LARGO, Fla. — A great-grandmother with a prior DUI is facing a felony charge after her 10-year-old great-grandson crashed her Ford Escape into another SUV carrying children, which was pushed into a third vehicle that was also transporting kids.
The crash victims are now speaking out, hoping she won’t be able to escape spending time behind bars.
The crash happened on December 21, 2020, but the case has not yet been to trial.
According to a crash report, 75-year-old Lauren Burch Birk had been drinking vodka at her condominium while babysitting her three great-grandchildren. The children wanted to go see the Christmas lights at Largo Central Park, located about a mile and a half away from her home.
Birk told police ”she backed the vehicle out of the parking space at her complex” and told her grandson to drive.
“I see a little boy driving”
Moments later, the boy slammed the car into the back of Anthony Troiso’s vehicle.
“I saw headlights coming upon us,” Anthony said. “Full-blast. Hit from behind. Full-speed.”
Troiso’s wife Rachel and three children were in his SUV.
“Traffic was backed up. We were not even into the turn lane yet and we were sitting in dead stop traffic on East Bay,” Rachel said. “I look in the rear-view mirror and see a little boy driving and by the time I’m out of the car, he’s in the back seat and there’s nobody in the driver’s seat. And I’m like what? Who is driving this car?”
When Rachel questioned Birk about letting her great-grandson drive, she said Birk didn’t seem concerned.
“She said that he’s almost eleven. Like he was okay. He’s almost eleven,” Rachel said.
Anthony said the boy appeared to be too small to operate the Escape by himself especially on one of Pinellas County’s busiest roads.
“There was no way that kid was driving that vehicle with his feet on the gas pedal and hands on the steering wheel. Not at all,” Anthony Troiso said. “There had to be help somewhere.”
According to the police report “Birk had a strong odor of alcoholic beverages emanating from her person, had difficulty standing and was slurring her words.”
The Troiso’s SUV was pushed into a third car, which also had two children inside.
Great-grandmother had prior DUI
The I-Team learned Birk was arrested for driving under the influence in 2017, after crashing into a car parked in a driveway, causing $18,000 in damage. At the time of that crash, she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.13, well above Florida’s legal limit of 0.08.
She lost her license for six months and was placed on probation for a year, during which time she was forbidden to drink alcohol.
For the December incident, Birk was charged with a felony count of child neglect and allowing an unlicensed minor to drive.
“They knew she was intoxicated. They didn’t charge her with DUI. They didn’t do field sobriety tests. They knew she had been previously convicted of a DUI with a crash,” said attorney John McGuire, who represents the Troisos in their personal injury case.
He said if there was evidence Birk did anything to assist her great-grandson with driving, she should have been given field sobriety tests, a breathalyzer, and potentially charged with DUI.
“A second DUI would have been mandatory jail time. Right now, she has no mandatory jail time,” said McGuire.
“It’s not like it was a deliberate thing”
The I-Team caught up with Birk outside her home.
“It’s not like it was a deliberate thing. It was just a huge mistake,” Birk said.
Birk said she’s paid a high price already, including thousands of dollars in lawyer bills, she can’t have any contact with her great-grandchildren, and she has to wear an alcohol detection monitor.
The I-Team asked her if she put her great-grandson behind the wheel because of her prior DUI.
“I don’t think I was even thinking about that. That was done years ago,” she said. “I can’t even remember it.”
The I-Team showed our interview to Linda Unfried, who founded the Hillsborough County Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter after her sister was killed by a drunk driver.
“The endangerment that she put those children in and other citizens….that poor 10-year-old. I can’t even imagine,” Unfried said. “By the grace of God, no one was seriously injured.”
Unfried hopes the incident will serve as a wake-up call for Birk.
“I really would hope so that now she sees the light. But I don’t know,” she said.
“Anything could have happened”
Birk said she hasn’t had any alcohol since that night and has already gone to rehab. She hopes her criminal case will be resolved soon. Another hearing is scheduled for August.
“Anything could have happened. It could have been much worse than it is, actually. Don’t you think we all know that?” Birk said.
“I would love to see some jail time here because it’s needed. It’s much needed,” Anthony Troiso said.
“I want her to take responsibility for what she did. She impacted not just her life, but her grandchildren's and our family’s as well. So I just want her to take responsibility. Own up to what she did,” Rachel Troiso said.
“It’s horrible. I’m an old person and this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” Birk said.
“Nobody gets in the car and says I’m gonna go kill somebody right now. That’s not it. But it’s a huge mistake. You cannot get behind the wheel if you’ve been drinking,” Unfried says.
She said the same thing applies to putting a 10-year-old in the driver’s seat.
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