A Franklin County jury took a little more than an hour last week to decide that a 24-year-old Carrabelle woman drove drunk in a crash outside Carrabelle two years ago that killed one of her passengers.
The jury of four men and two women on March 13 found Rebecca Ann Padowitz, 24, guilty of DUI manslaughter in the April 17, 2012 death of Rona Lavon Hawkins, 28, of Sopchoppy.
Hawkins died at the scene of the one-car crash after his 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee, driven by Padowitz, spun out of control on U.S. 98 about 1.6 miles west of Lake Morality Road and about 0.8 miles east of the city of Carrabelle.
Padowitz faces up to 15 years in prison when she is slated to be sentenced by Circuit Judge George Reynolds on April 14.
According to Florida Highway Patrol reports in the case, the crash occurred about 9:12 p.m. after the eastbound Jeep lost control on a curve, flipped over and struck a tree, bursting into flames.
Padowitz, who was celebrating her 23rd birthday, had to be lifeflighted to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. A passenger in the back seat, Julian Kenneth Collins, 33, of Thomasville, Ga., escaped injury.
Collins told FHP investigators that he was able to crawl out of the passenger side door, and to pull Padowitz from the wreckage, but that Hawkins’s arm was pinned under the vehicle. A few minutes later, Collins was able to assist in freeing Hawkins, but, Collins said, “it was obvious he was deceased.”
An autopsy by Leon County Medical Examiner Dr. Anthony Clark determined Hawkins had succumbed to “crushing head trauma.”
Hawkins, the son of Sopchoppy mayor Colleen Skipper, was a star linebacker at Lincoln High School, from which he graduated in 2002.
Collins told FHP Padowitz was driving the vehicle after a day spent at Carrabelle Beach, where the three had been “drinking beer and vodka all day.” Toxicology reports later determined Padowitz had a blood alcohol level of .17, more than twice the legal limit, but no drugs in her system. Hawkins was found to have had a blood alcohol level of .102, with the presence of cannabis in his blood.
Interviewed by FHP officers at TMH, Padowitz denied she had been driving, and said she had been in the front passenger seat. While witnesses said she had entered the car on the driver’s side, only Collins could testify having seen her driving. He was transported to Franklin County for the jury trial from Coffee Correctional Facility in Nicholls, Ga., where he is serving a five-year sentence for shoplifting.
After studying the wreckage, FHP investigators concluded it was “more feasible” that Padowitz had been driving, since the driver’s seat was too close to have fit Hawkins, who was at least 6’3” tall.
Collins told FHP that he was the only one of the three wearing his seatbelt, and that Padowitz “was driving very fast and he remembered telling her to slow down.”
Collins told the FHP that Padowitz seemed to him to be “the more sober one of them all,” when she asked Hawkins if she could drive, since it was her birthday.
Padowitz was initially given a bond, but it was revoked in April 2013 following her arrest for possession of a controlled substance.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant State Attorney Jarred Patterson, on behalf of State Attorney Willie Meggs. Padowitz’s defense was handled by Port St. Joe Attorney Brian Hill, who was assigned the case as conflict counsel.