Jennifer Carvajal, a Plant City teenager who pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter appears at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. (Tampa Bay Times)

At 16, she drove drunk and killed a man. At 24, U.S. cops say she did it again

In the 2nd crash, Tampa Bay’s Jennifer Carvajal denies she was the driver

Five years ago, a diminutive teenage girl with striking brown eyes stood shackled and weeping in a Tampa courtroom.

Jennifer Carvajal admitted she was drunk early one morning a few weeks shy of her 17th birthday. She admitted that she’d blown through a red light and slammed into another car, killing the driver. She admitted she’d made a terrible mistake and vowed to become a better person.

“One person paid the ultimate price for my selfish behavior,” she said.

She got five years in prison.

Last summer, Carvajal was once again in court, accused of violating probation by walking away from a substance abuse treatment facility.

“She’s dancing around a big ‘ol fire,” Judge Nick Nazaretian warned her attorney. “And she’s gonna get burned if she gets too close to that.”

Admonished to do better, she went back to treatment.

Two weeks ago, authorities say Carvajal was once again driving drunk. Once again, they say, she crashed and killed a man.

What happened here? The full story is yet to be told. But court and police records yield a glimpse of a tragic life full of wrong turns that also ended two other lives and left many more in pain.

A troubled child

Jennifer Carvajal was born in Tampa in 1997, the second-oldest child in a family of two girls and three boys.

She would later recall childhood memories of hearing her parents fight, of hiding in a closet with her siblings or running down the street to call the police.

Her father sold and used drugs, according to court testimony. He drank. Her mother seemed aloof, once leaving the children for a week.

When she was about 6 years old, several older men in her extended family began to sexually abuse her, according to court testimony. It wasn’t discovered until she was 9, when she developed an infection that a doctor diagnosed as a sexually transmitted disease.

At 11, her father was arrested for raping an older female relative. He spent five years in prison, then was deported to Mexico.

At 12, she tried marijuana. At 15, she was smoking and drinking regularly. She was twice hospitalized after trying to take her own life.

Her school attendance was sporadic. She got poor grades and was suspended from Simmons Career Center in Plant City for sneaking off to see a boy.

She would later recall that her boyfriend gave her access to alcohol. She would recall drinking to escape and to forget.

She would recall one early morning when she stayed out all night, taking her mother’s car without asking. She’d returned home but left again when her cousin called and asked for a ride to school.

A crash

Keith Allen Davis was 52. He was from Pennsylvania but moved to Florida as an adult. His parents and two brothers died when he was young. He had been on his own since he was 16. The person he loved most was Susan Blain, his longtime girlfriend.

They shared a small house in a tidy Plant City subdivision. They had three dogs. He worked delivering the Tampa Tribune and other newspapers in east Hillsborough County.

That’s what he was doing on Feb. 5, 2014. It was chilly at 6:30 a.m., with a light fog, as he worked his route in a black Toyota Echo. It was mostly dark when he descended the exit ramp from eastbound Interstate 4 toward North Alexander Street. He turned left through a green traffic signal to head north.

At that moment, a gold Lincoln Navigator sped northward on Alexander Street at 55 mph. Its headlights were off. It zipped through the red light and plowed into Davis’ car.

The Toyota was shoved back and smashed into a concrete divider.

The Lincoln kept going, veering off the roadway, striking a pedestrian crosswalk sign and crushing an above-ground water main before stopping against a palm tree.

“I am sorry, it was my fault,” Carvajal said when a bystander approached. “I just got my learner’s permit. I don’t have insurance.”

Davis lay unconscious, bleeding, his bones crushed. He was rushed to Lakeland Regional Medical Center, where he died at 8:09 a.m.

On the floor of the Lincoln, police found an empty can of Four Loko, a fruit-flavored malt beverage known for its high alcohol content. They also found an empty beer can and an empty bottle of Patron tequila.

Lab tests would measure Carvajal’s blood-alcohol content at .13 a few hours after the crash. The legal limit is .08.

Consequences

Carvajal pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter in adult court. She was 18 when she faced sentencing. She clutched a tissue as she stood with her chestnut hair dyed blonde at the ends, brushing the top of her orange shirt.

Her voice trembled. She asked for forgiveness. She spoke of feeling lost and broken. Instead of seeking help, she said, she tried to forget the pain by drinking.

“Now I have no choice but to face reality,” she said. “Reality is that my actions caused a lot of people pain. … If there was a way, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask for God to take me instead.”

She said she wanted to pay for what she’d done, but she also wanted help.

Judge Thomas Barber heard from Valerie McClain, a forensic psychologist, who testified that Carvajal showed signs of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She recommended that any sentence include a requirement that she participate in at least a year of substance abuse and mental health treatment. She opined that a long incarceration would only further the damage.

The judge also heard from people who knew Davis.

“I’m sorry that Miss Carvajal has had such a hard life, but it’s still not an excuse,” said Toby Stogner, a longtime friend of the victim. “When you make a decision to drive with no driver’s license — making a decision to drink and drive — those are adult decisions.”

Blain, the victim’s girlfriend, said she’d been unable to pay their bills after he died. She’d lost her companion and her home. (She could not be reached for comment for this story.)

State sentencing guidelines put Carvajal in the range of 10 years in prison. Blain told the judge the lowest sentence she could accept was four years — the mandatory minimum for DUI manslaughter.

