Lawyer: Suspect in fatal van crash may have confused gas, brake

Police talk to a woman after a fatal

Police talk to a woman after a fatal accident in which a van crashed into a home on Cathedral Avenue Tuesday morning. (April 20, 2010) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

A Freeport teenager may have mistaken the accelerator pedal for the brake in the moments before she ran over and killed a Hempstead woman mowing her lawn, the suspect's attorney said Thursday.

John Lewis, the attorney for Kayla Gerdes, said her inexperience behind the wheel probably contributed to the crash, but police have said Gerdes was high on painkillers and that she took the wheel because the driver, Brian Steele of Oceanside, was driving too slowly.

She lost control of the vehicle after they stopped and switched positions, police said. Gerdes then jumped the curb and mowed down Twine, they said.

Nassau County police spokesman Det. Sgt. Anthony Repalone said authorities are discussing whether to charge Steele for allowing Gerdes, who was unlicensed, to drive the van.

Lewis said Gerdes had only a learner's permit and that, while rushing to a court appointment Tuesday, may have mistaken the van's accelerator pedal for the brake pedal. A police spokesman could not confirm whether Gerdes had a learner's permit.

Rebecca Twine, 69, of Cathedral Avenue, was pronounced dead at the scene Tuesday morning in front of her home.

Gerdes pleaded not guilty to second-degree manslaughter, second-degree vehicular manslaughter, driving while ability impaired by drugs and unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, and is due in court Friday.

A Nassau prosecutor said at Gerdes' arraignment Wednesday that 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.

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

Chauncey Twine, Rebecca Twine's son, said he was upset about Gerdes' comments about Twine's age. "I saw that and it really disturbed me," said Chauncey Twine, 31. "It really hurt me a lot to hear her say that because anyone who knew my mother knew that she was a person who was full of life."

Repalone said the investigation will determine if Gerdes' driving skills were a factor, but added that the criminal charges stem from her drug impairment while operating the vehicle. "We feel that her ability being impaired by drugs was one of the contributing factors in causing the crash," Repalone said.

Lewis questioned the police version of events, including the assertion she was high on painkillers at the time of the crash. "An 18-year-old girl is going to tell a 29-year-old man to move over even though she's intoxicated or high and doesn't have a license?" Lewis said. "Are you out of your mind?"

Steele and his attorney, David Weissman of Hempstead, declined to comment Thursday.

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