Editor’s note: This story contains profanity and descriptions of a fatal car crash.
In the cold antiseptic environment of a hospital room, the police officer delivered the tragic news: “Um, there’s only one way to tell you this. She did not make it. OK?”
A young woman, Kassandra Guzman-Ramirez, 20, of Weston, had died at the scene of a 75-mph car accident, pinned inside the crushed passenger seat of a sports car wrapped nearly around a utility pole. She took her final gasps as rescuers tried to free her: “I was trying to get to her but it was hopeless,” Officer Owen Osborne, one of the first police officers on the scene, recounted.
Her boyfriend, Adam Mandel, 19, of Weston, was the driver and, later that night, being treated for possible head or neck injuries. He was in a gown lying on a hospital bed as a police officer in a practiced, professional tone told him she was dead. The dramatic moment of love and life lost was captured on the officer’s body camera. Mandel wiped his right hand over his face, weeping, his chest pulsing with grievous sobs.
Why did we report this story?
The case illustrates the tragedy of a violent, fatal car crash in a college town blamed on drunken driving involving two young adults, and raises questions about whether Florida’s courts treated the young driver’s prior history of speeding seriously enough.
In a bizarre twist, the fatal accident occurred just blocks away from the University of Florida campus and an intersection where Mandel also crashed his car two years ago in a careless driving wreck, and one day after Mandel pleaded not guilty to unrelated speeding charges in Broward County in the same sports car. Mandel has been ticketed frequently for speeding and other moving violations, despite his short driving history.
The life of Guzman-Ramirez ended that night on West University Avenue, but the legal system isn’t finished with Mandel.
This story reveals new details about what happened that night and in the months since the deadly crash on Jan. 9. It is based on exclusive interviews and access to hundreds of pages of court records, an autopsy report and a review of photographs and body camera video from first-responders. Criminal and civil cases are still winding through the courts. Mandel’s future is unwritten.
The night of the crash, police said, the UF student’s blood-alcohol level was .12 and he tested positive for marijuana. He was formally charged last month with a serious crime in Florida – felony driving under the influence causing death, known as DUI manslaughter – facing at least four years in prison but likely much more if convicted.
“Bigger than, probably, a murder case,” police Sgt. Summer Kerkau told another officer at the crash scene, their conversation recorded on video. “Believe it or not, this’ll be a bigger issue than that.”
Mandel’s next court hearing in the DUI manslaughter case is Aug. 13 – and he is facing a virtual court hearing 300 miles away the following day in an unrelated speeding case. All this will happen roughly three months before he turns 20 years old.
Now, Guzman-Ramirez’s family is suing their dead daughter’s boyfriend, his mother and the downtown wine-and-cheese restaurant where Mandel described to the police drinking glasses of wine before climbing into his 2007 Lexus sports car – after smoking marijuana earlier in the day. The judge has ordered the parties to try to settle the case with a mediator Sept. 3.
Mandel has not responded to calls, texts, emails and social media messages. When a reporter called the phone number that he gave to police – and which is listed in court records – a person whose voice sounded like Mandel’s said it was a wrong number and hung up. His lawyer, Joshua Rydell of Fort Lauderdale, did not return repeated email and phone messages.
Guzman-Ramirez was an artist since she was a child with a personality “larger than life,” said Alyxandra Garcia, a close friend of hers from Weston. She was planning to attend Santa Fe College as a student. She attended high school in Weston with Mandel and moved to Gainesville to be with him, Garcia said. She died wearing a blue University of Florida hoodie.
The couple dated for about two years, Garcia said. She remembered watching Disney movies “Moana” and “Aladdin” with Guzman-Ramirez.
“She has the most infectious laugh, one of the laughs that — you hear it, and everybody else starts giggling,” Garcia said. “Sometimes I can hear her laughing… and I’ll hear her laugh and replay the same moment just to hear her laugh again.”
Date night becomes tragedy
The night of the crash, Mandel and Guzman-Ramirez were celebrating an anniversary at Downtown Wine and Cheese, according to court records. Guzman-Ramirez wore small butterfly earrings that would later be removed during her autopsy. Mandel told an officer at the hospital he had the equivalent of at least three glasses of wine – two full glasses and tasting amounts of four or five other wines – along with a cheese and bread platter, and he smoked marijuana earlier that day, in the morning.
About 8:05 p.m., police said, after Mandel left the restaurant, he swerved into oncoming traffic on a busy street two miles away where the speed limit is 45 mph. His sports car’s airbag module showed the car was traveling at least 75 mph before it crashed. Mandel nearly crashed into the car in which Fernando Arcia, 22, was a passenger. Arcia said he was among the first to reach the wrecked car.
Mandel was staring blankly into the windshield while his girlfriend appeared unconscious. An autopsy later determined that the crash partially severed her leg, broke 14 ribs and her pelvis, and lacerated her liver and a lung.
Police found Mandel at the scene dazed and confused. Officers said they smelled alcohol, and one said Mandel was sweating profusely and his pupils were dilated. His words were making no sense, they said.
As police asked him what happened, with his car wrapped around the pole – damaged so badly that the pole was teetering precariously – and with his girlfriend dying inside, Mandel insisted that he had deliberately parked the car that way.
“We were just sitting there,” Mandel said. “It was just parked… I didn’t know the windshield was cracked.”
“That does not happen,” Kerkau said. “How did your car get there?”
