High-Speed Chase Leads to Tragedy

The deaths of two women raise questions about the limits of police power.


March 30, 2007 — -- Their names were Christina and Jacqueline Becker. Their lives were just beginning -- and then they were over in an instant.

Christina and Jacqueline were the only two children of Maria Caiafa, and the youngest of four generations of women in a close-knit, big hearted Italian family from Cape May County, N.J. Jacqueline was 17, a senior in high school, and 19-year-old Christina was a junior in college. But their lives came to a tragic end on Sept. 27, 2006.

The girls were staying with their grandparents, Geraldine and Cesar Caiafa. Around 10 p.m., they went to pick up milk at the local convenience store. Jacqueline and Christina were driving a half-mile back to their grandparents' house, when another driver was tearing down the road, traveling at least 60 miles an hour, nearly double the speed limit.

Robert Taylor, who was stopped on the other side of the road with his son Michael witnessed what happened next. "I saw a car coming at extreme speed," he said. "And 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."

The car sped through the stop sign and exploded into the driver's side of Jacqueline and Christina's minivan. The minivan was hit with such force it was pushed at least 130 feet up the road. The Taylor's car was also destroyed, but somehow they were barely hurt.

In a bizarre coincidence, Cesar and Geraldine Caiafa drove by the accident scene, and when they arrived home, their minivan wasn't in the driveway. Cesar suspected that something was wrong, so the Caiafa's decided to call their daughter Maria -- the girls' mother. She rushed to the scene, and all three of them stood waiting.

"I looked at the cop. I said, 'That van that's up the road there, I think it's my van. Can I just go look at it?'" Cesar said.

The family said they were left to wait for three hours, and weren't given any information about their girls. There were two bodies covered by sheets, laying next to the mangled minivan. In their hearts, the Caiafa's knew the tragic truth.

Maria's world was instantly shattered. "I want to actually just curl up in a ball and die," she said. "But I can't, because I feel like every minute I have to speak out and fight for my children." Her only two children were gone, and the family had no idea who had been driving the car that killed them, until they picked up the newspaper the next morning.

The family said they were shocked to find out that the man who ran the stop sign was a New Jersey state trooper named Robert Higbee. Higbee claims he was going after another driver who was speeding.

The trooper was given a ticket for running a stop sign and assigned to desk duty pending a state criminal investigation. But from the beginning this case has been more than just a tragic accident. The sisters' deaths have raised questions about the broader issues of high-speed police pursuits.

"The issue is that when you are driving in a car, you have to abide by the laws," said Maria. "We have to act with caution and concern for the people that are on the road."

More that 300 people a year in the United States are killed in high-speed police chases. One third of them are innocent bystanders. But cops involved in high-speed chases are rarely criminally charged.

Maria said that months passed by, and she was kept in the dark about the investigation. "To sit back and try to cover it up and make it go away is astounding," she said.

Desperate for answers, Maria hired an attorney to take legal action against Higbee and the state of New Jersey. The Taylors -- the other victims in the accident -- say they too plan to sue.

To try to understand what happened that night, "20/20" went back to the scene.

Four eyewitnesses to the accident raise a lot of troubling questions about what happened that night. All four say that Higbee was not using his siren or his flashers, and question whether he was really going after a speeding driver.

Anthony Cingaglio was in a parking lot across the street from the accident. "When the trooper went by, it was like a white flash," he said. Cingaglio said the only speeding car he saw that night was the trooper's.

The state of New Jersey insists there was a speeding driver whom they questioned, but the driver turned down our request for an interview. "20/20" also wanted to get some answers from Higbee, but he too declined to go on camera because of the ongoing investigation.

"We believe that the risks of speeding in this case were justifiable risks," said Bill Subin, Higbee's attorney. "We haven't concealed any fact," he said. "My client cooperated fully with the state police and the county prosecutor's office in the investigation."

David Jones, the president of the New Jersey State Troopers' Fraternal Association, is also speaking out on Higbee's behalf. "Because this involves a trooper, people are reading between the lines that there's something going on here," he said. "All these people, the attorneys and everybody else who are putting forward this position that there is a cold-hearted conspiracy out there, there's no validity whatsoever to it."

But why wasn't state trooper Higbee using his lights and siren? Jones said he was "closing the distance" with the speeder -- which he said is one step before activating an official police pursuit.

"There isn't a single thing going on outside of the protocols or outside the standards," Subin said. "Nor is there anything criminal here."

But that's not the way the grand jury saw things. On February 27 of this year, five months to the day since Christina and Jacqueline were killed, Higbee was indicted on two counts of vehicular homicide. He was suspended without pay, and if convicted, he faces 20 years in prison.

Higbee pleaded not guilty at his arraignment, and while in the court, he asked if he could speak to Maria. The two hugged each other and talked briefly. Higbee has since rejected a plea agreement, insisting that he will prove his innocence.

Maria hasn't gone back to the house she shared with her two daughters. "I tried once or twice, going back, but I get hysterical. I can't deal with it. It represents everything that I lost. And I lost my life that night," she said.

Cesar Caiafa also said the family is having a hard time dealing with the tragic loss of his granddaughters. "It's not easy at all," he said. "We sit down at the table, and we don't see the kids. And before you know it, everybody starts crying."

Nothing will bring her daughters back, but Maria and her family believe that if Higbee is found guilty, cops might think twice before they speed on civilian roads.

And that, said the family, might spell justice for Christina and Jacqueline.

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