CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - A witness to an accident in which two teenage sisters were killed when a state trooper ran a stop sign on a rural Cape May County road testified yesterday about the "crazy driving" he saw just before impact.
The account came as the first full week of testimony began in the trial of Trooper Robert Higbee, 36, of Somers Point, who is charged with two counts of vehicular homicide in the deaths of Jacqueline and Christina Becker of Upper Township on Sept. 27, 2006. The sisters borrowed their grandmother's minivan around 10 p.m. that day to get milk at a convenience store near their home.
Prosecutors say Higbee's actions were recklessly criminal, while the trooper's attorneys say the collision was nothing more than a tragic accident by a policeman in pursuit of a speeder.
Within hours of the collision, the state police acknowledged that Higbee was responsible. The girls' mother, Maria Caiafa, settled a $2 million lawsuit last year that she had filed against Higbee and the state police.
Higbee is suspended without pay. If the jury finds him guilty, the trooper could face as many as 20 years in prison.
Robert Taylor, whose minivan at the time of the accident was stopped on the northwest corner of Stagecoach and Tuckahoe Roads in the Marmora section of Upper Township, testified yesterday that his son alerted him to the "crazy driving" of an oncoming speeding vehicle they saw on the other side of Stagecoach barreling toward the intersection.
The car apparently was Higbee's cruiser, which, according to Taylor, seemed to accelerate as it entered the intersection.
Taylor's testimony backed up statements last week from First Assistant Prosecutor David Meyer, who said information obtained from an "event data recorder" inside Higbee's patrol car indicated that 520 feet from the intersection, at a sign warning of a stop sign ahead, the trooper touched his brakes lightly before accelerating again.
The recorder shows Higbee topped 70 m.p.h. on the road, which has a 35 m.p.h. speed limit.
The police car struck broadside the white minivan traveling west on Stagecoach and driven by Jacqueline Becker, 17. So great was the impact of the collision that Becker and her sister, 19, were thrown through the passenger's side window. Both were pronounced dead at the scene.
Taylor's van was also struck during the collision, but he and his son had only minor injuries.
Earlier in the day, Trooper John Schulke testified that he was the first responder on the scene and found Higbee walking away from the Becker vehicle looking upset.
The trial has garnered the attention of both the law enforcement community - which has supported Higbee since the collision - and victims' advocate groups.
Testimony is scheduled to continue today in the trial, which is expected to last at least six weeks.