Fatal High-Speed Police Chase Comes to Trial

Photo: Fatal High-Speed Police Chase Comes to Trial: Deaths of Two New Jersey Teens Raise Questions About the Limits of Police Power; Trooper Says This Is an Accident, Never Was a CrimeHandout/Courtesy Maria Becker
Two teenage sisters -- 17-year-old driver Jacqueline Becker and 19-year-old Christina Becker, seen in a photo with their mother Maria, were killed nearly three years ago in a fatal crash during a high-speed police chase that involved New Jersey State Trooper Robert Higbee, left, who was chasing a speeder at nearly 80 miles an hour.

Nearly three years after the car accident that killed sisters Jacqueline and Christina Becker, the debate has raged: Are high-speed police chases really worth it? Is the risk justified if someone who just happens to be driving by gets killed? Until the fatal crash that involved New Jersey State Trooper Robert Higbee and the Becker sisters in 2006, the answer from authorities had usually been yes.

The 17-year-old driver, Jacqueline, and 19-year-old Christina, who was riding shotgun -- came from a tightknit Italian family from Cape May County, N.J., just outside Atlantic City. Jacqueline loved history, art and drama. Christina dreamed of someday opening a bed and breakfast. But it all came to a horrible end Sept. 27, 2006, with a routine trip to the market to get milk.

Teens' Trip to Market Ends in Tragedy

The Becker girls had been staying with their grandparents, Geraldine and Cesar Caiafa, who were out for the evening. Just after 10 p.m., the girls called their grandparents and got permission to use their white Dodge Caravan to go to the market.

After they left the market for the half-mile drive back to their grandparents' house, Jacqueline made a right turn and headed down Tuckahoe Road toward the intersection of Stagecoach Road. At the same time, 34-year-old trooper Robert Higbee was tearing down the road, at one point going nearly 80 miles an hour in a 35-mile an hour zone. Higbee said he was chasing a speeder, but he was not using his lights or sirens.

Robert Taylor and son Michael were in a stopped car on the other side of the intersection when they noticed a car coming at extreme speed and then accelerated.

"I was just thinking to myself, 'When is he going to slow down?' And he gets 20 yards from the intersection and he puts his foot to the floor and he just accelerates," Robert Taylor said.

The trooper's car sped through the stop sign, exploding into the driver's side of Jacqueline and Christina's minivan. The two girls were killed instantly. The Taylor's minivan was hit by the girls' vehicle and the glass was blown out on the driver's side, but somehow the father and son survived.

By bizarre coincidence, at about the same time police and paramedics arrived, the girls' grandparents drove by the scene of the accident. When they arrived home to an empty driveway, Cesar Caiafa knew something was wrong.

The Caiafa's rushed back to the accident scene and called Maria Caiafa, the girls' mother. After she arrived, all three just stood there in shock, waiting to hear the dreaded words that confirmed their nightmare.

"The policeman came to me, and finally after three hours he said, 'Do you live at 331 West Quail Drive?' He says, 'The car is registered to that address' … and that was it," Geraldine Caiafa recounted.

Trooper Higbee's vehicle was also badly damaged, and he was hospitalized briefly for a concussion. After the accident, Higbee was given a ticket for running a stop sign and assigned to desk duty, pending the state's criminal investigation.

Mother's World Shattered

Maria Caiafa saw her world instantly shattered. Her only two children were gone. "I want to actually just curl up in a ball and die. But I can't, because I feel like every minute I have to speak out and fight for my children," she said. "My children are dead, and his [Higbee's] actions have led to that."

Following the accident, Maria Caiafa sued the New Jersey State Police. The state did not admit any wrongdoing but settled out of court for $2 million. But Caiafa said it wasn't money but justice that she wanted.

Robert Taylor, who was driving the other vehicle in the accident, has a pending civil suit against the state and Higbee.

In a rare occurrence for a fatal high-speed police chase, Higbee was then indicted for vehicular homicide. While nothing will bring her daughters back, Caiafa and her family believed that if Higbee were to be found guilty, cops would think twice before speeding on civilian roads.

Higbee Case Comes to Trial

In May 2009, almost three years after the accident, the case finally came to trial. The stakes were high: Higbee faced up to 20 years in prison. The question that remained to be answered was whether or not the events of Sept. 27, 2006, constituted a criminal act or a horrific accident.

"It is a terrible tragedy which was compounded by the prosecutors bringing a criminal charge where none should have been in the first place," said defense attorney Bill Subin.

