Four black families who each lost a young mother in a fatal crash in 2018 will return to a Lake County courtroom on Thursday for sentencing of the accused drunk driver they blame for the wreckage.
“All of those girls meant something to us, and they still do,” Carla Faye Smith said of the four lost mothers, including daughter Sha’Keila Smith and niece Kambrea Smith, both 26; Roslyn Felton, 29; and Tierra Chambers, 25. “They were all great parents. They were all going in their life.
The mothers leave behind six children, from birth to 12 years old.
Circuit Judge Larry Metz abruptly halted a sentencing hearing in April for accused driver Heather Finley, 27, after hearing from family members of all four mothers. Finley had agreed not to contest four counts of driving homicide and to serve four years in prison followed by six years of probation and to pay $200,000 in restitution, according to terms negotiated by prosecutors and the attorney for Orlando Jay Rooth’s defense.
The maximum possible prison term was 37 years, according to state sentencing guidelines.
“I am being asked to make a very important decision that affects the lives of many people,” Judge said. “I want to make sure I’m doing this correctly under the law and doing justice in a credible, fair and reasonable way. And I’m not sure yet.
The fatal crash happened just after 2 a.m. on April 8, 2018 on State Road 50 in Mascotte, about 40 miles west of Orlando.
The four mums – after enjoying a rare weekend night out – had just left The Breeze, a bar in small town South Lake which had featured ‘Most High’, a DJ the mums loved. They got into Tierra Chambers’ Chevy Malibu and drove to their homes in Lady Lake and Wildwood.
Some relatives of the mothers said prosecutors gave them no say in the deal, calling it a “slap in the face”.
“I feel like we just have to accept anything,” said Jamie Thomas, mother of Tierra Chambers.
Carla Faye Smith said she wondered if the same deal would be given to someone who looked like her daughter.
On the bench, Metz also said he was not comfortable with the deal.
He ordered probation staff to write a pre-sentence report, including details of the accident, the accused Finley and the impact on the victims’ families.
“I know it prolongs the case, but it takes time to do the right thing here,” Judge said.
Lake County supervising state attorney Walter Forgie said the women’s race was never considered in the case, but the facts posed hurdles for prosecutors, who also charged Finley with four counts of impaired driving/manslaughter, which carry a mandatory prison sentence.
Among the challenges were an expert’s report on the accident reconstruction and a video of the crash from a security camera.
The report concluded that the crash was unavoidable – even though Finley was driving the speed limit.
State accident expert John Kwasnoski, who teaches the basics of accident reconstruction to traffic homicide investigators, reviewed the defense report on behalf of prosecutors and “n’t found no fault in its calculations, reasoning or conclusions,” Forgie said.
Forgie said he met with several representatives of the families on February 24 to explain the difficulties of the case and the offer.
“Their response was understandably a mix of grief and outrage,” he said.
But the victim/witness attorney for the State’s Attorney’s Office “quietly worked with each victim’s next of kin, with and without my assistance, to try to help them understand why the proposed plea is the best solution in circumstances,” Forgie said.
On the night of the crash, Finley was driving a newly purchased 2016 Chevrolet Silverado on SR 50, heading to Mascotte.
The speed of the big red truck caught the attention of outgoing bar patrons and other passers-by.
“I could hear a vehicle before I saw it coming from the Stuckey area on 50,” Lizette Gonzalez wrote in a police statement.
Stuckey is a small crossroads just west of Mascotte.
Chambers attempted to turn left onto SR 50 where the posted speed limit in town is 35 mph.
Onlookers estimated the truck was traveling at 70mph or more, but a data recorder in the truck recorded it at 59mph on impact.
“This truck hit a car like a ram so hard the sound was like a sonic boom,” wrote Gonzalez, who was grilling burgers in a parking lot across from the bar. “Never did I hear a decrease in speed – never once did I see the brake lights!”
The truck pushed the car half the length of a football field onto the lawn of Mascotte’s Town Hall.
Chambers, mother of a then 2-year-old boy, and Kambrea Smith, mother of two boys, including a 2-month-old baby, died at the scene. Felton, a mother of two daughters, died later that morning at the Orlando Regional Medical Center. Sha’Keila, mother of one daughter, died 41 days later in hospice care.
Per department policy, the Mascot Police called the Florida Highway Patrol for a traffic homicide investigator to take charge.
But FHP investigators were stranded at other scenes and by bad weather, so John Rigdon, a Groveland police officer newly assigned to investigate traffic fatalities, was called in. Arriving around 4 a.m., he took witness statements, including a 24-word explanation from Findley.
“I was driving in Groveland when a car pulled up in front of me. I locked in but they were too close to stop,” she wrote.
Another witness alleged in a written statement taken by police that after the accident Finley “worried on the phone only about her truck and not about what she had just done to the four passengers in the other vehicle. “.
Finley’s attorney did not return repeated calls for several weeks seeking comment.
Forgie said Finley remained at the scene of the accident, comforted by his family and consented to be tested for drugs and alcohol.
His blood alcohol level measured 0.08%, the threshold at which a motorist is presumed to be impaired, and the test detected cannabinoids, indicative of recent marijuana use, according to case records. But Forgie said the blood test was not taken until 6:52 a.m., nearly five hours after the crash.
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The two ambulances that responded were treating the seriously injured victims and taking them to the Orlando Regional Medical Center.
Forgie also said police were having “some difficulty finding an approved FDLE blood collection kit…”
Carla Faye Smith said mothers have promising lives ahead of them.
Her daughter planned to become a nurse.
Tierra Chambers reportedly graduated in May 2018. Roslyn Felton planned to get married.
“It’s not in me to hate anyone. I can’t do this,” she said. “But what happened and how, it can make for raw hatred.”