Woman takes plea deal in van death

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Against the wishes of prosecutors and the victim's family, a Nassau judge Tuesday accepted a plea bargain that would send a Freeport woman to prison for less than the maximum sentence for driving high on drugs and killing a retired physician mowing her lawn.

Kayla Gerdes, 20, pleaded guilty in Nassau County Court in Mineola before Judge John Kase, who promised to sentence her to 3 to 9 years in prison.

She took Xanax, marijuana and oxycodone before the van she was driving barreled across the lawn of Rebecca Twine's Hempstead home on April 20, 2010, and struck and killed the 69-year-old woman.

Prosecutors had asked for 5 to 15 years, the statutory maximum on the 30-count indictment's top charge of second-degree manslaughter.

But Gerdes' guilty plea to the entire indictment -- which includes a litany of charges, among them operating a motor vehicle while impaired by drugs, drug possession, having stolen prescription sheets and reckless driving -- gave Kase sole discretion to punish her when she's sentenced July 10.

With credit for the two years' jail time she has already served, Gerdes is expected to be freed in about four years, under current parole conditions, court spokesman Daniel Bagnuola said.

From the bench, Kase, the supervising judge of Nassau County criminal court, called the case "particularly difficult to resolve."

He said the deal guarantees Gerdes will serve prison time and avoids a projected two-month trial with the prospect an appellate court would reverse a 5-to-15-year maximum sentence as excessive.

"A judge sometimes must make hard choices under the rule of law. Some decisions will not be popular, but this must not stand in the way of the true administration of justice," he said, adding that the Twine family would be spared "the agony of daily press reminders of this tragedy."

One of Twine's children, Chauncey Twine, said he would have preferred the case go to trial and asked the judge last week in his chambers not to accept the plea bargain.

"I just think it's such a shame -- six years for killing my mother, and all the other lives that she ruined," Twine said Tuesday outside the courtroom. "This is the best that the system can provide? It just doesn't feel like justice."

Gerdes, who had a learner's permit, said she took the wheel from Brian Steele, of Oceanside, because he also was high. Lost and speeding, Gerdes said the van jumped the curb and crashed into Twine as she mowed the lawn of her Cathedral Drive home.

"When I got to the lawn, I hit the gas instead of the brake and I hit Rebecca Twine," Gerdes said in court Tuesday, crying and handcuffed.

Steele pleaded guilty last month to criminally negligent homicide and is awaiting sentencing, court records show.

Gerdes' attorney, John R. Lewis Jr. of Farmingdale, said his client had written remorseful letters in jail to the victim's family -- letters Lewis said he told her not to send because the case was pending. Lewis said Gerdes will now send the letters.

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