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Fly-fishing, zip-lining Tampa couple separated by strangers' deadly race

Joseph Obregon, 31, was arrested after police said he spun the tires of his pickup truck, sped down Sligh Avenue and slammed into two vehicles, killing one person and injuring two others. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]

By Tony Marrero and Melissa Gomez, Times Staff Writers

TAMPA — Bill and Jane Swartz nearly had their bungalow in sight. Driving back from a doctor’s appointment Tuesday morning, the couple needed only to cross Sligh Avenue to reach their home on Highland Avenue.

They almost made it.

As Jane Swartz entered the westbound lanes of Sligh in a Toyota RAV4, a racing pair of pickup trucks barreled toward them at more than twice the speed limit, police say. One truck, a Dodge Ram, slammed into the Toyota. The force of the crash tossed the small SUV into a utility pole and in an instant ended a 15-year marriage.

Bill Swartz, 78, was killed. His 58-year-old wife was critically injured. And within 15 minutes of the violent crash, police arrested the Dodge driver and charged him with vehicular homicide and racing on the highway, among other crimes.

That man was Joseph Obregon, 31, of Tampa.

"It’s just so very hard to comprehend," Bill Swartz’s sister, Kathy Lanham, said after she learned he was killed.

Witnesses told investigators they saw Obregon revving his engine while stopped at the red light at an exit ramp from southbound Interstate 275. The rear tires spun and the back end of the truck slid as he turned west onto Sligh about 10:40 a.m., the report says, and a driver in a white pickup truck alongside him was driving in the same way.

The trucks stopped at a red light at Florida Avenue. When the light turned green, both drivers gunned their engines, witnesses told police.

"Both vehicles rapidly accelerated causing the exhaust to produce heavy black smoke consistent with rapid diesel acceleration," Tampa police Detective Ryan Jacques wrote.

The trucks quickly reached speeds witnesses estimated at more than 70 mph. The speed limit there is 35 mph. It would have taken them seconds to reach Highland Avenue, where Jane Swartz was about to try to cross.

After crashing into the Toyota, Obregon’s truck hit a Honda Accord, injuring the driver, the report says. Police did not release that driver’s name.

Obregon posted $11,000 bail and was released about 5 a.m. Wednesday. He couldn’t be reached for comment. The Broad Street address police listed for him is about 4 miles west of the crash site. A woman who answered the door said he was not there.

Jail records list his occupation as "driver."

He had two prior arrests in Florida, both on marijuana possession charges. One also involved theft of a motor vehicle. Neither led to a conviction.

His Florida driving record shows a recent speeding ticket in Glades County but little else.

The morning of the crash, the Swartzes were on their way home from the husband’s doctor appointment, said Lisa Payne, a close friend of the couple.

The Paynes and the Swartzes had traveled together to North Carolina, Maine and Georgia. For her 60th birthday, Payne went zip-lining with Jane, while their husbands stuck to fly fishing.

"We just would spend hours sitting around talking and laughing," Payne said.

The two met at a doctor’s office where Jane Swartz was a nurse practitioner. The women joined Krewe of Pandora and became fast friends as they worked on community service projects and took part in the annual Gasparilla parade.

Bill Swartz hardly acted his age and had a dry sense of humor that matched Payne’s, she said.

She said her husband and Bill Swartz were set to go Christmas shopping on Wednesday.

"I absolutely adored Bill, and we’re just heartbroken," she said.

When she heard the news, she helped detectives reach family members. At the Swartz home, she came across "I love you" notes from Bill to Jane.

Lanham, Bill Swartz’s sister, recalled him as a prankster growing up in Chicago.

He served in the Marine Corps before graduating from Western Kentucky University. He was so proud of his service, she said, he would attend events in his uniform. He tried his hand at a variety of jobs including photographer, teacher and airline worker. He married Jane in 2002.

"He was one of a kind," the sister said.

Payne said she visited Jane Swartz in the hospital Tuesday night and learned she was unresponsive but stable.

"She’s a very strong woman," Payne said. "So I’m sure if it’s possible, she’s going to come through."

Times staff writer Jonathan Capriel and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Melissa Gomez at mgomez@tampabay.com. Follow @melissagomez004.