David Zlokas, the 66-year-old former resident of Surf Side condominiums, lost control of his car as he drove home drunk late on a November night in 2017 and smashed his Mustang against a tree. He survived. The man he called his best friend, Gary Robert St. Peter, 67, a retired attorney with a storied life and family, did not.
St. Peter took the brunt of the violent collision. His last act, St. Peter’s youngest son told a judge this afternoon, was to save Zlokas’s life: he’d essentially buffered Zlokas from the trunk of the palm that ended his.
After an hour-long hearing before Circuit Judge Terence Perkins in circuit court, Perkins sentenced Zlokas to five years in prison on a DUI manslaughter charge, followed by 18 months probation, which he can end at the 12-month mark if he complies with all terms. He can also leave prison after serving 85 percent of his sentence, or just past the four-year mark of his sentence.
The sentence may appear more forgiving than those meted out in this county to other drunk drivers with a death of a human being on their hands, but in fact is in line with Zlokas’s background–not his wealth, but his clean record until now. Just months ago, Tyler Wayne Dutton was sentenced to nine years in prison followed by five years’ probation in the death of 25-year-old Jordan Marie Rineer–a woman he may have considered his best friend–but Dutton’s license had been previously revoked and he’d had innumerable traffic and other infractions. Last year William Schwarz was sentenced to life in prison for drunkenly causing the traffic-crash death of Kathleen J. Boos, a Flagler Beach business owner, and her brother-in-law Carl Boos on State Road A1A. Schwarz was out on bond on a cocaine charge at the time, and had drunk-driving convictions by the growler in his past.
In comparison, both Rebecca Lawless and Allen Adams, both charged with DUI manslaughter in separate crashes in 2014 and 2016, each got five years in prison in plea deals that relied heavily on the families of the victims agreeing to the deal.
That was the case today in Zlokas’s case even though some of those who addressed the court at the sentencing, including one of his friends of 40 years and one of his sons, did not hesitate to call Zlokas–who would stare ahead, lips pursed, hands clasped, the clench in his jaws mirroring his resolve not to look his accusers in the face, his two attorneys flanking him protectively almost like the night he’d been flanked from fatal harm–a murderer.
“I’m the son who enjoyed and treasured those moments I had with my dad and those future moments that I had with my dad were cut short by you that night when you murdered my father,” St. Peter’s oldest son said at the end his statement to the court, speaking from the witness box. He was in tears, his fury controlled by recollections of a life with his father as beacon. He had described a father-son relationship rare for its close and joyful affection that had nothing to do with dutiful periodic calls and Thanksgiving dinners but daily transcontinental and lengthy phone calls as the two men would speak politics, work issues, condo issues, laugh and look forward to the next call. A grown man, the eldest son also did not hesitate to speak of the seeming incongruity of missing his father while attending a Big Ten college, a relationship he now said is irreplaceable.
It was then that he called Zlokas his father’s murderer. He was followed by a friend of St. Peter who’d known him for four or five decades going back to their years in Rhode Island, where St. Peter started his own law firm to “do more labor law” and where she described his life as a feast of work, charities, family and friends: his children had apparently learned to fly before they’d learned to drive, the wings having to do with a non-profit’s special flights for children in need of critical medical care. She described a man who “wanted to make sure that people were as happy in their life as he was in his.” And she described her last encounter with him, an endless lunch with his wife and her husband, all four of them reflecting on what they shared, “and that was the last time I saw Gary, standing outside in the beautiful Florida sunshine, talking about how lucky to have each other in life.”
But now she was “shaking with rage and utter sadness,” she said, describing to the court how she felt as she wrote her statement, though she seemed no less furious delivering it and telling Zlokas how he’d decided to get behind the wheel of a car drunk, how “he killed–killed-my friend and took away an integral part of our world.” Zlokas stared ahead. “I am so angry, so angry as I sit here and think I will never, ever see Gary again.”
