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Driver guilty in high-speed crash that killed engaged couple

Rahmel Watkins, of Brooklyn, was found guilty in

Rahmel Watkins, of Brooklyn, was found guilty in connection with a crash that killed a newly engaged couple. Photo Credit: Composite: NCPD, left, and Howard Schnapp

A jury found a Brooklyn man guilty Tuesday in the deaths of a young couple who perished in a 2018 crash in Inwood just days after announcing their wedding plans.

The Nassau County Court panel convicted Rahmel Watkins, 36, of felony charges of criminally negligent homicide and assault, along with misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment and reckless driving.

They also acquitted him of two manslaughter charges — the top counts against him.

Authorities said Yisroel Levin, 21, was driving his fiancee, Elisheva Kaplan, 20, home from a Passover celebration on Nassau Expressway around 1:40 a.m. on April 4, 2018, when Watkins’ BMW 550i GT hit Levin’s Nissan Altima head-on.

Watkins was speeding at about 100 mph and passed a Hyundai Genesis that motorist Zakiyyah Steward was driving before his BMW hit a concrete island, crossing into oncoming southbound traffic and ramming the Altima, according to prosecutors.

"Because of the jury's work, this defendant faces a life sentence," Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said of Watkins after Tuesday's verdict as she stood with Kaplan's parents and sister. "These families have lost so much and we just hope that … God gives them the strength and they can move on."

The voice of Kaplan's father, Joel Kaplan, briefly faltered as he recalled how the late couple had been "full of joy and life."

While the father, a longtime cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom in Lawrence, said "nothing will return Elisheva and Yisroel back to their loved ones," he added that "justice has been served."

Watkins’ attorney, Joseph Lo Piccolo, had argued during the trial that Watkins passed Steward “for safety reasons” after Steward began driving erratically, and that the tragic ending “was not reasonably foreseeable.”

Steward, 27, had previously pleaded guilty to charges that included aggravated vehicular homicide and driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana and is awaiting sentencing.

But prosecutors said Watkins shared blame for the couple’s deaths with Steward — whose speeding car also struck the Altima — because of his reckless actions.

Watkins, Steward and another motorist were in a group of three cars heading north together, bound for a Queens casino after leaving a Far Rockaway apartment complex, authorities said.

Levin, of Brooklyn, and Kaplan, of Far Rockaway, were “young, happy and in love” and on their way to her home after a family gathering in Rockland County, prosecutor Christopher Casa said during the trial.

The impact of the crash pushed the Altima’s engine compartment into the passenger cabin, crushing Levin and Kaplan, according to prosecutors, who said the car burst into flames.

The BMW also hit an Infiniti, leaving that driver with injuries that included a spine fracture, according to prosecutors.

Watkins’ passenger suffered injuries that included a compound leg fracture, while Watkins and Steward had minor injuries, law enforcement officials said.

Watkins' attorney said after the verdict that although his client has "complete" sympathy for the victims' families and "is sorry for their loss," he will appeal the conviction.

Lo Piccolo added that Watkins was facing a minimum of 12 years to life behind bars due to his prior criminal history, which he didn't detail.

The Garden City defense attorney also said that by the jury's verdict, the panel found his client showed negligence and not recklessness — a higher legal burden — on one charge, but recklessness on others.

"It may be a legally inconsistent verdict that requires a motion to set aside that verdict prior to any sentencing," he added.

Singas said prosecutors would "take up any motions that come our way about anything about the verdict."

Jurors David Koenig, 51, of Baldwin, and Arthur Bretton, 67, of Merrick, said in interviews that the panel acquitted Watkins of manslaughter charges and convicted him of the lesser included charges of criminally negligent homicide as "a compromise" in order to reach an unanimous verdict.

"Justice was served," said Koenig, the panel's foreman.

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