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WCF Voices of Victims: Josie DiStefano Palomino

Josie DiStefano Palomino

Remembered by her sister, Linda Unfried

On the night of October 29, 1983, twenty five immediate family members and four priests from our parish gathered to celebrate my parent’s 55th wedding anniversary. We had a wonderful celebration and one of our priests toasted my parents for their many years of marriage.

My sister Josie and I, who were about as close as sisters could be without being twins, were both divorced. I remember looking at her and saying “we will never be married to anyone for 55 years, but we will have each other for 55 and more.”

I did not have Josie for 55 more years because that night her life was ended by an underage drunk driver.

Antonio Noriega Jr was just 17 on October 29, 1983 and driving on a suspended license when he walked into a Walgreens and was allowed to purchase alcohol. He proceeded to drink it and then drove down busy Waters Ave in Tampa until he hit my sister’s car going 80 mph.

Witnesses said Josie was unable to escape his path and she died at the scene from a broken neck.

For about six months before the crash, I would wake up periodically with nightmares about a crash happening. I would see lights coming and then I would wake up. My friends dismissed my fears by saying “but you woke up which means you’re fine.” After the crash, I felt as if it should have been me – we had made that same trip together many times with no issues.

The feeling of guilt was tremendous.

In August of 1984, after speaking on my sister’s behalf, Antonio Noriega Jr was sentenced to 10 years in State Prison, followed by 10 years of probation and the loss of his DL for life. Three days later the ADA called stating that a mistake had been made and there was a paperwork issue with adjudicating him as an adult – he assured us it would all be taken care of. During the next hearing, he was re-sentenced as a minor to 2 years in a youthful offender facility, 2 years of community control at his home and 10 years of probation. When the sentence was announced, he turned around and winked at his girlfriend.

Over the next more than 20 years, I watched as this young man was arrested many times for DWLS, DUI and domestic violence. Despite my request to the court to offer him rehabilitation, it was never ordered and never received. In 2010 he took his own life.

Unfortunately at the time of Josie’s death, MADD did not exist in Tampa. I contacted Mary Wiley in Orlando and she referred us to a family in our area who lost their daughter in a DUI crash. They came over and talked with all of us. Seeing they could smile again and appear to go on with life, I wanted to help other families. Josie and I both knew the story of Candy Lightner and had discussed the possibility of volunteering with MADD as we both had teenage children. After learning her death was due to an impaired driver, I felt I needed to channel my grief in a positive manner.

In March of 1984, I co-founded the Hillsborough County chapter of Mother’s Against Drunk Driving. For more than 30 years, I have had the privilege of working with amazing volunteers, members of law enforcement and community partners in Josie’s memory to fulfill MADD’s mission.