N.J. woman pleads guilty to murder for causing crash that killed firefighter
At the scene of a prior wreck on I-76, Jacquelyn Walker swerved in her Jeep, which had faulty brakes, and struck three firefighters and a state trooper
By Vinny Vella
The Philadelphia Inquirer
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Pa. — A South Jersey woman pleaded guilty Thursday to causing a crash on I-76 last summer that killed a Lower Merion firefighter and wounded three other people.
Jacquelyn Walker, 64, of Egg Harbor Township, entered the plea to third-degree murder, aggravated assault by vehicle and reckless endangerment during a brief hearing before Montgomery County Court Judge William Carpenter. Walker's sentencing was deferred 90 days, but she faces 12-to-24 years in prison.
Walker, confined to a wheelchair, wept quietly in the courtroom as the surviving victims of the crash, long recovered from their injuries, looked on.
District Attorney Kevin Steele said Walker showed "sustained recklessness" on the day of the crash, and that her actions justified the murder charge.
"She was in a car that shouldn't have been on the road, that she knew shouldn't have been on the road," Steele said Thursday. "That rises to the level of malice."
Walker knew her 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee had faulty brakes and was in a general state of disrepair when she took it for a drive in July 2021, prosecutors said.
Just after 3 a.m., after driving for hours, Walker came upon the scene of a crash on I-76 in Lower Merion, according to the affidavit of probable cause for her arrest. Multiple fire departments had responded, along with state troopers, and fire trucks were parked across the highway's right lane to protect both the first responders and the drivers involved in the crash.
Walker swerved onto the highway's shoulder, between the fire trucks and the concrete barrier at the edge of the roadway, the affidavit said. She struck three firefighters from Belmont Hills Fire Department who had been standing in the shoulder, as well as a state trooper.
One of the firefighters, Thomas Royds, 48, suffered severe injuries and was later pronounced dead at Paoli Hospital. The other men Walker struck were rushed to area hospitals with serious injuries, including concussions, torn ligaments and broken bones.
Shortly after the crash, another trooper on the scene saw Walker pouring out a cup of liquid onto the highway. The trooper stopped her and found that the cup contained alcohol, according to the affidavit.
Despite this, prosecutors say, no alcohol /was detected in Walker's blood during a later exam, and she was not charged with DUI.
An inspection of Walker's Jeep found that its brakes did not work, and hadn't for some time.
In an interview with investigators, Walker said she had left her home in Egg Harbor Township hours earlier, heading to a mall in Quakertown, according to the affidavit. She said she got lost as she tried to find her way home, and at one point stopped to purchase rum, which she poured into a soda she had been drinking.
Walker said she had become disoriented during her drive: She believed she was traveling on I-295 at the time of the crash and that the highway was five lanes wide.
A South Jersey woman was charged with third-degree murder in a crash that killed a volunteer firefighter
She said she drove onto the shoulder in an attempt to avoid the fire trucks, which she said she only noticed "at the last second."
Investigators later discovered that Walker's trip had taken a more circuitous route than she described: She had been stopped three times by officers from three different New Jersey police departments in the two-and-a-half hours before the crash.
Each time, Walker told the officer she was lost, and each time, she was given a warning and directions to Route 30, which she said was her destination.
Steele, the district attorney, said Royds' family, amid their grief, urged him to accept Walker's plea, avoiding a potentially lengthy trial.
"With her taking responsibility here today," he said, "we've moved in the right direction past this."
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