This story originally appeared in the March 11, 2003 edition of the Inquirer.

What could possess a mild-mannered, middle-aged South Jersey merchant to aim a Cadillac at a McDonald's in the middle of the night, stomp the gas, and plow through the restaurant, killing three workers?

In a word: insanity.

So said an attorney for Frank Nastasi of Haddon Heights yesterday in Superior Court in Camden County. Nastasi also entered a plea of not guilty to the aggravated manslaughter charges.

"I think the evidence will be that he was psychotic and delusional at the time of the accident," Charles H. Nugent Jr. said after filing formal notice that his client may use an insanity defense at trial.

A plea agreement for Nastasi , 53, who faces a term of up to 90 years in prison if convicted, is unlikely, his lawyer said.

The crash about 4:20 a.m. on May 15 killed three women working the overnight drive-through shift: Cynthia Molino, 45, a Mount Ephraim mother of four; Joanne Marie Bowen, 52, a Mount Ephraim grandmother; and Nancy King, 49, of Audubon, who had plans to remarry in two months.

The trio died soon after Nastasi 's speeding Cadillac DeVille - at speeds as high as 90 m.p.h. - roared off Prospect Ridge Boulevard, crossed Black Horse Pike (Route 168), became airborne, smashed through a children's play-area, plowed through the dining room, and landed in the kitchen of the Mount Ephraim restaurant.

Authorities said they found Nastasi walking near his car. After arriving at the hospital, authorities say, Nastasi told them he had been trying to commit suicide. He was briefly involuntarily committed at the psychiatric ward of Kennedy Memorial Hospitals-University Medical Center/Cherry Hill.

Two weeks after the crash, authorities charged Nastasi with killing the three women as part of a failed suicide attempt. They charged him with aggravated manslaughter, one step below murder. The charge alleges conduct "manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life" that "recklessly" caused the three to die.

Nastasi's lawyer has argued that his client's actions were neither intentional nor suicidal.

"It was an accident. . . . He was on his way to his father's house and then something happened," Nugent said. Nastasi 's father lived within a mile of the restaurant and liked to eat breakfast there.

Nugent said he could not comment further on the trial strategy until psychiatrists and psychologists finished examining his client.

Despite common perceptions, an insanity plea is a high-risk maneuver for any defendant, according to New York Law School Professor Michael

Perlin, a former New Jersey public defender and former director of the state's Division of Mental Health Advocacy.

"The insanity defense is pleaded in one-third of 1 percent of all cases," Perlin said. It is successful in just one quarter of those cases, he said. "Those are astonishingly low numbers that often surprise most people. "

Several Mount Ephraim officials said yesterday they were saddened by Nastasi 's plea but not necessarily surprised.

"We're all trying to figure it out," Mayor Joseph Wolk said. "I guess the legal system will take its course. "

Nastasi, who is free on $375,000 bail, attended court yesterday but did not speak.

"He is obviously as remorseful as a human being can be, but I can't allow him to talk," his lawyer said.

A pretrial conference was scheduled for April 28.

Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 856-779-3897 or jshiffman@phillynews.com.