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Date of Issue: February 06, 2008

Driver in bridge crash gets 9 years

The driver of a vehicle that crashed on the Anna Maria Island Bridge last May, killing one person, was sentenced to nine years and seven months in prison.

Gregorio Lopez-Chavarria, 22, was scheduled to go to trial this month on charges of DUI manslaughter in connection with the accident on the bridge on May 13, 2007. If convicted at trial, he could have been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Instead, on Feb. 1, Lopez-Chavarria, who has been jailed since the incident, pleaded no contest to the manslaughter charge, as well as DUI with property damage and driving without a license, causing death or serious bodily injury.

The accident killed passenger Eudiel Gonzalez-Ortiz, 21, of Wimauma. He drowned, according to the medical examiner’s office.

Lopez-Chavarria, according to multiple reports from the Florida Highway Patrol, was driving a 2000 Ford Expedition eastbound on Manatee Avenue and the bridge early May 13, which was Mother’s Day.

He apparently lost control of the vehicle, which hit a high curb on the State Road 64 bridge linking Anna Maria to Perico Island and the mainland, and bounced into the westbound lane. The SUV, with the driver and two passengers inside, went through a concrete railing on the bridge and fell 20 feet into Anna Maria Sound. The SUV landed upright in the water.

Two motorcyclists, Ian Haddix of Bradenton and Evan Purcell of Holmes Beach, were crossing the bridge at the time of the accident. They heard yells for help. They went into the water to help rescue the men, as did fast arriving aides from the West Manatee Fire Rescue District. Two boaters fishing for snapper near the bridge, Christian Cornell of Northport and Robert D. Cornell of Bradenton, also assisted at the scene.

Eventually two men, Lopez-Chavarria and Florentino Gonzalez-Doran, 35, both of Bradenton, were rescued.

A test put Lopez-Chavarria’s blood-alcohol level at 0.29 - the legal limit is .08.Gonzalez-Doran’s level was .32.

In a taped interview with investigators, Lopez-Chavarria said he and the other men had been drinking beer since the day before and were looking for someplace to buy more alcohol. Authorities found a case of Bud Light in the wrecked SUV.

Lopez-Chavarria and Gonzalez-Doran told FHP they met Gonzalez-Ortiz at a bar at 15th Street East and 57th Avenue East in Bradenton.

Gonzalez-Ortiz’s family, from Mexico, did not attend last week’s court hearing.

The accident on the bridge prompted calls from Islanders for an evaluation of bridge safety and reconsideration of the speed limit on the structure.

The Florida Department of Transportation declined to adjust the speed limit.

Later in the year, the DOT announced a major rehab of the bridge, which began Monday. That rehab, however, is not intended to improve safety conditions.

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