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Crime & Courts

Aunt: Alcohol played a role in I-275 crash

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Published:   |   Updated: February 13, 2014 at 05:24 AM

TAMPA — As families of the four University of South Florida fraternity brothers deal with their deaths in a fiery crash on Interstate 275 early Sunday, so, too, are relatives of Daniel Lee Morris, the wrong-way driver who slammed head on into the students’ car.

One relative said alcohol likely played a part in the wreck; that Morris may have been drinking for much of Saturday before he got into his roommate’s SUV and headed toward the interstate. The crash has shaken the friends and families of Jobin Joy Kuriakose, 21, of Orlando, Ankeet Harshad Patel, 22, of Melbourne, Imtiyaz Ilias, 20, of Fort Myers, and Dammie Yesudhas, 21, of Melbourne.

A remembrance ceremony for the four is set for 3:30 p.m. Thursday, followed by a 7:30 p.m. candlelight vigil. Both will take place at the Marshall Student Center on the Tampa campus.

Witnesses said the 2001 Ford Expedition, which belonged to a friend of Morris, was speeding south in the northbound lanes before it crashed into the students’ 2010 Hyundai Sonata just north of the Busch Boulevard interchange.

Elaine Duprie, Morris’ aunt who lives in Ashland, Ky., has read online news reports and can’t make sense of why her nephew was speeding the wrong way on a major interstate.

She said she spoke with Morris’ friend, who told her the two had been drinking all day Saturday and early Sunday just before the wreck.

“They started early in the morning and it went on all day long,” she said. “I’m attributing the accident to that. If it was an attempted suicide, it was alcohol-induced.”

There is no mention of suicide in the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s preliminary autopsy report, which concluded the manner of Morris’ death was accidental.

She suggested her nephew may have gotten confused about the interstate.

“I think he maybe didn’t know at first he was going the wrong way,” she said. “I don’t think he intentionally would get onto the freeway going the wrong way. If you are impaired, if you been drinking, the only thing you’re thinking is how to get off the freeway as soon as possible.”

She said there always is the chance he was on a suicide ride.

“I know Danny,” she said. “Danny was a really good kid. Even if he was contemplating his own suicide, he never would harm another person.”

He did have bouts with depression in the past, she said, probably stemming from witnessing the accidental death of his sister when he was 10.

“He struggled through all of that,” she said, “but for him to do something like this ... ”

The media, she said, is “portraying him as a mass murderer, a terrible person. This is a terrible tragedy not only for the four fraternity brothers at USF, but also for us. His mother lives in Michigan and can’t afford to come to Florida, much less to claim her son’s body to give him a decent burial.”

Duprie last saw her nephew a year ago, but talked to him by phone two weeks ago, she said, and he was excited to be back in Florida after living in Michigan for a while. He had a new girlfriend, she said, and his relations with his estranged wife were amicable. He was to begin a new job at the Port Tampa Bay on Monday, she said, the day after the wreck.

“He was a great guy,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “I don’t understand. He was a good kid. He loved life, he loved people and he loved being around people.

“The last time I talked to him, he was in good spirits,” she said. “He was happy.”

Duprie has been close to her nephew, who was like a big brother to her daughter, she said.

He had a rough childhood, with an abusive father, she said, and was raised around cars. He particularly liked fast cars, she said.

“That was the way he was raised,” she said, “around cars and especially high-speed cars, the whole fast-car thing.”

Tanya Dunn married Morris in 2007 and separated from him in January 2013, though they remained friends.

“The first thing I want to say is that my thoughts do go out to the four victims, their families and friends,” she said. “I wish I had answers as to why this happened, but I don’t. I pray for their families. I’m very, very sorry.”

She said Morris was not the type of person who would go out and hurt anybody.

“He was never the suicidal type,” she said. “He had so much to live for, so much going for him. I have a lot of questions I want answered, too.”

She said Morris quit his job in Michigan and came to Florida to work at the port and to help a friend, who had just lost his job, get work there as well.

She is trying to raise money for a funeral, asking friends and family for donations.

“Legally, I am his wife,” Dunn said, “and I do feel obligated to take care of his remains.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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