Driver charged in crash that killed Tampa couple is a fugitive after missing court

TAMPA — Nearly four years ago, Joseph Obregon was racing his pickup on Sligh Avenue when he slammed into a car, killing the married couple inside, prosecutors say.

Obregon, 34, was set to plead guilty in a Tampa courtroom last Friday in a deal that could send him to prison for more than 18 years for the deaths of Bill and Jane Swartz, according to his attorney.

But Obregon didn’t show. Now he’s officially a fugitive.

“I was shocked,” attorney Bryant Camareno told the Tampa Bay Times. As of Tuesday morning, Camareno still hadn’t heard from Obregon.

Obregon has been out on bail since his arrest at the scene of the crash on Dec. 5, 2017. Prosecutors say he was racing his Dodge Ram pickup against another pickup when he crashed into the Swartzes’ Toyota RAV 4.

Bill Swartz, a 78-year-old Marine Corps veteran who was riding in the passenger seat, died at the scene. His wife Jane, 58, who was driving, was taken to a hospital in critical condition.

Obregon, who turned 31 on the day of the crash, was arrested on charges of vehicular homicide, reckless driving resulting in injury and property damage, and unlawful racing on the highway. He was released the next day after posting $11,000 bail. He lived on Broad Street at the time, about four miles west of the crash scene, records show.

After Jane Swartz died in the hospital on Jan. 20, 2018, prosecutors added a second vehicular homicide charge. The crime is a second-degree felony in Florida punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Jury selection for Obregon’s trial was set to begin last Friday, but on Thursday, Camareno and prosecutors negotiated late into the night and reached a tentative deal: Obregon would plead guilty and prosecutors would agree to a cap of 18.5 years on his possible prison sentence, according to Camareno.

Camareno said his client was expected to plead guilty the next morning and if the judge accepted the deal, he would turn himself in on Monday and be held in jail until a yet-to-be-scheduled sentencing hearing in about 30 days. Citing Obregon’s lack of criminal record, Camareno said he’d planned to ask the court to sentence Obregon to probation for the crash.

When Obregon didn’t show on Friday, Circuit Judge Laura Ward issued a bench warrant for his arrest.

Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office spokesman Grayson Kamm said the office does not comment on ongoing plea negotiations. Once Obregon is in custody, prosecutors could tack on a third-degree felony charge of failing to appear in court, Kamm said.

Witnesses told investigators they saw Obregon revving his engine while stopped at the red light at an exit ramp from southbound Interstate 275, according to an arrest report and other court documents. 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.

Video captured by nearby cameras and released by Tampa police after the crash showed the two pickups pull up to the traffic signal at Sligh and Florida. About 15 seconds later, the light turns green and the trucks race away, headed west on Sligh.

Seconds later, Obregon’s pickup crashed into the Swartzes’ Toyota at Highland Avenue. Jane Swartz had just started to pull across Sligh to reach the couple’s home on Highland when the pickup slammed into the passenger side where Bill Swartz was sitting. The force of the crash pushed the SUV into a utility pole. Obregon’s pickup crossed the center line and struck a Honda, injuring that driver, police said.

Witnesses told investigators the trucks reached speeds in excess of 70 mph before the crash, records show. The speed limit there is 35 mph. At least one witness identified Obregon as the driver of the Ram.

The driver of the white pickup did not stop and has not been identified or located.

Obregon was a truck driver with his own business at the time of the crash but after his arrest lost his commercial driver’s license, so he’d been working odd jobs that didn’t require him to drive, Camareno said. Obregon had showed up to every previous court hearing, usually with his parents, the attorney said.

“That’s why I was so surprised,” he said.