With the gallery filled with fellow troopers showing their support, Higbee took the stand June 1, 2009, his 37th birthday. Maria Caiafa listened and sometimes cried as Higbee spoke about his five-year career with the state police, his 16-month-old daughter and young marriage.

In emotional testimony, Higbee also talked about how the girls' deaths haunted him.

"It's with me every day. It's the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning. It's the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night," he said. "I think about it when I'm alone. I think about it when I'm with my daughter."

Higbee Recounts Night of Accident

According to Higbee, it was a routine night on patrol. He said he was working the late shift when he clocked a car traveling 65 in a 35 mph zone, so he picked up his speed to nearly 80 mph. Since he was trying to close the distance between himself and the speeder, Higbee said he did not turn on the lights and sirens.

According to New Jersey state law, police are permitted to speed without lights and sirens when they're closing the gap on a suspect. It's considered one step to take before activating an official pursuit, with lights and sirens.

"There isn't a single thing going on outside of the protocols or outside the standards. Nor is there anything criminal here," said David Jones, president of the New Jersey State Troopers' Fraternal Association.

But Higbee didn't have the right to ignore a stop sign, the prosecution contended.

"There would be no reason for me to consciously disregard a stop sign," Higbee testified.

But troubling for the defense was Higbee's tape-recorded statement to investigators three weeks after the accident when he said he stopped at the intersection and looked both ways before proceeding. In court, Higbee claimed he didn't remember exactly what he did that night.

"I don't know if I stopped, where I stopped, when I stopped. It's not clear in my mind," he said in court.

But prosecutor David Meyer said there was a data recorder in the car -- akin to a black box -- keeping track of vital information, which showed that Higbee did not stop. Meyers said the data showed that Higbee took his foot off the accelerator at approximately 80 mph, slowed down without braking, got back on the accelerator and then applied the brakes in the last second before the accident.

"Certainly his taking his foot off of the accelerator and hovering over the brake pedal reasonably suggests to any person that he was cognizant of that stop sign ahead," Meyer explained.

Higbee maintained he would "never put myself or the public in harm's way." Furthermore, the defense attorney Subin said the tape-recorded statement was taken out of context and that the trauma of the accident had affected his client's memory.

As to why Higbee blew through the intersection, Subin suggested that the stop sign Higbee thought he saw was actually at the next intersection, a quarter mile down the road. The stop sign at Stagecoach Road was so far to the right, Subin said during the trial, that Higbee focused on the stop sign at the following intersection at Roosevelt.

The Verdict: Higbee Not Guilty

After seven weeks of a nationally televised trial, watched closely by police officials around the country, the jury came back with a verdict of not guilty.

"It took a while to sink in," said Caiafa. "And then I said, 'I can't believe it. I can't believe with all the evidence.'"

"The big factor ... is that is the next intersection up had a stop sign and the speeder that the trooper was following had his headlights on that stop sign. And that's where the reasonable doubt came in," juror Glenn Wyatt told ABC News.

Another juror, Michael Ralidak, said he was convinced of the Higbee was innocent because he'd braked a few seconds before impact.

For Caiafa, the verdict did not confirm what she believes.

"I know that Higbee did not intentionally go out to kill my kids that night, but his decisions were reckless and resulted in the deaths of my children. And I do believe that he should have been found guilty," Caiafa said.

Though Caiafa and her family were disappointed with the verdict, they say the national attention the case brought to the debate over police chases was positive.

Now, Caiafa is on a mission to change the "closing the gap" policy in New Jersey.

"If they're closing the gap and they're going through an intersection, they should be required to put their lights and sirens on at a minimum," she said.

Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, who watched the Higbee trial closely, said New Jersey is in the minority of states that allow cops to close the gap without using their lights and sirens.

"I hope it sends the message to be very careful. If they're going to drive at high speeds, they need to warn people. They need to warn the public that there's an impending danger," Alpert said of what he called a dangerous law.

Since the accident, the stop sign Higbee sped through has been replaced with one nearly twice as big. And in the middle of the intersection, there is now a flashing red light, warning drivers they should stop. According to the defense, there had been more than two dozen accidents at the intersection before the fatal crash.

At a press conference after the trial, Higbee said he will have to live with the memory of what happened the night of Sept. 27, 2006.

"Nothing's ever gonna bring those girls back, but I think the jury did say that what we've been thinking all along: this is an accident, never was a crime," he said.