police officer issuing a failure-to-yield ticket,” he said.
A judge or magistrate can suspend a license or require retesting, he said. The Department of Motor Vehicles can, too, when a driver has accumulated a certain number of points for traffic violations.
State law gives police officers discretion to require the reevaluation of a driver and the submission of medical records to an advisory board for review.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles revoked more than 8,100 licenses last year as a result of the medical review process, according to a spokesperson.
Police did not tick the box for reevaluation on Christophers’ May citation. At the scene in August, they did. One of the responding Tampa police officers can be heard saying, “He probably shouldn’t be driving,” according to bodycam footage reviewed by the Times.
“Definitely needs to be a reevaluation,” the other replied.
“The reexamination process should be used in extreme circumstances,” Futerman said. He has worked with clients who, for example, have had a seizure at the wheel and had their license suspended while they consult with doctors about epilepsy medication.
Last month, Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Christine Brown told Ferrer via email that once police complete their investigation of the crash that killed her son the case would be presented to her office’s Traffic Homicide Committee.
But after reviewing factors including Christophers’ medical and driving history and the speed of both drivers, the Tampa Police Department decided against filing criminal charges, so the case was not sent to the committee.
The department issued a civil traffic citation for making an improper righthand turn. The case remains open in court.
In the last eight years, Christophers has received seven tickets for running red lights in Hillsborough, records show. In all but one case, a judge ordered a temporary suspension of his license after he failed to show up to a hearing or pay the fine on time.
“I am a good driver,” he told the Times.
“Never in my life will I cross there again,” he said, motioning to where his street meets Hillsborough Avenue. “People drive too fast. Two times, people have hit me.”
He provided a phone number for someone he identified as his ex-wife, who he said could provide more details on the crash. When the Times called, the number belonged to his daughter, a nurse. She said she had power of attorney for her father and that Christophers would not talk further.
“How can I ever stop?”
At home, Ferrer has covered her kitchen island with pieces of her son’s abbreviated life.
His favorite apple juice, his favorite peanut butter. A napkin from Chipotle, his favorite takeout. His business card from the boat shop.
“The customers loved him,” Ferrer said.
A teddy bear he’d given his mother last year. An Etch A Sketch her husband gave her recently, hoping she might find it therapeutic. “Sometimes I dream Cody will draw something for me on it,” she said.
“I’ll have to dedicate the whole rest of my life to fighting and fighting,” she said. “Because what if I don’t and someone else is killed?”
Christophers resides 2 miles south of the Ferrers and 200 feet from the crash scene, where flowers are arranged at the base of the tree where Kurtz landed. Messages from loved ones are scrawled on the trunk.
After the August crash, Christophers said a doctor told him: Don’t drive.
“I’d like to know why,” he said. “How am I going to get around if I can’t drive?”
Standing outside of his home recently, Christophers appeared shorter than the height of 5 feet, 11 inches recorded on his latest traffic citation. He moved slowly and softly hunched. He reached into the breast pocket of his plaid button-down shirt, retrieving his driver’s license and a folded copy of his insurance.
“If you have time,” he said as the reporter turned to leave, “please call the police to see if I can drive again.”
A few weeks later, Ferrer drove to the county courthouse with her husband. Christophers had a hearing for the May, nonfatal crash.
She knew that Christophers’ license was pending revocation. He’d failed to submit a medical report as required when police requested his reevaluation from the August crash, records reviewed by the Times confirmed.
Still, she wanted to keep up to date on the outcome of the May crash. Maybe she’d get to see Christophers face-to-face.
He did not show. The judge ordered his license suspended for failing to appear.
With that, Ferrer drove home, making sure to avoid Hillsborough Avenue.