Carvajal’s defense attorney, Dee Ann Athan, emphasized her youth and her abusive childhood. She asked for juvenile sanctions or for the judge to treat Carvajal as a “youthful offender” — a designation that could allow for a less-punitive sentence.

The judge noted that Carvajal accepted responsibility and expressed remorse. He also noted the severity of her crime.

“The bottom line to me … is regardless of a person’s life circumstances, you can’t kill another person and not receive some punishment,” Barber said.

He gave Carvajal five years. He also gave her five years probation, with a requirement to enroll in a residential treatment program.

She was ordered to pay Blain $8,068 for funeral expenses and was permanently barred from holding a driver’s license.

New life, more trouble

Corrections records show that Carvajal accumulated a handful of disciplinary actions in prison for refusing to work, fighting, disrespecting officials and “sex acts.”

She was released in October 2019. Records indicate she got a job with a cleaning company. She later went to work at a Dunkin’ Donuts, lawyers said.

Her restitution remained unpaid, records show.

She enrolled in DACCO, a residential substance-abuse treatment program in Tampa. On May 5 last year, she got a warning for “appearing to be in a relationship with a peer,” according to a probation violation report. When spoken to, she slammed a door, then packed her bags and left.

On May 21, she was back in jail.

In July, Carvajal appeared in Judge Nazaretian’s courtroom.

She was told that she could do more time. She was also told that DACCO was willing to take her back.

She said she didn’t want more jail time.

“She killed somebody because she drank alcohol,” the judge said. “That is extremely serious. And if that was me, it would haunt me forever. And she needs to appreciate and make sure she does what she’s supposed to do. Because the other hammer, which is going to be a lot more than five years, could drop in the future.” He asked if she understood.

“Yes, sir,” Carvajal said, her voice small.

A public defender mentioned that Carvajal had completed a three-month treatment program while in prison. She wanted to get credit for it, but had been denied. She also asked if she could go to a different program. The judge declined.

“I’m not big on lectures today, but this is so serious, what happened, you can’t make it worse, okay?” Nazaretian said. “You’ve already spent five years of your life in prison. You don’t want to spend another day there.”

He gave her a new five-year probation term. Like before, it forbid her to use alcohol or drugs. Like before, it forbid her to drive. Like before, it required that she complete substance-abuse treatment.

The judge also imposed a curfew, requiring Carvajal to be home between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Records show that she completed her treatment on March 10.

Another crash

Six weeks later, on April 25, Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Jason Moore was cruising the eastbound lanes of Interstate 4. After 1:30 a.m., he noticed a pair of oncoming headlights moving west, much faster than the rest. Moore’s radar showed a speed topping 110 mph.

The sergeant made a U-turn and raced to catch up to the speeding car, siren blaring, blue lights flashing.

A minute later, near the exit to Mango Road, he pulled up behind a Hyundai Elantra. The Hyundai made an abrupt right turn onto the shoulder, down a grassy slope, then up an embankment.

Four wheels left the ground. The car clipped a wire fence as it sailed into the Gator Ford dealership lot. It slammed onto a parked truck, then overturned, smashing into a concrete light pole and a palm tree. When it stopped, the Hyundai lay on its roof, its back end a snarl of crumpled metal.

Two people were thrown to the pavement. When Moore got to the wreckage, he found one of them, Lexcia Gonzalez, 20, crawling away. Both of her legs were broken.

Asked who was driving, she pointed toward a chain-link fence. There stood Jennifer Carvajal.

Carvajal denied she was the driver.

Moore noted bruising on her left shoulder, which he said extended across her chest toward her right hip. The car’s driver’s seat belt was extended, hanging loose.

She and Gonzalez were taken to Tampa General Hospital with two others. Grady Ramirez, 19, who had been restrained in a front passenger seat, endured injuries described in a report as incapacitating.

Pedro Carbajal, 22, the other ejected passenger, later died.

He was Jennifer Carvajal’s cousin. An online obituary states that he had three brothers and three sisters. Lexcia Gonzalez was his girlfriend. They had a son named Julian.

At the hospital, Trooper Joshua Lugo met with Carvajal. He noted that her speech was slurred, her eyes were glassy, she had trouble staying awake, and she smelled of alcohol. A medical test pegged Carvajal’s blood-alcohol content at .10, slightly above the legal limit. Results of a second test, a legal blood draw taken as a result of a search warrant, remain pending.

Reached via phone last week, Carvajal’s aunt, Cindy Rosales, said the family did not want to comment.

“They’re all in a state of mourning,” said Barry Taracks, Carvajal’s private defense lawyer. “Obviously, the charge is extremely serious for my client. She has the deepest sympathy for the deceased as well as the injured.”

The Hyundai was registered to Gonzalez. The group had attended a family member’s birthday party that evening, Taracks said. Gonzalez drove them there, he said. It remains unclear whether she drove after the group left the party, her attorney said.

Carvajal faces a litany of new criminal charges, including DUI manslaughter.

If convicted as charged, Carvajal could face a total of 40 years in prison.

Trevor Bethea, a state probation officer, wrote up a probation violation report, imploring a judge to impose the maximum penalty.

“This is the second person that has lost their life at the hands of this offender,” he wrote, “and her actions continue to display a disregard for the public at large that should be alarming to all parties.”

Carvajal is due back in court on Monday.

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