St. Peter’s wife had been first to speak, some of the 20 people on her side of the audience (there were nine on Zlokas’s side) shifting a little in their seats so they could see her past the large portrait of St. Peter that had been positioned not far from the witness box, facing the judge and, at an angle, Zlokas as well. St. Peter’s wife, calm and forceful, did not call Zlokas a murderer. But her words were no less of an indictment: “your actions were immature, irresponsible and idiotic,” she told him of a decision that changed lives. “We were robbed. Gary was robbed.” She described what Zlokas had robbed the family of–the dancing at his son’s wedding, seeing the northern lights, watching turtle eggs hatching. And she told him how “this senseless act by you will continue to cause devastating anguish to Gary’s friends and family.”
Sentencing hearings where family members speak their hearts are never black and white, except when the defendant’s side is without its supports. Zlokas’s was not empty. His daughter spoke in words as anguished as those of St. Peter’s family, never excusing her father except to call the “tragedy” an “accident” (a word that elicited distinct head-shaking on the St. Peter side of the aisle). “My father is not without his faults, he’s not perfect, but who among us ever is,” she said, herself as overcome as those who’d spoken about St. Peter had been. “That’s what it was, an accident, this was not a crime committed out of malice.”
Zlokas had lost his wife to breast cancer when she was just 51. He’d moved to Florida in 2006 to rebuild a life. He’d met the St. Peters. He’d become best friends with them. He’d have coffee with them every morning, they’d walk together over the dunes every evening. Zlokas’s grandchildren would call Gary “uncle.”
“This is a devastating tragedy and our family is truly sorry about the loss of Gary,” Zlokas’s daughter told the court, making a brief plea by calling “devastating” a punishment that takes “a man who has never committed a crime away from his family” for five years.
But he had committed a crime. And more than one. The prosecution had agreed to drop two other charges along the way (DUI and DUI with property damage), the second as part of the plea deal, which had been worked out before today’s hearing.
Perhaps Zlokas knew that by that point the statements made to the court had no effect on his deal. He’d faced a maximum of 15 years in prison. But he knew he wasn’t getting that. He knew it wasn’t an “open plea,” where the judge gets to set the sentence, but an agreed-upon plea inked by his attorneys and the state, and consultation with the victim’s family. So by the time he stood before the judge to make his own statement (the judge tacitly allowed him not to do so from the witness box, since Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis was not going to cross-examine him), it was more of a formality, a chance to address St. Peter’s family, as he had been advised not to in the intervening months while his case was going through the court’s clogs.
Zlokas spoke of his remorse. Uncertainly, without overt emotion, he spoke–he read–of his fortune to have had St. Peter as his best friend. He called him “an amazing friend full of integrity and character,” called himself “blessed” to have known him, and grieved at losing not only St. Peter but the whole family he had been close to. “My tears and heavy heart is all I can offer,” he said. There was no plea for mercy. There was no explanation. There was a distinct absence of any mention of that night when he drove drunk.
Perkins then sentenced him. Afterward Zlokas took off his jacket, handing it to one of his attorneys (it was the last time he would wear a tie, or civilian clothes, for at least four years, further court proceedings included), and one of the bailiffs handcuffed him, the clicking sound of the cuffs tightening on his wrists filling the silence in the courtroom. He was then finger-printed and his DNA sample harvested from his cheek with a Q-tip, his attorneys trying to shield what is one of the most humiliating moments in a convicted felon’s inexorable submission to the justice system, and to prison, from two reporters’ cameras.
There were no outbursts in the courtroom from either side, as is not infrequent at such moments. Zlokas’s family did not yell out words of love or support to the man they were losing. St. Peter’s family and friends remained as dignified as they’d been through the hearing, letting their silence speak for the man they had lost. Zlokas walked out the side door, the door reserved for suspects and convicts. St. Peter’s family, one of his sons taking hold of his father’s portrait from Lewis, filed out first, with a bailiff’s careful positioning between one and the other family. Then the others filed out.