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Man indicted in traffic death blamed on racing

January 29, 2004

Man indicted in traffic death blamed on racing

Waite David;Lum Curtis Staff Advertiser Final

By David Waite and Curtis Lum, ADVERTISER STAFF WRITERS A 21-year-old man who was indicted by the O`ahu grand jury yesterday on a charge of manslaughter in connection with a 2001 fatal collision was racing at more than 100 mph on the H-1 at the time of the accident, city prosecutors said. City Deputy Prosecutor Sharlene Tom told a state judge yesterday that Nicholas Tudisco admitted to police investigators at the accident scene that he was racing another car before his 1999 Honda Prelude struck a 1994 Ford Aerostar van in which Holy Trinity School teacher Elizabeth Kekoa was riding. She was killed. Circuit Judge Richard Perkins granted the request by Tom to set bail for Tudisco at $100,000. Manslaughter carries a maximum prison term of 20 years. Tom told Perkins that police investigators say Tudisco was going more than twice the posted 50 mph limit on H-1 in Kaimuki early Aug. 26, 2001, when he lost control and his car struck the van driven by Kekoa's husband, Wally, who was also injured. Tudisco, 18 and a recent Saint Louis High School graduate at the time, was not hurt in the collision. He was arrested on suspicion of second-degree negligent homicide but released pending investigation. He went on to attend Cuesta College, a community college, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and is now a junior at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, playing on the baseball team as a reserve outfielder. Tom said Tudisco may have to be extradited. "I really don't know what I'm going to do," Tudisco told The Tribune in San Luis Obispo after baseball practice yesterday. "I just found out from my lawyer about two minutes ago." Tudisco would not comment on the case. Cal Poly baseball coach Larry Lee became aware of the fatal collision when the two were coach and player at Cuesta College. After Lee became head coach at Cal Poly, he allowed Tudisco to transfer because "he showed remorse (about the fatal car wreck) and as a coach you want to do what's best for the individual. "I never had a problem with Nick on or off the field," Lee told the Tribune. "He realizes he made a poor choice and that he'll have to pay the consequences." The fatal collision was one in a series of deadly incidents that police have said involved illegal street racing that elevated community concerns about how to deal with the issue. Especially disturbing for many was the fact that the Kekoas were innocent bystanders. Questions were also raised about the nearly 21/2 years that it took from the time of the collision to Tudisco's indictment. City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle yesterday said several factors delayed the bringing of the charge, including investigations by police and prosecutors and a debate as to what charge to seek. He also cited the case, as well as other traffic fatalities, to urge the state Legislature to adopt stiffer penalties for excessive speeding.

Elizabeth Kekoa's mother, Rose Davis, was also a passenger in the van. She initially was listed in critical condition following the crash while Wally Kekoa was reported to be in fair condition.

Both have since recovered and are parties to civil lawsuits filed against Tudisco and his parents, accusing them of negligence in the death of Elizabeth Kekoa.

Wally Kekoa yesterday declined to talk about Tudisco's indictment. "I have no comment. I can't answer anything," he said.

Kekoa's lawyer, Wayne Kekina, said Wally Kekoa or a family spokesperson may talk today at a news conference about Tudisco's indictment and the time that has passed since the crash.

Elizabeth Kekoa, 58, was the third- and fourth-grade religion teacher at Holy Trinity School and director of religious education at Holy Trinity parish. Her friends said they believed that she was headed toward the church to help prepare for a 7 a.m. Mass when the collision occurred at about 4:17 a.m.

Monica DesJarlais, principal at Holy Trinity School, said that the staff was elated at news of the indictment.

"I know it sounds callous, but you have to understand she was the heart of the school," DesJarlais said. "Elizabeth Kekoa was part of the team that built the school up to what it is now."

For the past two years the school has been enveloped in sadness that turned to anger, DesJarlais said. The school - faculty and students - will now be able to start putting closure on Kekoa's death, she said.

Tudisco's lawyer, Michael Green, said he will ask for all of the investigation reports police have filed in the case. In particular, Green said he wants to see if Tudisco signed a form waiving his rights to have a lawyer present before he allegedly admitted that he was racing.

Green said if the prosecution hires crash reconstruction experts, he may have to withdraw as Tudisco's attorney so the matter can be turned over to the state public defender's office, which might hire a crash expert on Tudisco's behalf.

"His parents at one time had a restaurant on O`ahu, but now have essentially nothing and would not be able to pay for those kinds of experts," Green said.

Carlisle said prosecutors could have charged Tudisco with a lesser offense of negligent homicide. First-degree negligent homicide carries a maximum 10 years in prison.

"We took a look at the totality of the circumstances and the fact that this was a gross level of speeding," Carlisle said. He said his office sought the help of an accident expert to reconstruct the crash and come up with an approximate speed of Tudisco's car. He said that prolonged the investigation.

Carlisle said he couldn't recall a case where a driver was charged with manslaughter and alcohol was not involved.

He cited this case, as well as other recent incidents that involved racing and fatalities, to push for a measure at the Legislature that would impose stiffer penalties for excessive speeding. His proposal would define excessive speeding as anyone driving 25 mph over the posted speed limit with a cap at 80 mph.

Carlisle said current laws have decriminalized speeding and result in fines.

Under his proposal, a first offense would result in a fine up to $1,000 and a 15- to 30-day license suspension. A third offense within a five-year period would result in a maximum one-year license suspension, 30 days in prison, and a $1,000 fine.

"We're trying to let people know that a car is not a toy, it's not something that you should play games with, it's not something that you should threaten the safety of other people with," Carlisle said.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Cal Kawamoto, D-18th (Waipahu, Crestview, Pearl City), said he has introduced a similar measure this session. He said the bill calls for the forfeiture of a vehicle on a second offense for excessive speeding, which he defined as 30 mph over the posted speed limit.

Kawamoto said the time has come to clamp down on speeders. "The House has indicated that they will promote stiffer penalties, so I welcome that news," he said. Maj. Bryan Wauke, of the Honolulu Police Department's Traffic Division, said yesterday that illegal street and freeway racing continues to be a problem periodically on O`ahu.

"Whenever it begins to show up, we increase our enforcement efforts to try to shut it down," Wauke said. "We always hope to catch them before they get into a wreck and kill themselves or others." Advertiser staff writer Suzanne Roig contributed to this report. Reach David Waite at dwaite @honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8030. Photo caption: Elizabeth Kekoa was killed when the minivan, above, she was riding in was struck by a car driven by Nicholas Tudisco, then