A stream of tickets, a death in his wake

Md. jails serial offender, but lets him back on the road

March 29, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

The head of Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration calls Frederick Henry Hensen Jr. "a menace to highway safety." The prosecutor who put him in jail says he has no business having a driver's license.

But nothing, it seems, can keep Hensen off the road.

In 1999, Hensen, then 22, was convicted in Carroll County Circuit Court of manslaughter by automobile in the death of Geraldine "Geri" Lane Wu. A jury found that a road race on Route 140 involving Hensen and two other drivers led to the crash that killed the popular middle school teacher and seriously injured her daughter.

Hensen spent 15 months in prison for his part in her death - a sentence that stemmed in part from his long record of speeding and other driving violations. He'd run up 33 points for more than a dozen traffic tickets in the four years before the crash without losing his license for even a day.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's editions incorrectly reported that Mark Eppig of Westminster was convicted of drunken driving in 2007. He was not, and court records show no traffic offenses on his part in recent years.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

When he got his license back in 2003, he got a fresh start. But Hensen, now 32, went back to his old ways. The Westminster man has been ticketed for speeding six more times with four convictions - including one for going 80 in a 55-mph zone. In each case, he was allowed to get back on the road by a legal system that quickly forgives past violations.

The driving career of Frederick Hensen is a case study in how lenient laws, breaks from judges and slipshod court procedures help to keep Maryland's riskiest drivers behind the wheel. At virtually every turn, the state's legal system appears to have been stacked in favor of preserving or quickly restoring his driving privileges.

"He clearly is a menace to highway safety, but as a motor vehicle agency we're limited in what we can do as far as revocation or suspension," said John Kuo, the MVA administrator. Laws passed by the General Assembly limit what his agency can do to curb a dangerous driver, he said.

In fact, the state's MVA is more constrained in the actions it can take against a dangerous driver than other motor vehicle agencies in the region. Maryland assesses fewer points for serious speeding offenses than most of its neighbors and requires more points to trigger a suspension or revocation. In some nearby states, Hensen's offenses in the year preceding the fatal race could have cost him his license.

"This guy in my opinion should not have a license," said David Daggett, Carroll County deputy state's attorney. "I don't think he's earned the privilege."

Hensen declined to comment for this article.

He is scheduled to be in Carroll County District Court on Wednesday to face new charges - reckless driving and driving on a suspended license, the result of a traffic stop in January. This time, he could lose his license and get up to 60 days in jail.

The events that led to the crash that killed Geraldine Wu started with a chance meeting of three young men in fast cars, court records show.

Shortly before 9:30 p.m. on June 1, 1998, their encounter turned into an impromptu road race along busy Route 140 - the main artery connecting Baltimore and Carroll County. The drivers were Hensen, Scott D. Broadfoot Sr. of Parkville and Mark E. Eppig of Westminster.

With the men driving at speeds estimated at more than 100 mph, one of them - Eppig - lost control of his car near Sunset Lane in Finksburg. He crossed the grassy median and crashed head-on into the 1997 Mitsubishi in which Wu, 42, and her 15-year-old daughter, Min-Li, were traveling.

Though only Eppig actually struck Wu's car, Carroll County prosecutors decided to treat all three racers as equally culpable. A judge agreed. Eppig pleaded guilty in October 1998, accepted a three-year sentence and testified against the other two.

The next April, after a first trial ended in a hung jury on the felony counts, Hensen and Broadfoot were convicted of homicide by automobile and second-degree assault.

At sentencing, Daggett sought long prison terms for both men, based on their extensive records of driving violations. He presented Judge Daniel W. Moylan with a list of Hensen's offenses that started with speeding and running a red light in 1994, the year he got his license, and escalated.

In 1995 alone, Hensen received at least six speeding tickets. In three of those cases, he was convicted of driving more than 30 mph above the limit - a 5-point offense in Maryland. In one case he was clocked at 102 mph.

Late that year, with Hensen far over the 12-point limit that triggers revocation, the MVA moved to take away his license. But after a hearing, the agency decided to let him continue driving for work purposes only. The restrictions were removed after nine months.

His record stayed clear for another year. But Hensen began a new string of offenses in November 1997, when he was ticketed for driving 95 mph in a 55-mph zone. In spite of his history, District Judge JoAnn M. Ellinghaus-Jones knocked down the ticket from a 5-point offense to a 2-point violation. Hensen would receive two more speeding tickets - including one for going 87 mph - before the fatal race.

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