CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - New Jersey State Trooper Robert Higbee was barreling through the Marmora section of Upper Township about 10 p.m. on Sept. 27, 2006, when he slammed his police cruiser into a minivan carrying two sisters who had borrowed it from their grandmother to pick up milk at the local convenience store.
Jacqueline, 17, and Christina Becker, 19, were killed instantly. State police acknowledged within hours that Higbee was responsible.
Whether the tragic intersection of their three lives was an accident or a crime, however, will be decided in Cape May County Superior Court, where Higbee will soon face a double count of vehicular homicide in connection with the deaths.
Jury selection began yesterday in the high-profile trial, which is expected to begin next week in a courtroom filled with reporters from the national media, family members and law-enforcement officers, who have backed Higbee since questions first arose about the circumstances of the collision.
Witnesses to the accident told police that the Ford Crown Victoria driven by Higbee, of Somers Point, blew through a stop sign at Tuckahoe and Stagecoach Roads and broadsided the minivan, which was traveling west on Tuckahoe.
He was driving so fast - without emergency lights or sirens, according to witnesses - that the impact propelled both women through the passenger-side window.
Higbee told investigators that he was chasing a speeder.
So mangled was the wreckage that when the young women's grandmother went looking for them, she did not recognize the white minivan when she came upon the accident scene near her home outside Ocean City.
Higbee, 36, suffered minor injuries and spent one night in an area hospital. Five months later, he was indicted by a grand jury and has been suspended from the state police without pay pending the trial's outcome.
The former high school and college star athlete became a state trooper in 2001. He previously signed with the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League as a free agent but never played in a regular-season game. He also played professional basketball briefly for the Washington Generals, the exhibition team that goes up against the Harlem Globetrotters.
Since his suspension, the husband and father of a year-old daughter has worked in marketing and as a freelance sports trainer, according to his lawyer.
The victims' mother, Maria Caiafa, has doggedly pursued answers. After the crash, she accused state police of being insensitive and said they failed to offer adequate information or condolences of any kind.
A spokesman for the department said that attempts were made to contact Caiafa and formally express condolences on behalf of Higbee but that the state police were told the family was not ready to talk.
Caiafa filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Higbee and the state police that was settled for $2 million last May.
The middle school principal and Higbee had met briefly in court in March 2007, when Higbee was there to plead not guilty. Caiafa approached him, and they chatted for a few moments, then tearfully embraced.
Higbee's trial is expected to be contentious and possibly lengthy. The case has garnered the attention of out-of-town media outlets, including Court TV, and law-enforcement, public-safety and victim-rights advocates.
Judge Raymond Batten ruled in February that information from the police cruiser's black box could be admitted in court. The device, an event data recorder, recorded Higbee's speed at impact as 64 m.p.h. The defense had sought to have that information kept out of the trial.
Members of the State Trooper Fraternal Association of New Jersey have steadfastly stood behind Higbee. At least a half-dozen officers, and sometimes as many as 25, have attended each of the preliminary court proceedings. The tall, broad-shouldered Higbee is usually accompanied by his wife, Bethany, and other loved ones.
On the other side of the courtroom have been Caiafa, others in her family, and groups of the young women's friends. Occasionally, Caiafa has talked to reporters about her daughters. Jacqueline Becker was a senior at Ocean City High School, where she learned Italian and Spanish and excelled in the arts, including drama. Christina Becker attended Richard Stockton State College and dreamed of going to culinary school.
Yesterday, potential jurors were brought into the courtroom in groups and interviewed. Among the questions were whether they or family members were in law enforcement or if they had ever lost a loved one in a motor vehicle accident.
First Assistant Prosecutor David Meyer and defense attorney D. William Subin decide whom to keep and whom to dismiss based on the previously set of questions. Potential jurors are then questioned individually to determine their impartiality, according to Jody Chase, a court liaison.
Chase said the jury selection would likely wrap up by Thursday. Opening statements in the trial are expected early next week.