At one point, officers explained there was a crashed vehicle in front of him and he was the driver. Mandel seemed confused, common signs of a concussion. “Is there a crash? What happened?” He also said he was waiting for police to deliver food to him.
‘I just wanted to punch him’
At moments during his police interview, Mandel laughed nervously and smiled. He asked whether Guzman-Ramirez was injured and suggested she was pretending to be hurt.
Privately, Osborne and Kerkau, their conversations memorialized on their body cameras, responded to what they perceived as Mandel’s disregard for the dying young woman on the city street.
“It took everything, I just wanted to reach out and strangle him,” Osborne said.
“Yeah. He’s like ‘Haha, how’s my girlfriend doing, haha,’” Kerkau said.
“He was over there, ‘Haha, she’s playing. She’s just playing,’” Osborne said. “No, she’s f—ing dead, man. I just wanted to punch him right in his damn face.”
Osborne is listed in police records as being among the first on the scene, and Kerkau signed the sworn complaint against Mandel nearly five months after the crash. A department spokesman this week declined to identify the officer who in the hospital delivered to Mandel the news about Guzman-Ramirez’s death, saying prosecutors had directed police not to discuss any aspect of the accident to avoid jeopardizing a conviction.
Mandel escaped the crash with a head injury. He kept telling police he was waiting for his girlfriend so they could both go home.
Mandel returned to his family’s home, a waterfront house on a cul de sac in an upscale neighborhood in Broward County, with his mother, Radmila Itria-Mandel, a former real estate agent. She filed for divorce in December from her husband, Stefano Itria, who said in an interview that he considers Mandel to be like his son.
As criminal prosecutors were preparing to formally charge Mandel last month, Guzman-Ramirez’s family filed a lawsuit seeking an unspecified amount of money against Mandel, his mother and the restaurant. The sports car was owned by his mother, whose phone numbers listed in public records were disconnected. The lawsuit said the restaurant should never have served Mandel alcohol because he was 19 at the time.
“A person’s life can’t be quantified,” said A. Daniel Vazquez of Gainesville, the family’s lawyer. “But they want something that represents full and fair reimbursement in terms of what was taken from them that a dollar amount can represent.” The lawsuit said it sought a minimum of $30,000, but payouts in such cases are frequently much higher.
The woman’s father, Mauricio Guzman, said in a brief interview that Mandel has never apologized to the family and he was upset that Mandel was still able to drive.
The owner of Downtown Wine and Cheese, Maude Wilson, declined to discuss the lawsuit.
Mandel was arrested last month, taken to the Broward County Jail and released the same day on an $100,000 bond.
Garcia, 20, said that she has known Mandel since high school and became friends with him through Guzman-Ramirez. She saw the two at a New Year’s party but they left before she could say goodbye. She didn’t know it would be the last time she saw her friend alive.
“It was his choice that directly affected the lives of not just me but all of her close friends and family,” Garcia said. “That’s a change we’re all going to have to carry with us.”
To help her grief, Garcia was painting a tribute to Guzman-Ramirez of a butterfly, which she said represented her personality. Mandel contacted her when she posted a photo of the painting on Snapchat, but it’s been the only time they spoke.
The night of the fatal crash wasn’t Mandel’s first time driving fast, according to court records filed in multiple parts of the state.
- He was ticketed in December 2019 – weeks before his accident – for driving 66 mph in a 45 mph zone in Broward County. The case is pending, and the lawyer for his girlfriend’s family has asked to become part of the case.
- He was ticketed in April 2019 for driving 90 mph in a 65 mph zone in Broward County and paid $225 in court costs and fines.
- He was charged with careless driving in December 2018 in Gainesville, after he crashed a Volkswagen sedan into another vehicle blocks away from this year’s fatal crash.
- He was ticketed for driving 86 mph on a 70 mph highway in St. Lucie County in January 2018, but that case was dismissed upon a motion from his lawyer, Stephen Palmer Smith of Port St Lucie.
- Another ticket in August 2017 for driving 79 mph in a 70 mph zone on the interstate in Osceola County and paid $131 in fines and court costs.
- He was ticketed in June 2017 for driving 81 mph in a 40 mph zone in Broward County, paid $200 in court costs and attended teen driving school in lieu of points against his license.
- He was ticketed for failing to stop at a red light in December 2016 in Broward County, but the court dismissed the case in exchange for Mandel agreeing to perform 20 hours of community service.
At the crash in January, police asked Mandel whether he knew the date. He said it was Dec. 13, 2018, days before his careless driving wreck just a few blocks away.
In that case, Mandel was ordered to complete four hours of a driver improvement course, pay $209 in fines and write two letters to Alachua County Court Judge Kristine Van Vorst after visiting two roadside memorials. Van Vorst has declined to say, in hindsight, whether she believes Mandel’s sentence was appropriate.
She said at his court hearing a year ago: “Mr. Mandel has some driving history, and he is not quite 19 yet.” She told Mandel’s lawyer, Dennis Ramsey of Gainesville, that she reserved the punishment of writing about roadside memorials “in very special cases, and given your client’s age and the driving history, I think it’s appropriate.”
In the letters Mandel wrote to the court after visiting roadside memorials, he wrote, “They serve a greater purpose beyond providing comfort and relief to the family and friends of the deceased. They serve as a reminder of the dangers of driving and the precautions that need to be taken each and every time we get into a motor vehicle.”
Now, there is a roadside memorial for Guzman-Ramirez, too.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org