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Philly judge: Hit-run driver's defense 'absolutely preposterous'

The judge sentenced Port Richmond psychotherapist Ramon M. Morales, 63, to 5 to 15 years in prison for leaving the scene of the 2016 accident that killed Thomas Dunbar Jr., 35.

Ramon M. Morales: sentenced in fatal hit and run.
Ramon M. Morales: sentenced in fatal hit and run.Read morePhiladelphia Police

To the end, psychotherapist Ramon M. Morales insisted that it was an accident, that he didn't know he had hit Thomas Dunbar Jr. and his motor scooter.

Morales said he didn't realize he had dragged Dunbar's trapped body 293 feet along Lehigh Avenue, had stopped and backed up over him, then had driven off while witnesses screamed at him to stop.

"Absolutely preposterous," said Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi, sentencing the 63-year-old Port Richmond man to five to 15 years in prison for last year's hit-and-run crash that killed Dunbar, 35, at Lehigh and Aramingo Avenues in Kensington.

"Anyone who has ever got behind the wheel of a car, sure as I sit, knows if they hit something," DeFino-Nastasi said. "It strains credulity to ask this court to accept that."

In a five-minute address to the judge before he was sentenced, translated from Spanish to English by a court interpreter, Morales offered condolences to about 35 of Dunbar's relatives and friends "for this tragic accident."

Morales said that "an accident is an accident" and "never did I intend to destroy a human life."

He criticized trial witnesses for testifying about things he said didn't happen and told the judge that the packed bags, passport, and other papers police found when they arrested him at his house in the 3200 block of Cedar Street did not mean he was preparing to flee to his native Dominican Republic.

The prison term was longer than the mandatory three to six years but shorter than the five to 17 years requested by Assistant District Attorney Tracie Gaydos.

Defense attorney Anthony Gil had urged DeFino-Nastasi to sentence Morales to not more than three years in prison, citing Morales' age and lack of a criminal record.

"This man is a pillar of his community," Gil said, as Morales' aged parents, brother, and sister-in-law listened. "He has helped people. He has counseled people."

Gaydos presented five witnesses and read statements from five others describing the hole Dunbar's death had left in their lives.

A friend, Ryan Smith, described the sense of adventure he and Dunbar felt as they left their close-knit Port Richmond neighborhood for the first time to attend the University of Scranton.

"He introduced me to my wife," Smith said, adding that their child "would never get to meet him."

Dunbar's cousin Ashley Crandall told the judge: "I have never seen heartbreak the way I've seen it this last year."

Dunbar's uncle Dominic Pietropaula struggled to compose himself as he read a statement by Dunbar's father, Thomas Sr., describing his pride of working alongside his son for the same construction company.

"It's been over a year since I lost Tommy, and the pain is just as bad, if not worse," Dunbar Sr.'s statement read.

On April 28, a Common Pleas Court jury found Morales guilty of vehicular homicide, involuntary manslaughter, and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. The jury acquitted him of the more serious charge of third-degree murder.

Dunbar was driving home on his Vespa scooter with takeout food about 9 p.m. on April 13, 2016. Witnesses testified that he was about to make a right turn from Aramingo onto Lehigh when Morales' Pontiac Aztek hit him and knocked him from the scooter.

As witnesses screamed for him to stop, Morales dragged Dunbar's body 293 feet before stopping, reversing, dislodging the body, and driving off.

One witness, Efrain Diaz, said he chased the Aztek through Kensington in his Chrysler 300, lights flashing and horn honking.

Three times, Diaz said, he got alongside the Aztek and yelled his message in Spanish at Morales, only to watch him pull away. " 'Why are you doing this to me?' " Diaz said Morales demanded.

"I said that you hit a person, you need to go back and call the police," Diaz testified.

"Tomorrow," Diaz said Morales replied. "No, let's do this tomorrow."

Although the Aztek again drove away, Diaz had copied the license-plate number. Later that evening, police were outside Morales' Cedar Street house. They stayed for 18 hours until they got a warrant to enter.