Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Philly man faces trial on homicide charge in fatal "street racing" accident
Posted: Friday, December 14, 2012
She was her middle child, and the loudest of them all. The one charged with caring for her 16-year-old brother with muscular dystrophy if anything happened to her parents. The child who had recently finished U.S. National Guard boot camp.
“Her smile could light up a room,” Joan Doyle of Clemmons, N.C., said Thursday. “She was full of life.”
Doyle was in a Bensalem courtroom, her second time ever in Pennsylvania, to attend a preliminary hearing for Aurelio Xhepaj of Philadelphia, who is accused of street racing when he lost control of his car Sept. 3, killing her daughter, Michelle Price, 19, and severely injuring himself and a third person in his car.
That passenger was Mary Logan, 20, who testified Thursday that she and Price were picked up by Xhepaj, 19, of Memphis Street in his 2000 Volvo S80 that night. They planned to get something to eat at a Chinese restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia.
But when they found the restaurant closed, they headed north on Route 1 toward the Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem, she said. Logan testified that she was in the front passenger seat listening to music and Price was in the backseat sending text messages.
At a red light at the Bensalem border, their car pulled up beside a white Crown Victoria in the center lane of Route 1 — also called Roosevelt Boulevard and Lincoln Highway. The driver, who they didn’t know, started revving its engine, Logan testified.
“Like it wanted to race,” she added.
Xhepaj started revving his engine, too, Logan said. When the light turned green, the race started, she said.
The Crown Victoria “flew” down Route 1, she said, far faster than Xhepaj’s car. But he kept his foot on the gas — at one point she said she looked at the speedometer and it was past 80 mph, she added.
Twice, she told Xhepaj to slow down, but he didn’t respond, she testified.
When the Volvo nearly clipped a red car, Xhepaj swerved to the left and hit a guardrail, triggering the fatal accident shortly before 10:30 p.m., she said. The police investigation found that Xhepaj’s car was traveling at least 73 mph when it hit the guide rail, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Logan said the car flipped at least four times, smashed into a utility pole and concrete pillar and caught fire.
She and Xhepaj were ejected out of the car, but Price was trapped in the backseat. Logan said she tried to find Price after she was ejected from the car.
Could you see her in the car? Bucks County prosecutor Michael Martin asked.
Yes, she replied
Was she moving? Martin asked
Logan was seriously injured in the accident, suffering a broken collar bone, several fractured vertebrae and a shattered left thumb. Her medical treatment is ongoing, she said.
Under cross examination by defense attorney Daniel Alva, Logan said she lost sight of the Crown Victoria not long before the crash. She also said she looked at the speedometer “because we were going really fast.”
You saw the 80? Alva countered.
Yes, Logan replied, though she said she couldn’t tell exactly how fast the car was traveling.
Witness Al Costantini, an off-duty Upper Southampton police officer, also testified that he was driving north on Route 1 near Southampton Road the night of the accident when he saw a “small black sports car” drive past him “like I was standing still.”
Costantini estimated that he had been traveling at 50 to 60 mph when the car passed him.
Next, the officer testified, he saw a white Crown Victoria speed past him on the left side.
At a traffic light, both cars were side by side and appeared to be “jumping,” which occurs when a driver has his feet on the brake and gas simultaneously, Costantini said. The cars took off at a high rate of speed when the light turned green, he said.
Costantini said he quickly lost sight of both cars, and saw a flash of light. He eventually came across the wrecked black car on the side of the road near and pulled over.
The off-duty officer testified that he saw Xhepaj and Logan, who told him her friend was still inside the car, which had started to catch fire. When Costantini said he saw someone trapped, Price’s mother let out a loud sob.
Price was declared dead at the accident scene. She died of severe blunt force trauma to the head and body, according to her autopsy, police said.
Following the hour-long hearing, Bensalem Judge Joseph Falcone held Xhepaj, who had one arm in a sling, for trial on all charges including criminal homicide, homicide by vehicle, two counts each of aggravated assault by vehicle, recklessly endangering another person and related misdemeanors and summary offenses including illegal racing. He remains free after posting 10 percent of his $150,000 bail.
Alva had argued that Falcone should dismiss the homicide charge, which is the equivalent of third-degree murder, saying prosecutors failed to show his client showed malice.
Alva didn’t dispute that Xhepaj was likely speeding, but denied he was street racing. He also pointed out that the Volvo model is hardly a hot rod, calling it one of the safest cars around.
“What about the revving of the engines?” Falcone asked the defense attorney.
“That is evidence of too much testosterone,” Alva replied. “One car took off, the other couldn’t catch up. This is not murder.”
The prosecutor, though, countered that just because Xhepaj had an “inferior” car doesn’t mean he didn’t race the Crown Victoria. He also ignored Logan’s request that he slow down, Martin said.
“Anyone in this area was in danger,” Martin added.
After the hearing, Doyle expressed relief that the criminal homicide charge was not dismissed. She said that her daughter was a popular, record-holding high school varsity basketball player who had more than 400 people attend her memorial service.
Price had been in Philadelphia visiting Logan, whom she met in boot camp, for about two weeks before the accident, Doyle said.
The North Carolina resident recalled how she was crying uncontrollably at the airport the day she put her daughter on the Philly-bound plane.
She told Michelle that she felt like she was never going to see her again.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@phillyBurbs.com;Twitter: @jociavaglia