Takoma Park teen guilty of auto manslaughter

Montgomery County crash killed three last July

July 02, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- A Takoma Park teen-ager was found guilty yesterday on three counts of automobile manslaughter in an accident last July that killed his best friend, a classmate and a father of three.

Michael Schoenfeld, 17, showed no emotion as Montgomery District Judge Eric Johnson announced the verdict.

Family members and friends of the victims and Schoenfeld filled every seat, stood shoulder to shoulder and sat cross-legged on the floor of the tiny courtroom.

As the judge read his opinion, looks of relief spread across the faces of each victim's family, their shoulders sagged as they exhaled, and then they turned and hugged.

Johnson said Schoenfeld acted in a "reckless and wanton manner for reasons known only to him" in the minutes before the fatal crash on East-West Highway.

Witnesses and two of Schoenfeld's surviving passengers said he weaved between lanes and was traveling at more than twice the 30-mph speed limit as he left Bethesda Chevy Chase High School summer classes.

As Schoenfeld gunned the Subaru Outback along the four-lane street, his five passengers screamed and begged him to slow down.

He lost control of his mother's car less than a half-mile from the school, careened into oncoming traffic and slammed into a pickup truck and an Acura.

Johnson, looking at 8-by-10 color photographs of the accident scene as he spoke, said the Subaru was "literally obliterated."

Two of the five boys in Schoenfeld's car, Matthew Waymon and Irn Williams, both 17, were killed instantly. The driver of the truck, John Francis Wert, 40, also died at the scene.

Schoenfeld's lawyer, David Driscoll, said his client was a young, inexperienced driver who had gotten his license just two weeks before the crash.

The state, he said, has recognized the vulnerability of young drivers by enacting tougher standards for them to get their licenses, standards that took effect yesterday.

"It is unlikely he would have done anything to hurt his best friend," Driscoll said, referring to Schoenfeld's friendship with Waymon. "He was simply overmatched by the circumstances. Overmatched by the road. Overmatched by the decision he made."

But prosecutor Cheryl McCally disagreed with Driscoll's portrayal. "Overmatched? How about slowing down?" she said. "It wasn't an accident. It was going to happen. The only questions were where, when and who would be the victims. Now we know."

Johnson ordered Schoenfeld to continue therapy with a social worker and participate in community service while awaiting a pre-sentencing evaluation. The teen will remain in his parents' custody until sentencing Sept. 22.

Outside the courthouse, the families of the victims expressed bitterness that Schoenfeld claimed he had no memory of the collision and that he has never taken responsibility for it.

"Michael said he does not remember? Well, now he remembers," said Lynne Waymon, who added that it was difficult to live with the thought that her only son's "last 15 seconds were spent in terror."

"He [Schoenfeld] thought life was a video game," she said, her voice breaking. "He thought he could drive down the highway like that with his best friend in the front seat. That's not the way to treat a friend."

Todd Waymon said he and his wife are expanding a coming-of-age program at the Washington Ethical Society in their son's name.

"We want to enlist the help of other families who have lost teens to reckless driving, and others who want to guide teens toward constructive ways to show they're growing up," he said.

Pub Date: 7/02/99

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