Open in App
  • Local
  • U.S.
  • Election
  • Politics
  • Crime
  • Sports
  • Lifestyle
  • Education
  • Real Estate
  • Newsletter
  • Tampa Bay Times

    As family mourns, prosecutors drop charges in fatal St. Petersburg crash

    By Tony Marrero,

    Desiree Perrone, 41, holds a picture of her mother, Sharon Johnson, as Perrone's daughter Josalyn Lawson, 20, sheds tears at Johnson's St. Petersburg home on June 4. Johnson died on July 21, a day after she and Lawson were involved in a crash that led to the arrest of another driver on charges of vehicular homicide and reckless driving. Prosecutors recently dropped the charges, saying there was not evidence to move forward with the case. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

    ST. PETERSBURG — On an afternoon in July, one Toyota SUV slammed into another on 22nd Avenue North.

    First responders found the driver, Sharon Johnson, and her granddaughter, Josalyn Lawson, bleeding inside the broadsided Toyota RAV4. The two had left home to run a routine errand. Johnson didn’t survive her injuries.

    A police detective pinned blame on the driver of the Toyota 4Runner who crashed into them, concluding that his “selfish and senseless” decision to drive more than 30 mph over the posted limit contributed to the crash. Police arrested him in January on felony charges that often result in prison time.

    But Pinellas prosecutors dropped the case last month, citing state law that speeding alone is not enough to prove criminal intent in vehicular homicide and reckless driving cases.

    The driver of the 4Runner didn’t even get a speeding ticket. His attorneys dispute that he was driving as fast as police say and contend that he shouldn’t have been arrested.

    While the decision to drop the charges wouldn’t surprise prosecutors and defense attorneys familiar with the vagaries of the state’s traffic laws, it left Lawson and her family reeling. Justice, they believe, had been denied.

    Now 20, Lawson has had two surgeries since the crash and awaits a third.

    “I know that he didn’t get in his car that day and go, ‘I’m gonna kill somebody,’” Lawson said. “But what people need to realize is when you’re in a multi-thousand pound vehicle traveling at high rates of speed, it doesn’t matter whether you meant to or not. Now we’re all suffering and he just gets to go home, and nothing has been done about it.”

    ‘She was my best friend’

    Born in Baltimore and raised in Akron, Ohio, Sharon Johnson was one of six siblings. At one point, her mother placed her in an orphanage but later reclaimed her, said Johnson’s daughter, Desiree Perrone.

    Johnson raised Perrone as a single mother in St. Petersburg. They were in and out of a domestic violence shelter during Perrone’s childhood.

    The challenges bonded the women, said Perrone, 41. “She was my best friend.”
    Sharon Johnson, right, is pictured with her daughter Desiree Perrone in a family photo. Johnson died on July 21, a day after she and her granddaughter were involved in a crash in St. Petersburg that led to the arrest of another driver on charges of vehicular homicide and reckless driving. Prosecutors dropped the charges, saying there was not evidence to move forward with the case. [ Courtesy Desiree Perrone ]

    Johnson worked as a cashier at Wal-Mart in Pinellas Park for about a dozen years. She battled a litany of health issues, including strokes and congestive heart failure. Surgeons removed part of her left lung during a bout with cancer. She used a portable oxygen machine.

    Somehow, Johnson maintained her goofy sense of humor. She spent much of her time in what had been the living room of the family’s home before it was transformed into a crafting sanctuary where Johnson painted and sewed. Fabric gnomes were a trademark creation.

    On the day of the crash — July 20 — Johnson was 68.

    From her home in St. Petersburg’s Central Oak Park neighborhood, she decided to drive to the GTE Credit Union on 38th Avenue, two minutes away. Lawson, who lives at the house, came along. It was nearly 5 p.m.
    Sharon Johnson, second from left, is pictured in a family photo with, from left, granddaughter Brooke, partner Dennis Pearson and granddaughter Josalyn Lawson. [ Courtesy Desiree Perrone ]

    Lawson didn’t remember much after the crash, but she said some of her memory fog has lifted.

    When Johnson pulled to the stop sign at 22nd Avenue North, the roadway appeared clear to cross. Then a motorcycle zoomed by, Lawson said.

    Johnson slowed as the motorcycle passed, then pressed the gas, Lawson said. She saw an SUV bear down on them at high speed and realized it wasn’t going to stop. She told her grandmother to go.

