GIBSONTON — Paul O’Neal was driving down a darkened stretch of Interstate 75 on Thanksgiving when he spotted white lights in the center lane ahead of him.
He figured the lights were on a tow truck picking up a stranded car. But when brake lights on the cars ahead of him lit up and darted from side to side, O’Neal realized the white lights weren’t on a tow truck.
They were headlights.
Seconds later, O’Neal watched as a car speeding the wrong way crashed head-on into a southbound sedan.
"It happened right in front of me," said O’Neal, an airline pilot from Tennessee. "I remember just being dumbfounded as to what was happening and why this was happening."
The Florida Highway Patrol would soon release the basic details of that night. Justin Lakin, 21, was driving a Toyota Corolla north in the southbound lanes near Gibsonton Drive when he crashed into a car carrying a young couple.
LaShay Waiters, 24, and fiancee, Yvette Alexandre, 21, who had recently become pregnant, died of injuries, as did Lakin.
It was unclear at the time how and why Lakin started driving the wrong way. Did he get disoriented? Was he intoxicated?
His autopsy found no evidence of drug or alcohol impairment.
A recently completed Highway Patrol investigation report, released to the Tampa Bay Times through a public records request, explains how Lakin wound up driving in the wrong direction: He turned around in the median.
"The burning question is why," said Robert Alexandre, Yvette’s father. "That may be an answer we’ll never get."
Lakin was almost home when he crashed.
He lived in Bradenton with his father, John Lakin, a retired circuit judge who now practices law. A family attorney told Highway Patrol investigators the elder Lakin drove to Georgia that day to deliver gas money to his son, who had stayed the night at a Motel 6.
Why Justin Lakin was in a small town halfway between Atlanta and the Florida line is unclear. Family attorney Ronald Kurpiers told investigators it was common for Lakin to "drive all over for no reason."
Lakin’s sister Joy told investigators that he "suffered from manic depression and schizophrenia." It’s the only reference to mental illness in the report.
His autopsy report makes no mention of psychiatric drugs in his system; only caffeine.
John Lakin bought his son Red Bull energy drinks for the roughly five-hour return trip south. Kurpiers told investigators the father and son had been driving for about four hours when Justin Lakin "spun out" and his father passed him in the outside lane.
Meanwhile, the young couple, Alexandre and Waiters, were traveling south in a Ford Focus.
Alexandre graduated from Tampa Bay Technical High School; Waiters, from Braden High School in Bradenton. They met at the University of Central Florida, where they were both still students, and had just moved into an Orlando apartment. He’d proposed about four weeks earlier and two weeks after that, she told him she was pregnant.
They’d shared Thanksgiving dinner at his mother’s house in Ruskin, drove to Tampa to drop off a friend and now were headed back to Ruskin.
About 9:45 p.m., a witness spotted Lakin’s car in the median near the Big Bend Road exit and another car parked on the outer shoulder of the southbound lanes, according to the report. A man standing near that car appeared to be yelling to the car in the median.
Then, the witness told investigators, the car in the median turned around and started going north in the southbound lanes. The man standing by his car threw up his hands. An FHP investigator showed the witness a photo of Lakin’s father but she couldn’t confirm it was the same man she saw on the shoulder.
Another witness called 911 when he saw taillights heading north in the wrong lanes. The witness told investigators the car was weaving through oncoming traffic at 70 to 80 miles per hour.
Lakin had been going the wrong way for four miles when he reached the Gibsonton Drive overpass.
O’Neal, the airline pilot, said both drivers seemed to swerve to avoid a crash. The report shows Lakin turned to the right, and Waiters veered to the left.
"It didn’t look like the car going in the wrong direction was purposely trying to hit the other car," O’Neal said.
They collided near the southern end of the bridge in an explosion of broken glass and twisted metal.
O’Neal ran to the car carrying the young couple, terrified by what he was about to see, but airbags blocked his view. He went to Lakin’s Toyota and saw a young man behind the wheel who appeared to be unconscious. Lakin woke up. Breathing heavily, he asked for help getting out.
"I said, ‘You can’t, you’ve been in a really bad accident,’" O’Neal recalled. "I said, ‘My name is Paul,’ and he said, ‘I’m Justin B. Lakin,’ really fast. He said, ‘I’m going to die.’ I said, ‘You’re not going to die.’"
Lakin reached out his hand and O’Neal held it for a while. Soon after, a man arrived and said he was Lakin’s father.
Waiters and Alexandre were wearing seat belts, the report says. Lakin was not. All three were pronounced dead at Tampa General Hospital.
Schizophrenia is a severe, chronic condition characterized in part by thoughts or experiences that seem out of touch with reality, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Manic depression, now commonly referred to as bipolar disorder, is marked by dramatic mood swings.
But Kurpiers, the family attorney, told investigators that Justin was "happy and loving" and had not made suicidal threats in the past.
"He explained Mr. Lakin’s family did not think (he) intentionally caused this traffic crash with the intent to commit suicide," the report says.
Reached by the Times, Kurpiers said he no longer represents the family. John Lakin did not respond to messages seeking comment. Justin Lakin’s mother, Jo Anne Lanza, hung up on a reporter. Joy Lakin, the sister, could not be reached.
Lakin’s obituary says he helped Bradenton’s Bayshore High School win a baseball championship and went on to study history and political science at Arizona State University. He had a passion for classic films and sports memorabilia.
"His love for both sports and history brought him to travel around the country and the world," the obituary says. "During his 21 short years he lived life to its fullest and loved his family unconditionally."
In place of flowers, the family asked for donations to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Sarasota County.
For Alexandre’s father, Robert, the report answers some questions and raises others. If Lakin wasn’t intoxicated, how could he not know what he was doing?
Robert Alexandre noted the line in the report about Lakin’s mental health conditions and hopes to find out more about how that might have played a role in the crash.
"It is a huge question mark," said Alexandre, who lives in Ruskin with his wife and one of their two surviving children.
Waiters mother, Tamika Snipes, referred a message from a Times reporter to Steven Lavely, an attorney the two families have retained to consider grounds for legal action.
"We’re exploring all the options," Lavely said.
Meanwhile, the families are trying to adjust to life without the couple. Waiters and Alexandre might be caring for a newborn baby but instead are interred together at Skyway Memorial Gardens in Palmetto.
"They were always together and they perished together," Robert Alexandre said, "so it’s only fitting."
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.