Former Firefighter Pleads No Contest in DUI Manslaughter Case, Sentenced to 6 Years in Prison

TAVARES, Florida—The former Eustis firefighter accused of killing a young woman while he was driving drunk has pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter.

According to Lake County Clerk of Court online records, Downs was sentenced to six years in prison and must serve at least four years, followed by four years on probation, $2,100 fine, community service, restitution, court costs and he will lose his driver license for the rest of his life.

Downs, who was the deputy chief of the volunteer Umatilla Fire Department, an engineer medic at Eustis Fire Department, and former local paramedic of the year was later terminated from both of his positions.

He was off-duty at the time of the three-vehicle crash on March 19, 2020 and was traveling eastbound in a 2016 Dodge Ram on State Road 44 near Huff Road when he failed to stop and struck the back of a 2017 Nissan Sentra, “propelling” it into the back of a stopped dump truck. The Nissan, being driven by Catherine Eaglin, of DeLand was stopped on State Road 44, facing east, behind a 2020 dump truck being driven by William Gomes, 33, of Orlando, shortly after 11:15 p.m., according to the crash report.

Eaglin, who turned 23 just six days before the crash, was pronounced dead on the scene, and was wearing a seatbelt. Downs, of Eustis, was airlifted to Central Florida Regional Medical Center and he was not wearing a seatbelt. Gomes was transported by Lake EMS to AdventHealth Waterman; he was wearing his seatbelt.

Catherine Eaglin was killed in a crash March 19, 2020, just six days after her 23rd birthday, after her car was struck by a drunk driver. Michael Downs, a former firefighter, pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter Monday and was sentenced to six years in prison.

Downs was charged with DUI manslaughter, three counts of DUI with property damage and one count of false information on a crash report for falsely claiming he was infected with COVID-19. Downs pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter and the other four charges were dropped, according to court records.

A Florida Highway Patrol crash report states Downs’ BAC was .155, nearly twice Florida’s legal limit. It is unclear exactly what time the blood was drawn, but it was after Downs was transported by air to Central Florida Regional Medical Center in Sanford.

“FHP had to subpoena medical blood, as Cpl. [Eric] Almeyda was unable to obtain blood from Mr. Downs,” Montes said in an email in 2020. “With the challenge of not being able to obtain a blood sample that night, Cpl. Almeyda immediately subpoenaed the medical blood and completed the investigation before making an arrest.’

Downs also claimed he may have COVID-19. “When Cpl. Almeyda arrived at the hospital to interview and evaluate Mr. Downs, he was told by the nurses that Mr. Downs claimed he may have COVID-19,” Montes said in an email. “The hospital staff placed Cpl. Almeyda in full protective PPE to go in the room to talk with Mr. Downs.”

At the hospital, no routine field sobriety exercises were possible, nor was it possible for traffic homicide investigator Almeyda to get close enough to Downs to determine whether he had physical signs of impairment — such as bloodshot eyes or the odor of alcohol on his breath. “We couldn’t do anything because he was claiming COVID-19,” Montes told this reporter in 2020.

Downs allegedly made the claim just 10 days after Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Florida due to COVID-19.

He was taken into custody Monday at the Lake County Courthouse after entering his plea and is being held at the Lake County Jail until he is transferred to state prison.

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