TAMPA — One morning two summers ago, the driver of a sport utility vehicle sped north amid rush-hour traffic on Anderson Road, northwest of Tampa. The driver, Tucker Hoopengarner, veered into oncoming lanes and collided with another car, killing a woman.
In the SUV’s passenger-side floorboard, sheriff’s deputies found a whipped cream dispenser and nitrous oxide cannisters. Commonly known as laughing gas, nitrous oxide is used in sedation, and as a propellant. It’s also used, illicitly, to induce a high.
Deputies surmised that Hoopengarner had inhaled the gas, possibly going unconscious moments before the crash.
But the evidence of impairment was thin. Unlike alcohol and other substances, nitrous oxide leaves the body within minutes. And there was little to suggest Hoopengarner had inhaled the gas.
A defense attorney argued the case should be dismissed.
Then, on Wednesday, came a deal: Hoopengarner, 29, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide in the death of Jill Lawniczak. He also admitted to a charge of unlawful distribution of nitrous oxide. In exchange, he received six years in prison.
The guilty plea punctuated an unusual case, made unique by the allegation that a substance other than alcohol or drugs contributed to the tragedy.
“I know he took it extremely seriously,” said defense attorney Christopher Klemawesch. “I know it had a profound effect on him. I know he certainly wishes it had never happened.”
Lawniczak’s family attended the brief court hearing, but did not speak.
Hillsborough prosecutors cited “reckless driving at a high rate of speed” in bringing the vehicular homicide charge.
“His sentence is consistent with the law as well as the wishes of the victim’s family, and we are proud to achieve the justice they deserve,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said in a statement.
The crash occurred a little after 8:30 a.m. July 1, 2020.
Hoopengarner, who had a job working in electrical services, was heading north on Anderson Road in his green Subaru Outback. Just north of Crenshaw Street, his vehicle veered left, swerved in front of a semitractor-trailer that was parked in a center turn lane, then moved into the southbound lanes.
The Outback collided head-on with a Kia Optima. Both cars came to rest against the west curb.
Lawniczak, who was driving the Kia, was killed.
She had worked as a substitute teacher and as a youth and family coordinator at Grace Lutheran Church in Tampa, according to her LinkedIn profile. She was 53.
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Hoopengarner was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital. A nurse there found in his pocket a pipe and marijuana. When a police officer asked him about it, Hoopengarner showed a medical marijuana card, which had expired a few days earlier.
A traffic homicide detective examined his SUV, finding what was described as a black commercial-grade whipped cream dispenser, which uses nitrous oxide cannisters as propellant. He also found several spent cannisters and a box marked “XXX Platinum – 50 Triple Refined Cream Chargers.”
The detective noted that such items are commonly misused to induce a high by inhaling volatile chemicals. The practice, the detective wrote, is known as “huffing.”
The trouble, though, is there was scant evidence that Hoopengarner used the cannisters at all.
In his request to dismiss the case, Klemawesch wrote that the dispenser tip was broken.
A search warrant application noted that Hoopengarner appeared “spaced out” after the collision. But a detective later acknowledged this could have been due to his having just experienced a severe crash.
None of the law enforcement officers who worked the crash said Hoopengarner appeared to be under the influence of any substance, the defense attorney noted. In fact, one deputy testified that he appeared coherent, answered questions clearly, did not slur his words or give any other indications of impairment.
Investigators obtained permission to test a sample of his blood. The test detected marijuana, but yielded no other substances.
Hoopengarner was not accused of DUI manslaughter, which is often alleged in similar cases.
Investigators found that Hoopengarner’s car was moving at 79 mph about 5 seconds before the collision, and had slowed to 67 mph on impact. The speed limit in the area is 45 mph.
His attorney argued that speed alone does not prove recklessness. But had a jury disagreed, he could have faced as much as 15 years.
“The risk of the maximum punishment is the greatest in this kind of case,” Klemawesch said.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robin Fuson also ordered Hoopengarner to serve 10 years of probation and complete 50 hours of community service upon his release.
That includes three hours attending a victim-impact panel, an event that features speakers who have been affected by impaired driving.