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Monday, April 20, 2009

Student's Death Leads to Vehicular Manslaughter Charge

As a result of a December 2, 2008 crash that killed a University of Florida student who was riding a motorized scooter, Gainesville, Florida police recently charged a woman with vehicular homicide. Sgt. Joe Raulerson who has been investigating the crash said that Monica Renee Toliver, 40, was charged with in the death of Michael VanWagner, a UF senior from northern Marion County. The official charge is “operating a motor vehicle in a reckless manner likely to cause death.”

According to witnesses, Toliver hit a truck from behind on W. University Avenue, veered onto the sidewalk without stopping, and then crashed into VanWagner, who was on a scooter at the intersection of University and NW 17th Street. VanWagner was not wearing a helmet when he was pushed into the back of a pickup truck. He died two days later of severe head injuries.

Raulerson said, "I would think the majority of folks, if they do hit a truck, stop. If she (had stopped), we wouldn't have had the circumstances we had that day." Raulerson said that the charges were upgraded because Toliver didn't stop or render aid to VanWagner, as required by law.

Raulerson said that Toliver's blood test came back from the state as negative for both drugs and alcohol. Toliver was unavailable for comment.

The VanWagner family is trying to cope with their loss.

In response to news of the charges, Eric VanWagner, Michael's father, said, "I've told everyone that Mike was chosen that day, and Monica Toliver didn't choose him, God chose him. That’s the way we feel, and that's what we know in our minds and in our hearts."

Raulerson said that it's a miracle more people weren't hurt, given the time of the accident - almost 1 p.m. on a busy University of Florida school day. Raulerson said, "We were extremely fortunate." He added that 13 witnesses stopped and gave their version of the crash.

A senior studying history at the time of the crash, Michael VanWagner will be awarded a posthumous degree from UF in May.

VanWagner’s sister Dana was working in Iraq as a defense contractor when she received the news that her younger brother had been in a serious accident. She drove two hours to Baghdad, flew to Kuwait, then to Atlanta and arrived in Gainesville just in time to see her brother still alive.

"It was the longest 15 hours of my life," Dana said.

Michael grew up on a dairy farm, where he assisted his father in building two businesses and a family home.

"For a guy who was 22 years old, he had wisdom beyond his years," Eric VanWagner said. "He knew how to do things that 50-year-old people wanted to do."

With a laugh, his mother, Deborah VanWagner, added that heaven knows her son wasn't perfect. "We know that one day we will see Michael again," she said.

"The typical story of Mike's life is that he had 20 lives," Dana said. "He'd been in several severe accidents and was life-flighted once."

Two of those were bad auto accidents Dana said, adding she wasn't shocked by the text message she got from Michael one summer saying he had nearly been eaten by a shark.

His roommate at the time of the accident, Rachel Wilson, said Michael was a true friend who would drop everything to help someone in need.

"It's been tough," Wilson said. "He was supposed to graduate with me. He's a tough one to lose."

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