Hit and run casts painful shadows

By Casey Gale 

and Christopher Brooks

I’m sure when she woke up that day, she never imagined that this would happen.”

Mercer County Assistant Prosecutor Skylar Weissman was speaking of Laura Gallagher, a Mount Olive, N.J., resident and former Rider student who was involved in a fatal accident when she was a sophomore in 2011.

While driving on Parkside Avenue in Ewing on an October night, Gallagher struck 54-year-old Carl Wilkins as he was exiting a bus. She stopped for several seconds, then left the scene, according to witness accounts. Lying in the road, Wilkins was struck by another car, driven by Marie Jean, 54, of Trenton. On Nov. 3, Gallagher came forward.

Laura Gallagher, now 21, cries when she rises to speak at her sentencing March 12. At right is her attorney Peter Gilbreth.
Laura Gallagher, now 21, cries when she rises to speak at her sentencing March 12. At right is her attorney Peter Gilbreth.

“Sometimes when you’re young, you think you’re invincible,” Weissman said.  “But things happen, unfortunately. I’m sure Miss Gallagher thought that she was OK to drive when she got behind the wheel, but you put yourself at risk and your whole life changes from that point. Not only did she take a life — and I’m sure that is something that will stick with her for the rest of her life — but her life has changed.”

According to The Times of Trenton, Gallagher spoke with regret at her sentencing.

“I spent so many nights replaying the accident in my head, wishing I acted differently,” she said.

Lucy Higgins, ’12, who played softball with Gallagher, was saddened that her former teammate was involved in the tragic event.

“Laura was a great teammate and a friend to everyone on the softball team,” she said. “With our society being surrounded by social media, you always hear stories that are similar to this. For the team, it came as a surprise to us that something like this could happen to someone you know.”

Gallagher, who had been out on $250,000 bail since the accident, accepted a plea deal she was offered by prosecutors, in which the initial second-degree death by auto charge of up to 10 years imprisonment was dropped, leaving only a five-year charge of leaving the scene. Judge Thomas Brown presided over the case, and decided to lessen the sentence by two years after saying that the sentencing was “the most difficult sentencing since I’ve been on the bench,” according to The Times of Trenton. Jean, who was also initially charged with second-degree charges of death by automobile and leaving the scene, was sentenced to one year of probation.

Gallagher pled guilty to a second-degree felony of fleeing the scene of an accident and was sentenced on March 12, 2014, to three years in prison. She started her term that day at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J.

Despite the three-year sentence, Gallagher will likely be released on parole after serving one-third of her sentence, Weissman said. She could be released in as little as six months if she is accepted into the Intense Supervisory Program, which gives offenders the opportunity to reintegrate into the community under supervision, according to the New Jersey Courts website.

Among other consequences, convicted felons are unable to vote and are required to disclose their situation to future employers.

Weissman, reviewing a thick binder of court documents and transcripts in his Duck Island office, provided details of the case for The Rider News.

Witnesses claim that Gallagher had been drinking at a house party before getting behind the wheel, but authorities were never able to prove how much alcohol she had consumed.

On Oct. 28 Gallagher was driving her Jeep Grand Cherokee south on Parkside Avenue around 10:30 p.m. near the corner of Ives Avenue, about three miles from the Lawrenceville campus. She reportedly had at least one passenger.

Though it was a clear night, there are no crosswalks in the vicinity and street lighting is intermittent.

Wilkins left the 601 NJ Transit bus, which was traveling north, and attempted to cross the street when he was hit. It is unknown whether Wilkins crossed in front of or behind the bus. A witness leaving the No. 1 China restaurant was able to get a partial read of Gallagher’s license plate as she momentarily stopped after striking Wilkins. Moments later, Jean, who was traveling north on Parkside, hit Wilkins but told police she was not involved in the accident.

Despite the charge of leaving the scene, Weissman said that Gallagher’s biggest mistake was driving under the influence of alcohol.

“Laura Gallagher was a law-abiding person,” he said. “She was going to college and was a young woman growing up. On that particular day, she made that tragic mistake to have some drinks and get behind the wheel.”

Even though Weissman was originally pushing for a five-year sentence, he stressed that Gallagher’s sentencing was not a celebratory moment.

“There’s never any winners or losers in a case like this,” he said.

Wilkins’ family has a wrongful death lawsuit pending against Gallagher and Jean. Gallagher’s defense attorney, Peter Gilbreth could not be reached, and her parents declined to comment.


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