By WILLIAM SNOWDEN
A man from Clermont with illegal drugs in his system crashed and rolled a car while traveling in Wakulla County back on New Year’s Day 2020. A 17-year-old girl, also from Clermont and also with drugs in her system, was killed in the rollover crash.
At a hearing on Nov. 16, the man, Tommy Piper Jr., entered a plea of no contest to vehicular homicide, a second degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in state prison, and was sentenced to 4 years in prison, followed by 5 years probation.
Wakulla Circuit Court Judge Layne Smith initially expressed reservations about accepting the plea after talking to the girl’s grandmother.
But Piper’s attorney, Joe Bodiford, explained the defense’s assertion that the drug test administered 9 hours after the crash by the Florida Highway Patrol was sloppily done. It showed methamphetamine in Piper’s system, but the defense would have contended it was residual meth from use days earlier and that he was not under the influence at the time of the crash. The defense would have argued at trial at he fell asleep while driving or their was an animal in the road that caused the crash, and a jury may have gone along with that. Still, the defense acknowledged that “Drowsy driving is impaired driving” and could still be charged as vehicular homicide.
The grandmother of McKenzie Wyatt, the girl killed in the crash, was at the hearing via Zoom and complained that Piper did not call for help for her granddaughter.
The judge told the grandmother that, given the circumstances, the plea deal was “the best it’s gonna get,” and “This, I think, is the best we could do.”
The grandmother could be heard sobbing on the Zoom connection.
The case was handled by Wakulla Chief Prosecutor Andrew Deneen.
Piper was adjudicated guilty and ordered to serve 4 years in prison with credit for 1,186 days served, to be followed by 5 years probation and conditions that include 200 hours community service, court costs and fines of $1,565 and a 3-year driver license revocation.