CLEARWATER - As Frank Roberto was barreling down a street in St. Petersburg one January afternoon last year, with police in hot pursuit, his armed passenger pointed a gun at him and gave him a dire warning: Stop and I'll kill you.
That was the scenario Roberto's attorneys presented as Roberto went on trial Tuesday. As it turned out, Roberto wrecked the small red Kia he was driving, and his passenger, Kenneth Gordon Davis, 29, died.
Roberto, 41, stands accused in Davis' death. He is charged with vehicular homicide and aggravated fleeing and eluding causing death. If convicted, he faces as much as 46 years in prison.
An special undercover St. Petersburg police unit wanted to arrest Davis because, four days before the Jan. 10 wreck, he had ripped a purse off the arm of a woman as she was helping Davis' cousin move out of his apartment.
An ex-convict and drug addict, Davis was a suspect in a burglary and was believed to have been involved in several suspicious pawn transactions at the time of his death, St. Petersburg police said after the Jan. 10 wreck. Family members had told authorities he would never "go back to prison and will shoot it out with police if he is cornered," police said.
Assistant State Attorney Walt Manning told jurors that the special undercover unit spotted the Kia they believed Davis was in at a condominium complex in Gulfport. They followed the Kia and tried unsuccessfully to get it to stop at 22nd Avenue South and 46th Street.
That's when detectives with the unit requested marked cruisers pursue the Kia after it turned north onto 49th Street, Manning told jurors. A K-9 officer driving a Chevrolet Tahoe pulled in behind the Kia, with its lights and sirens activated.
It was about this time, though, that Roberto tried pulling over, one of his defense attorneys, Robert Knauf, told jurors. He couldn't though, the lawyer argued.
"Kenny had a gun pointed at Frank," Knauf said. "He did not have a conscious choice."
After the K-9 officer tried pulling over the Kia, the car bolted, at one point swerving into the oncoming lane to get around vehicles in front of it during the rush-hour chase. Roberto lost control of the 1996 Kia Sephia near the Fifth Avenue North intersection and struck a Ford pickup with such force tha the front of the Kia was torn off, Manning said. Roberto was ejected, his body slamming up against the pickup.
The Kia continued spinning with Davis, who was wearing his seatbelt, still in the passenger seat. The passenger door had flown open, and when the car struck a Mercedes, Davis was killed instantly.
Roberto was taken to Bayfront Medical Center with a broken femur, a collapsed lung and other injuries. A blood draw showed he had several drugs in his system, including cocaine and Oxycontin.
He was still limping in court Tuesday.
The trial is expected to last a couple of days.