The devastating crash instantly wiped out four relatives in South Florida for a family reunion. But it’s taking years to sort out why it happened and assign blame.
Criminal charges against the driver who slammed into the victims are now scheduled to be presented to a Palm Beach County jury in October, after trial delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The case concerning the April 28, 2018, tragedy is a battle over two scenarios: Either the driver huffed a “gas with mind-altering effects” before he slammed into the victims in Delray Beach, or the speeding pickup truck had a sudden mechanical breakdown that left it unstoppable.
Identical claims are cited in civil wrongful death lawsuits involving nearly a dozen litigants. Those will be resolved sometime after the criminal case has ended.
This much is undisputed fact: Paul Streater was behind the wheel of a 2010 Chevrolet Silverado that collided at 107 mph into the rear of a stopped 2018 Dodge Caravan carrying the victims — two kids and their mom from Mexico, and an uncle from Argentina.
“People in the truck got out alive with just cuts,” a witness told investigators after the crash on South Federal Highway. “I went to the other car and just saw all the dead people. After that, I went back and told the truck driver that he is done and going to jail forever.”
The victims were Veronica Mariel Raschiotto, 42, an accountant; Diego Martinez Raschiotto, 8, a third-grader; Mia Martinez Raschiotto, 6, a first-grader; and Veronica’s brother, Jorge Claudio Raschiotto, 50, a university professor from Argentina.
Chemical detected in blood
Prosecutors argue Streater breathed from a compressed air canister to get high, then drove recklessly and caused the violent crash.
The State Attorney’s Office said they will not comment on the case outside of court. Records show the prosecution hinges on a blood sample Streater voluntarily gave about two hours after the crash.
It shows the presence of Difluoroethane, or DFE, the main ingredient in Dust-Off, a brand name of a product designed to help clean computers and electronics. Police cited a study by addiction experts that found abusing canned air results in “poor decisions … and increased risk-taking.”
Dust-off manufacturer Falcon Safety Products, Inc. contends, “Streater’s alleged action in knowingly and intentionally misusing the product and driving while impaired is the sole cause of the fatal accident.”
Along with the blood evidence, prosecutors hold proof that less than four hours before the crash, Streater was with Tyler Fowler, his front-seat passenger and roommate, who bought two 10-ounce cans of Dust-Off at a Walmart.
But Streater’s defense says there are plenty of signs he never huffed while driving.
Huffing allegation denied
Attorney Samuel Halpern says that while police found a receipt for Dust-Off in the truck, they didn’t find the cans. And he says a key witness, a critical care nurse who was at scene just after the crash, told police that Streater showed no signs of impairment.
Halpern also notes that surveillance video shows Streater had been driving normally within the 45 mph speed limit, heading south on Federal Highway, until he reached the Linton Boulevard intersection.
The prosecution’s “theory is that probably right after that he huffed the Dust-Off, got really, really, really high, drove like a crazy person 100 miles per hour and crashed into the Caravan,” Halpern said. “My position is that doesn’t make any sense.”
Before impact Streater swerved to avoid hitting several cars, which Halpern said is “not something that someone high on Dust-Off is going to do.”
With the truck speeding out of control for seven-tenths of a mile, Streater finally was unable to avoid the victims as they waited at a left turn lane signal at Lamat Avenue, Halpern said.
He argues there is no way for prosecutors to prove when Dust-Off’s chemical entered Streater’s body.
And in Streater’s defense for the civil case, attorney Peter Commette contends “DFE can be found in anyone’s system under normal circumstances, where someone is not, and has not been impaired, such as here.”
Streater’s roommate bought the Dust-Off to blow out dust and dirt from the truck’s air conditioning vents, speakers and other parts of the cab, the attorney said. After Fowler cleaned the truck — action caught on surveillance video from the Walmart — the windows were up and Streater breathed in the fumes.
“Having DFE in your system and being under the influence to the point of legal impairment while driving are two radically different things,” Commette wrote in a pleading.
But prosecutor Danielle Sherriff has argued a toxicology analysis shows Streater just didn’t get DFE in his blood from “occupational use” like breathing it from the air. She says it had to have been huffed.
“One simply could not reach the peak DFE levels seen on Defendant’s test through anything other than inhalation,” Sherriff wrote. And she contends Streater’s “driving pattern during this incident was consistent with impairment by DFE.”
Sudden acceleration blamed
Streater’s lawyers say the real cause of the crash was the “sudden unintended acceleration” of the pickup truck. On June 2, Streater filed an updated lawsuit against General Motors, blaming the automaker for the alleged malfunction and other defects.
Estates for the victims filed similar lawsuits against GM in 2019. The company denies all responsibility.
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GM’s lawyers argue the evidence shows the Silverado didn’t experience any failures, and they also blame Streater for being “negligent by operating his vehicle in reckless manner while impaired.”
Streater’s lawsuit says he tried “slamming on the brakes and pumping them numerous times but could not get the car to stop or slow down.” The truck’s computer indicated the brakes were never applied, and the accelerator was 99% down.
Streater told first responders that his accelerator was stuck. He walked away from the crash, while his friend suffered a broken clavicle and other injuries. The people in the minivan never had a chance.
“In all respects, GM was in control of the truck at that time, not Paul Streater,” Commette wrote.
Gilberto Martinez, a Mexico City lawyer who lost his wife, son and daughter in the crash, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he wants to honor their memory rather than worry about what happens to Streater.
“Of course I want that guy to pay for what he did,” he said in a 2019 interview. “But that will never bring back my family.”