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N.J. woman who crashed into group of firefighters, killing 1, sentenced to prison

“I’m truly sorry,” Jacquelyn Walker said, apologizing to the dozens of Thomas Royds’ family members and friends in court

ThomasRoyds.jpg

Firefighter Thomas Royds, 49, was killed, and two other firefighters and a state trooper were injured when struck while responding to a vehicle crash.

Photo/Clifton Heights Fire Company

By Vinny Vella
The Philadelphia Inquirer

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Pa. — A South Jersey woman who drove her car onto the shoulder of Interstate 76 in 2021, striking four people and killing a Lower Merion firefighter, was sentenced Thursday to 12 to 24 years in state prison.

Jacquelyn Walker, 64, of Little Egg Harbor, wept as the sentence was handed down by Montgomery County Judge William Carpenter in the death of Thomas Royds, 48, a longtime member of the Belmont Hills Fire Department.

Walker pleaded guilty in October to third-degree murder, aggravated assault by vehicle and reckless endangerment for swerving into Royds, two other firefighters and a state police trooper who were responding to a 3 a.m. crash on the side of the highway.

Carpenter said Walker showed little remorse for what he called the “malicious conduct” of driving her 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee in a severe state of disrepair, with faulty brakes, on the night she swerved into the group of first responders.

“She did not care for the rules of the road, and she had no justification for her actions,” Carpenter said. “A lesser sentence would diminish the seriousness of the crimes.”

Walker, in a tearful statement, apologized to the dozens of Royds’ family members and friends packed into Carpenter’s courtroom in Norristown. It was never her intention, she said, to hurt anyone on the night of the crash.

“I’m not trying to make this devastating accident any softer; my only wish is to have Tom Royds’ family not hate me any longer,” she said. “I’m truly sorry.”

Walker’s sentencing served as a memorial of sorts to Royds, whose family, friends and colleagues spoke about his selflessness and dedication to public service, as well as his mentorship to younger colleagues, who they said called him the “dad of the firehouse.”

Royds’ son, Thomas Royds-Helberson, took the stand to describe the fresh bout of grief he faces every day without his father. And he lamented the things he never got to experience, like sharing his first beer with him on his recent 21st birthday.

“He shouldn’t have died, but the one good thing about this is that he died doing what he loved — helping people,” he said. “One of the hardest things is when the people you make memories with become memories themselves.”

The younger firefighters struck alongside Royds took turns expressing their survivor’s guilt and remorse. Some raged at Walker, calling her a coward and saying she deserved a harsh punishment. Others said they forgave her, but still wished to see her face consequences for her actions.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele told the judge Walker’s crimes stood out because they were entirely preventable.

“What hurts so badly with this is that this shouldn’t have happened, and it wouldn’t have happened if not for the choices of this defendant,” he said.

In an interview with investigators, Walker said she had left her home hours before the crash, heading to a mall in Quakertown, according to the affidavit of probable cause for her arrest. She said she got lost as she tried to find her way home and had been pulled over three separate times by police from different departments over the course of her journey.

She said she drove onto the shoulder in an attempt to avoid the fire trucks stopped on the highway, which she said she noticed only “at the last second.” Walker told police she knew her brakes didn’t work, but chose to drive anyway.

Steele, the DA, said that decision was inexcusable.

“Firefighters understand the dangers of what they have to do to help people,” he said. “Standing on the side of the road is not something they envisioned to be the cause of a horrific death.”

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