Teen-ager goes on trial in fatal Montgomery crash

State seeks conviction on three counts of auto manslaughter

June 29, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- A Takoma Park teen-ager went on trial yesterday on three counts of automobile manslaughter in a case Montgomery County's top prosecutor calls "every parent's worst nightmare."

Michael Schoenfeld had been licensed to drive for just two weeks last July when he crashed his parents' car on his way home after summer school, killing two classmates and a father of three.

Prosecutor Marc Hall said Schoenfeld's conduct amounted to "gross negligence," enough for a manslaughter conviction.

Schoenfeld's lawyer, David Driscoll, said that while the accident was "tragic," his client's actions were not "outrageous and extraordinary" -- the standard in Maryland for proving manslaughter.

The state does not have the lesser charge of negligent homicide, so prosecutors must either settle for issuing traffic citations with $500 fines or try to prove manslaughter.

One of the three passengers who survived the crash, Hartley Wayne Abraham, 18, testified yesterday in Montgomery County District Court that his friends screamed at Schoenfeld as he weaved through traffic at speeds more than twice the legal limit.

"Everybody was yelling. telling him to slow down and stop," said Abraham in a soft voice. "He didn't pay no mind. Then somebody said, `Everybody put on your seat belts.' "

Abraham said he and the others expected to crash, and he started to pray.

As the Subaru Outback station wagon crossed the center line perpendicular to traffic and into the path of a white pick-up, Abraham said, he hugged the headrest of the seat in front of him and closed his eyes.

A witness, Mark Nachtrieb, testified that the Subaru "was moving wildly" between lanes before it "T-boned" the truck driven by John Francis Wert, a 40-year-old salesman for a remodeling firm.

The collision sent the Subaru airborne and it landed on the hood of an Acura in the lane next to the truck.

"It was a tremendous explosion," Nachtrieb said. "I had never heard a sound like that before."

Wert was killed instantly. Two students in the car, Matt Waymon and Irn Williams, both 16, also died.

Abraham said he blacked out at impact and when he awakened he was on top of the wreckage "looking at the sun." He suffered a broken leg, ankle and collarbone.

The trial opened three days before Maryland's tough new standards for teen drivers take effect.

Beginning Thursday, young drivers will have to wait longer to get a license, complete more practice hours behind the wheel and be subject to tougher penalties if they violate motor vehicle laws. But even if the laws had been in effect last summer, Schoenfeld's age at the time would have made him eligible to drive alone on a provisional license.

Accident reconstruction experts estimated Schoenfeld was driving 69 mph in a 30-mph zone near Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, where he and the other boys had been attending classes.

If found guilty, Schoenfeld, who is charged as a juvenile, could be sentenced by Judge Eric Johnson to state supervision until he is 21.

"It's every parent's worst nightmare," said State's Attorney Douglas Gansler of the Schoenfelds and the families of the victims.

The small courtroom was filled with relatives of the victims, including Todd and Lynne Waymon, whose only son had been Schoenfeld's best friend.

Schoenfeld's family sat behind him, his mother dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief during some of the testimony, at times as her son was doing likewise.

The slight teen with the close-cropped hair averted his eyes as his lawyer looked through accident photographs and as witnesses testified.

Driscoll said his client has no memory of the accident, "but finds himself in the middle of this storm."

Pub Date: 6/29/99

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