    Lawson blacked out briefly. When she came to, she saw Johnson bleeding from her head and still gripping the steering wheel. Lawson was pinned and couldn’t reach her grandmother.

    “The last thing she said to me was that she couldn’t breathe,” Lawson said, wiping tears.
    A photo taken by a St. Petersburg Police Department drone on July 20 shows Darrell Brandimore's Toyota 4Runner, right, after Brandimore crashed into the passenger side of Sharon Johnson's Toyota RAV4, left, at the intersection of 22nd Avenue North and 46th Street. [ St. Petersburg Police Department ]

    Lawson told Johnson she loved her, that she was strong and that the ambulance was on its way. Firefighters cut off the SUV’s roof to free Lawson.

    Both women were taken to Orlando Health Bayfront Hospital in St. Petersburg. Lawson suffered a torn meniscus, ruptured ACL, torn rotator cuff, a concussion and whiplash.

    Johnson underwent surgery for a kidney bleed. The next morning, during a second surgery to find the source of internal bleeding, she went into cardiac arrest and died.

    A ‘reckless manner’

    Darrell S. Brandimore, a 59-year-old insurance agent who lives near the crash scene, told police he was on his way to his daughter’s house and driving his Toyota 4Runner at the speed limit when a motorcycle passed him at a high speed, according to an investigation report. When he saw the RAV4 driven by Johnson come from his left, he hit the brakes in an attempt to avoid the collision. Cameras and witnesses dispute the claim that Brandimore was obeying the speed limit.

    A woman doing yard work in front of her house told police she saw the motorcyclist heading west at a high speed, then a 4Runner also heading west and speeding.

    The traffic homicide investigator on the case, Detective Sean McCullough, obtained footage from a Ring doorbell camera on a nearby home that showed Johnson’s RAV4 stop at the sign. The motorcycle passes by, the RAV4 proceeds into the intersection, then Brandimore’s 4Runner passes at high speed. The crash happened off camera.

    The police department declined to release the Ring video, citing an exemption in Florida public records law for information relating to security systems.

    McCullough used the footage and measurements from the scene to calculate that Brandimore was driving 74 mph — 34 mph over the speed limit — before he braked, and that he was going 55-57 mph upon impact. Brandimore sustained a minor wrist injury.
    A St. Petersburg police photo taken on July 20 shows the wreckage of Sharon Johnson's Toyota RAV 4 after Darrell Brandimore crashed his Toyota 4Runner, seen in background, into the passenger side of the RAV4 at the intersection of 22nd Avenue North and 46th Street. First responders had to cut off the RAV4's roof to extricate Johnson's granddaughter Josalyn Lawson from the front passenger seat. [ St. Petersburg Police Department ]

    McCullough consulted with Assistant State Attorney Margaret Beck on Oct. 13 and they agreed he would continue his investigation “prior to formal charges being filed,” the report states. Almost two weeks later, he got autopsy results that showed Johnson died of blunt trauma.

    McCullough wrote in the report that Johnson may have been distracted by the speeding motorcycle and did not see the speeding 4Runner when she continued into the intersection and into the other Toyota’s path.

    Though Johnson was “not without fault, she is not fully the reason this crash occurred,” McCullough wrote. Brandimore was driving in a “reckless manner that did not give him enough time to avoid the crash,” and drivers entering the roadway would not expect a vehicle to be approaching at 30-plus mph, the detective wrote.

    “If Brandimore had been traveling at the posted speed limit, like a careful and prudent driver, Johnson would have made it safely across the roadway by the time Brandimore reached the point of impact,” McCullough wrote.

    Police arrested Brandimore on Jan. 8. He was released from the Pinellas County jail the next night after posting $15,000 bail.

    Speed alone is not enough

    In April, the Pinellas Pasco-State Attorney’s Office sent a notice to St. Petersburg police recommending the case be dropped.

    “There is insufficient evidence of recklessness for the State to be able to prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt,” the notice said.

    Florida law says that vehicular homicide is “the killing of a human being ... caused by the operation of a motor vehicle by another in a reckless manner likely to cause the death of, or great bodily harm to, another.”

    The prosecutor’s notice said they are bound by a case known as House v. State. In that situation, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal ruled in 2002 that evidence of speed alone was insufficient to prove vehicular homicide. The driver had gone 60 mph in a 30 mph zone.

