Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Fly-fishing, zip-lining Tampa couple separated by strangers' deadly race

By Tony Marrero and Melissa Gomez, Times Staff Writers

TAMPA — Bill and Jane Swartz nearly had their bungalow in sight. Driving back from a doctor’s appointment Tuesday morning, the couple needed only to cross Sligh Avenue to reach their home on Highland Avenue.

They almost made it.

As Jane Swartz entered the westbound lanes of Sligh in a Toyota RAV4, a racing pair of pickup trucks barreled toward them at more than twice the speed limit, police say. One truck, a Dodge Ram, slammed into the Toyota. The force of the crash tossed the small SUV into a utility pole and in an instant ended a 15-year marriage.

Bill Swartz, 78, was killed. His 58-year-old wife was critically injured. And within 15 minutes of the violent crash, police arrested the Dodge driver and charged him with vehicular homicide and racing on the highway, among other crimes.

That man was Joseph Obregon, 31, of Tampa.

"It’s just so very hard to comprehend," Bill Swartz’s sister, Kathy Lanham, said after she learned he was killed.

Witnesses told investigators they saw Obregon revving his engine while stopped at the red light at an exit ramp from southbound Interstate 275. The rear tires spun and the back end of the truck slid as he turned west onto Sligh about 10:40 a.m., the report says, and a driver in a white pickup truck alongside him was driving in the same way.

The trucks stopped at a red light at Florida Avenue. When the light turned green, both drivers gunned their engines, witnesses told police.

"Both vehicles rapidly accelerated causing the exhaust to produce heavy black smoke consistent with rapid diesel acceleration," Tampa police Detective Ryan Jacques wrote.

The trucks quickly reached speeds witnesses estimated at more than 70 mph. The speed limit there is 35 mph. It would have taken them seconds to reach Highland Avenue, where Jane Swartz was about to try to cross.

After crashing into the Toyota, Obregon’s truck hit a Honda Accord, injuring the driver, the report says. Police did not release that driver’s name.

Obregon posted $11,000 bail and was released about 5 a.m. Wednesday. He couldn’t be reached for comment. The Broad Street address police listed for him is about 4 miles west of the crash site. A woman who answered the door said he was not there.

Jail records list his occupation as "driver."

He had two prior arrests in Florida, both on marijuana possession charges. One also involved theft of a motor vehicle. Neither led to a conviction.

His Florida driving record shows a recent speeding ticket in Glades County but little else.

The morning of the crash, the Swartzes were on their way home from the husband’s doctor appointment, said Lisa Payne, a close friend of the couple.

The Paynes and the Swartzes had traveled together to North Carolina, Maine and Georgia. For her 60th birthday, Payne went zip-lining with Jane, while their husbands stuck to fly fishing.

"We just would spend hours sitting around talking and laughing," Payne said.

The two met at a doctor’s office where Jane Swartz was a nurse practitioner. The women joined Krewe of Pandora and became fast friends as they worked on community service projects and took part in the annual Gasparilla parade.

Bill Swartz hardly acted his age and had a dry sense of humor that matched Payne’s, she said.

She said her husband and Bill Swartz were set to go Christmas shopping on Wednesday.

"I absolutely adored Bill, and we’re just heartbroken," she said.

When she heard the news, she helped detectives reach family members. At the Swartz home, she came across "I love you" notes from Bill to Jane.

Lanham, Bill Swartz’s sister, recalled him as a prankster growing up in Chicago.

He served in the Marine Corps before graduating from Western Kentucky University. He was so proud of his service, she said, he would attend events in his uniform. He tried his hand at a variety of jobs including photographer, teacher and airline worker. He married Jane in 2002.

"He was one of a kind," the sister said.

Payne said she visited Jane Swartz in the hospital Tuesday night and learned she was unresponsive but stable.

"She’s a very strong woman," Payne said. "So I’m sure if it’s possible, she’s going to come through."

Times staff writer Jonathan Capriel and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Melissa Gomez at mgomez@tampabay.com. Follow @melissagomez004.

Comments
New video shows cows beaten and burned at Florida dairy farm

New video shows cows beaten and burned at Florida dairy farm

The Miami Beach-based Animal Recovery Mission has released a video from its undercover abuse investigation at a Central Florida dairy farmThe graphic video, with disturbing images of cows cruelly being beaten, speared, stabbed and burned, was shot by...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Deputies: Plant City men fled in stolen car, shot dog, hid in swamp

Deputies: Plant City men fled in stolen car, shot dog, hid in swamp

DOVER — Two Plant City men who ran from deputies and shot a dog were captured after a brief pursuit Thursday, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.They ditched the stolen car, ran away on foot, crossed through several yards and then ...
Updated: 1 hour ago

FHP: Overturned vehicle reported on northbound Howard Frankland

ST. PETERSBURG — Drivers should avoid the northbound Howard Frankland Bridge for a while: The Florida Highway Patrol is responding to a report of an overturned vehicle there.The incident was reported on northbound Interstate 275, near mile marker 32,...
Updated: 1 hour ago

No charges against motorist as bicyclist is hit from behind, killed in Seminole Heights

TAMPA — A 52-year-old man riding a bicycle was killed early Friday when he was struck from behind by a car in Seminole Heights, Tampa police said.Wayne Kersh, 52, was killed in the collision about 12:15 a.m. on Hillsborough Avenue near N Central Aven...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Arrest made as former gay bathhouse in Ybor City is hit by arson a third time

Arrest made as former gay bathhouse in Ybor City is hit by arson a third time

TAMPA — Tampa police arrested a man Friday on charges he set fire to a vacant Ybor City bathhouse hit by at least two earlier arsons this year.Police said Carroll DeMoss, 46, was found early Friday inside the building at 1512 E 8th Ave. after patrols...
Updated: 6 hours ago

Missing Child Alert canceled for Port St. Lucie girl, 17

A Florida Missing Child Alert has been canceled for a 17-year-old Port St. Lucie girl who was last seen on Thursday.The case involving Heaven Flores has been resolved, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Updated: 8 hours ago

Hudson pedestrian killed while crossing U.S. 19

HUDSON — A Hudson man was killed Thursday night while crossing U.S. 19.According to the Florida Highway Patrol, 59-year-old Gerald Berube was crossing the northbound lanes of U.S. 19 north of Stahl Drive around 6:40 p.m. when he walked into the path ...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Tampa police seek ‘person of interest’ in Dec. 3 homicide

Tampa police seek ‘person of interest’ in Dec. 3 homicide

TAMPA — Police are seeking a "person of interest" who they believe has information about a Dec. 3 drive-by shooting that killed a 22-year-old man.Police are searching for Anan Motilal, 25. He stands about 5-foot-10 and weighs 180 pounds. He may have ...
Published: 12/14/17

Pinellas Park officer stuns middle school student with Taser

PINELLAS PARK — A school resource officer stunned a middle school student with a Taser while trying to break up a fight between her and another female student on Thursday, police said.Neither the Pinellas Park officer nor the students involved in the...
Published: 12/14/17
Bob’s Carpet and Flooring heir was source of family strife before arrest

Bob’s Carpet and Flooring heir was source of family strife before arrest

An heir to a local flooring company charged with failing to report the death of a young woman last year has a troubled criminal history and was a source of strife in his family business, according to court records.Robert Butler III, 52, was arrested ...
Published: 12/14/17