Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Monday, March 3, 2014
Carnival worker who fled Bucks DUI charges nabbed in Fla.
Posted: Tuesday, February 11, 2014
A carnival worker was arrested last week in Florida, where authorities said he fled after skipping a court date involving charges that he severely injured a 24-year-old woman while drunk and driving a golf cart at a Tullytown fair last year.
Bruce Coppage, 30, of Gibsonton, Fla., who ran the Tilt-a-Whirl ride for Reithoffer Shows, was arrested on a bench warrant at a county fair in Highlands County, Fla., Feb. 7, according to a police report.
“I am relieved. I cried when I found out,” said Kelley Sweat, the carnival concession worker whom Coppage is accused of injuring.
Coppage is expected to be extradited to Pennsylvania, where he faces aggravated assault while DUI and related offenses in connection with the June 27 accident at St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church’s annual fair.
Tullytown police allege that Coppage had a blood alcohol level of 0.108 when he slammed into Sweat, of South Carolina, who was working at an ice cream concession stand. The legal limit for driving in Pennsylvania is 0.08.
Coppage admitted to police he had “several” alcoholic beverages prior to getting behind the wheel of the cart, according to court documents.
When he was arrested, Coppage was initially released on $5,000 unsecured bail. He appeared at only one of three preliminary hearings in the case, and at that appearance the district judge allowed him more time to get a lawyer.
No attorney had been entered in court records as representing Coppage, who was held for trial at a preliminary hearing held in his absence in October.
Coppage assembles and takes down rides for Florida-based Reithoffer Shows, which manages traveling carnivals that take place across the country and several in Bucks County. Sweat, who also worked for Reithoffer Shows for a few months before her injury, said Coppage continued working for the company after his arrest.
Reithoffer’s general manager, Nick Alberts, said Coppage was working for the company when the accident happened, but that he didn’t know if he was let go after the arrest. He referred further questions to another company official who did not return a call. A number listed for the Reithoffer’s Boca Roton corporate office has been disconnected.
Sweat on Tuesday said that she told the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office and Florida authorities where to find Coppage in Florida, which is the site of the company’s headquarters during winter. She worked with the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office warrant division to apprehend Coppage, who reportedly was arrested while working the Tilt-a-Whirl ride for Reithhoffer Shows.
“I had a good idea he was still working there because of mutual friends of ours,” said Sweat, whose fiancé also works for Reithoffer Shows. “It took a lot of work.”
Sweat said she has been in touch with the Bucks County DA’s office and was told it would take about a week to bring him back to Pennsylvania.
Bucks prosecutor A.J. Garabedian, who is handling the case, confirmed that he has been working with Sweat and her fiance to track Coppage down.
The accident severely injured Sweat’s left arm and kept her hospitalized at St. Mary Medical Center in Middletown for a month. Sweat, who is left-handed, has undergone 10 operations to reconstruct her arm below her elbow, including repairing her bones and taking leg muscle to use in her arm, she said.
An x-ray of Kelly Sweat's injured arm
“They took everything out of my arm. I can’t even pick things up,” she said. “Now I sit home every day and stare out my window and wait for resolution.”
Sweat said that she faces three more surgeries and doctors have inserted 14 screws and two bars in her arm to secure it. She is unemployed and has no health insurance coverage and her medical bills from the accidents are more than $70,000, she said.
Her family has created an online page on www.gofundme.com to help raise money to cover her medical bills. She has also retained a Philadelphia personal injury attorney who filed a lawsuit on Sweat’s behalf in October in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. The suit, which seeks more than $50,000 in damages, names Coppage and Reithoffer Shows Inc. as defendants.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jociavaglia