Tampa man gets 25 years in prison for DUI crash on Selmon Expressway

A Tampa man who was convicted of DUI manslaughter in a wrong-way crash on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway was sentenced to 25 years in prison Wednesday.

In February, a jury rejected arguments that Stephen Paleveda, 32, was not the person driving a Ford-350 pickup truck five years ago when it slammed head-on into another truck, killing Bamnet Narongchai, 68. Paleveda was convicted of DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of a crash involving death and resisting arrest.

Paleveda, wearing an orange Hillsborough County jail uniform and square black glasses on Wednesday, held his head low during sentencing. The sound of chained handcuffs clinking against metal filled the courtroom as he fidgeted with his hands.

Assistant Public Defender Rocky Brancato argued that Paleveda was remorseful for what happened and has had a life filled with death, abuse and substance issues. Brancato urged the judge to consider that Paleveda suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prosecutors argued that from the second Paleveda got behind the wheel, his bad decisions only continued. After the crash, he left Narongchai and “ran as fast as he could until he was apprehended,” they said.

Five years after Narongchai’s death, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Barbara Twine Thomas said it was time for his family to get closure.

“I’ve heard that Mr. Paleveda is remorseful but today is the first time that I’ve heard any indication of that. He was not remorseful at the scene when the crash occurred, instantaneously killing Mr. Narongchai. Mr. Paleveda, per the evidence of the case, left the scene immediately and did not even check on him,” Thomas said.

“He never directed police or told them there’s someone up there on the road. If he had gone to help Mr. Narongchai, he could’ve pulled him from the vehicle and prevented him from burning to a crisp,” she said.

The crash happened shortly after midnight on Oct. 21, 2018, when Paleveda was speeding through the streets of South Tampa in a Ford F-350 pickup truck with the headlights off. He drove up a Selmon Expressway exit ramp in Hyde Park, going east in the westbound lanes near downtown Tampa, before crashing head-on into another, smaller truck.

Narongchai, the other driver, was killed instantly. Both trucks burst into flames.

Paleveda tried to flee on foot after the crash, but first responders and Tampa police later found him near Hyde Park Avenue and Azeele Street. Officers described him as drunk and belligerent, and a medical test about 90 minutes after his arrest showed his blood alcohol level at 0.27, more than three times the 0.08 limit at which state law presumes impairment.

At trial, Paleveda’s defense didn’t deny he was drunk, but said he was merely a passenger in the F-350 when it crashed. They suggested that his girlfriend had been a designated driver that evening, and that she was the one who caused the crash before fleeing the scene.

Police said there was no evidence that his girlfriend was involved in the crash. She gave a statement to prosecutors five days after the collision. A detective testified that she had no visible injuries.

Paleveda was jailed for five years as his case worked through court. The four-day trial in February featured testimony from dueling experts who offered differing opinions about wounds on Paleveda’s body and complex discussions of crash dynamics and seat belt mechanics.

Paleveda will be required to undergo counseling and attend Alcoholics Anonymous after his 25-year sentence is served. He will also face five years of probation.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Jenjira Narongchai and Billie McDaniel said they are still grieving the loss of their father but that they’re pleased with the judge’s ruling. McDaniel said she still doesn’t believe that Paleveda feels any remorse for what happened to her father.

“He’s never told us that he’s sorry,” Jenjira Narongchai said. “He’s actually never even said he was the one to do it.”

Narongchai was from Thailand but had lived in the United States for decades, according to his family. He and his wife lived in South Tampa and had celebrated the birth of a grandchild shortly before he died.

“He was always a happy person and volunteered a lot, he was all about our family,” Billie McDaniel said. “We just miss him a lot.”