Attorney: Suspect in fatal crash struggled with drugs

Kayla Gerdes is brought out of Nassau County

Kayla Gerdes is brought out of Nassau County police headquarters to be arraigned on Wednesday in Mineola. Police said she was driving while ability impaired by drugs when the van she was driving struck and killed a woman outside her Hempstead home. (April 21, 2010) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

As a family mourned the loss of a Hempstead woman who relished the simple things in life, an attorney for the teen charged with running her down while high on drugs said his client had been struggling with an addiction to painkillers.

A van driven by Kayla Gerdes, 18, of Freeport, barreled into Rebecca Twine, 69, while Twine was mowing her lawn Tuesday in Hempstead, police said.

"I can't even put words to the pain that my family is going through," said Chauncey Twine, a son. "My mother was really the kindest, just sweetest, most gentle person that you'll ever meet, and for her to die this way is just horrible. She didn't deserve to die this way."

Gerdes' attorney, John R. Lewis, said his client had been in rehabilitation but left after seven days, apparently after insurance coverage ran out. Lewis said that she was released early from a 28-day drug rehabilitation program because her mother's insurer would pay for only seven days worth of treatment.

"You have a young, 18-year-old kid who's absolutely beside herself that this happened," Lewis said. He said she was "absolutely inconsolable when she found out that woman died."

In contrast to that description, however, was a statement made by Gerdes to police early Wednesday, in which she expressed relief that the person she had hit was "old."

Gerdes admitted that at the time of the crash she had been "taking prescription drugs." A Nassau prosecutor said Gerdes admitted to police that she had been high on Xanax and oxycodone, and that she had drugs with her at the time of the accident.

Gerdes, of Meister Boulevard, pleaded not guilty in First District Court in Hempstead on Wednesday to second-degree manslaughter, second-degree vehicular manslaughter, driving while ability impaired by drugs and unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle.

She was held on $200,000 bond or $100,000 bail and is due to appear in court Friday.

The 9:45 a.m. crash on Cathedral Drive took the life of an "intellectual, an academic," said her son. Twine added that she had master's, doctoral and medical degrees, had published academic papers and done extensive research.

"She loved just science," he said. "She taught as a professor for a while.

"The simple things in life made her happy, like just planting flowers, a little gardening work that she would do in the yard. For her to die right in the middle [while] she was doing something that she wanted to do is just horrible."

Gerdes told police after her arrest, "The thing that made me not feel so bad was she was old," according to court records. "I mean 70 years is a long time to live."

Wednesday morning, as she was being led in handcuffs to her arraignment, Gerdes rambled on about her actions.

"The car went out of control!" she shouted to reporters. "I was pressing the brake and it wouldn't go! I'm sorry."

The crash occurred after Gerdes insisted on taking the wheel of the van from her co-worker, Brian Steele, 29, of Oceanside, because she thought he was driving too slowly, Det. Sgt. John DeMartinis said.

Lewis said she was rushing because she was late for a court appearance on charges that she stole jewelry from her mother's boyfriend in October.

Steele's father, Brian Steele Sr., said he argued with Gerdes before the crash because he declined to provide bags for the younger Steele to move out of the Oceanside house, where Gerdes had been staying.

"She was argumentative and disrespectful," Steele said.

Nassau Police Det. Sgt. Anthony Repalone said officers responded to the Steeles' Oceanside house at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday after a report of a domestic incident between Steele and his son.

In tears, Gerdes' mother, Tara Oetjen-Gerdes, also of Freeport, said after the hearing: "I'm very sorry for the family after this terrible tragedy."

With Sophia Chang, John Valenti and Yamiche Alcindor

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