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Not guilty to new charges in Hempstead lawn fatal

A Freeport teenager who police say was high on drugs when her car struck and killed a Hempstead woman as she mowed her front lawn pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a long list of upgraded charges, including operating a motor vehicle while under the combined use of drugs, possession of a controlled substance, reckless endangerment and forgery.

Kayla Gerdes, 18, of Freeport, previously pleaded not guilty to second-degree manslaughter, second-degree vehicular manslaughter and other charges in the April 20 crash that killed Rebecca Twine, 69, on the lawn of her Cathedral Drive home.

Nassau County Court Judge John Kase raised Gerdes' cash bail from $100,000 to $200,000. Her bond remained at $200,000.

Gerdes did not speak in court other than to enter her plea. Earlier, as she walked into the Mineola courthouse from the bus that had brought her from the Nassau County jail in East Meadow, she said "I'm sorry" in response to reporters' questions.

If convicted, Gerdes faces a maximum of 59 years in prison, according to the Nassau County district attorney's office.

Twine's daughter and son were in court for Gerdes' appearance. They declined to comment.

Tara Oetjen-Gerdes of Freeport, Gerdes' mother, said afterward, "We're happy this case is moving forward."

She called her daughter a "troubled girl" but said of the family, "We love her. We support her."

Oetjen-Gerdes said she feels "very sad" for Twine's family.

Authorities have said Gerdes admitted at the time of the crash that she had been "taking prescription drugs."

At her April 21 arraignment, 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' lawyer, John R. Lewis Jr. of Farmingdale, said then that she had been struggling with drug addiction and had been in a 28-day rehabilitation program, but had to leave when her mother's insurance coverage ran out.

In a related case, Gerdes' boyfriend, who police say let Gerdes drive his van that day, has suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized Tuesday, his lawyer said.

Brian Steele, 29, of Oceanside, had been expected to voluntarily surrender Tuesday to be arraigned on a grand jury indictment in connection with the crash. But Michael DerGarabedian, of Rockville Centre, said his client was in a mental hospital and could not appear.

Steele, who prosecutors said was a passenger in the van, originally was not charged in the case. The indictment to be unsealed Tuesday was expected to charge him with criminally negligent homicide, DerGarabedian said.

Steele had been arrested June 3 in a separate incident and charged with driving under the influence of prescription drugs and drug possession, according to the Nassau County district attorney's office.

DerGarabedian said Steele was involuntarily committed to an unnamed psychiatric ward by his parents on Thursday because he was acting "paranoid, delusional and schizophrenic" due to "pressure the government has been putting on him."

It was unclear when Steele would be discharged.

Both DerGarabedian and Lewis criticized the indictment of Steele.

"I think this indictment lacks common sense and integrity," said DerGarabedian, pointing to Gerdes' admission that she was the driver of the van.

Lewis called the charge against Steele an "overindictment."

"I don't believe there's any culpability," he said.

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