    Pinellas-Pasco Executive Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson said crashes like Brandimore’s happen frequently and that the House precedent is among rulings across Florida that his office must weigh.

    Examples of evidence that bolster vehicular homicide and reckless driving cases include dangerous swerving and weaving, racing and speeding through a school zone. Phone use can also help make a case.

    There was no evidence that Brandimore was using his phone at the time of the crash, Davidson said.

    Davidson said he found one ruling that indicated a reckless driving case could be made if “the speed is grossly excessive,” but the ruling didn’t elaborate.

    “To make that argument of ‘grossly excessive,’ we’re looking usually for three digits, over 100 mph,” he said.

    Court records show Brandimore was cited for speeding 10 times in Pinellas County between 1985 and 2016. In the same period, he received two speeding citations in Hillsborough and one in Pasco.

    A defendant’s driving history, such as prior speeding tickets, generally cannot be used as evidence to prove a case, Davidson said.

    Bjorn Brunvand, an attorney who represented Brandimore, said police lacked probable cause to arrest him in the first place.

    Brandimore “has always maintained that he was driving responsibly and doing everything he could to be a safe driver, so the suggestion he was going that fast at that time, we don’t believe that’s very credible,” Brunvand said.

    St. Petersburg police Sgt. Michael Schade, a member of the department’s traffic section, said officers consider the House ruling while investigating cases like these.

    “We felt we had met the probable cause standard for reckless driving with the serious bodily injury, and once we got to that point, understanding the case law, we felt that it was appropriate for us to charge for the vehicular homicide and it would be up to the State Attorney’s Office to decide if they agreed with that or not,” Schade said.

    In March, Lawson saw news stories about Pinellas prosecutors dropping vehicular homicide charges against a driver in another St. Petersburg crash. She called her mother crying.

    “I thought that if they let that man off, this does not look good for us,” Lawson said.

    In that case, police said, a 20-year-old man ran a red light at Fourth Street North while driving 72 mph in a 45-mph zone. His Toyota Corolla was hit by a driver who had a green light. The Corolla spun out of control and hit a pedestrian and a bicyclist, killing both.

    Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett told the Times that the crash was tragic but “an accident.”

    “I personally have looked at hundreds of these things, and I tend to err on the side of caution,” Bartlett said. “If I’m having trouble with it, a jury is going to have trouble with it.”

    Bartlett said that he was “a little surprised” police made an arrest in the Fourth Street crash. Davidson said the same about the Brandimore arrest.

    Police Lt. Jason Levey said that after he joined the traffic section in October, he and other members of the section met with Davidson and other prosecutors “to have an open dialogue.”

    Davidson said the police and prosecutors are trying to work closely together.

    “But when you get one like this that’s a close call, it’s not infrequent that the arrest is made, and then we ultimately determine we can’t file the charge,” he said.

    Brandimore also was not cited for speeding. Schade said the police typically do not issue speeding citations in vehicular homicide cases and that in Brandimore’s case, speed was noted as the reason for the charge.

    Davidson said he’d like state lawmakers to come up with a new charge for speeding cases involving injury and death, such as aggravated careless driving.

    “The problem, though, is even in trying to do legislation, the courts are going to require a certain amount of criminal intent, and they’re finding here that the intent just to go and speed is not something that gives rise to criminal liability, but rather gives rise to civil liability,” he said.
    Desiree Perrone, 41, shows tattoos on her right arm that she got to honor her mother Sharon Johnson. One is words her mother included in a card after Perrone graduated: "You’ve made me proud. Love you forever, always, Mom." Below that is her final electrocardiograph image, provided by the hospital after Johnson died. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

    Johnson’s family said an attorney they consulted with about suing Brandimore found he has few assets targetable for damages. An insurance settlement covered some of Lawson’s medical bills but she needs a third surgery, this time on her torn rotator cuff, that she hopes will be covered by her mother’s insurance.

    Lawson had to postpone plans to start courses in August to earn her emergency medical technician certification and worries her injuries might foreclose that career goal altogether.

    The family said the failure to hold speeders accountable is making Florida’s roads more dangerous and they’re motivated to lobby policymakers for change.

    “I want to start to try to fix this,” Perrone said. “I can’t put him in jail for what he did. But maybe it’ll save some lives.”

    Expand All
    Comments / 0
    Add a Comment
    Most Popular newsMost Popular

    Comments / 0