Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Trial set for man accused in fatal hit-and-run

Driver is in country illegally, authorities say

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The man alleged to be responsible for a fatal hit-and-run collision along Route 29 is in the country illegally, authorities said, while three injured construction workers involved in the Aug. 13 crash are expected to survive.

The driver of the van involved in the crash, Manuel De

Jesus Gonzalez-Geronimo, 31, of the 1900 block of Ruatan Street in Hyattsville, will be tried Sept. 25 in Montgomery County District Court in Rockville. He has been charged with failure to immediately return and remain at the scene of a collision involving death, failure to stop a vehicle immediately at the scene of a collision involving bodily injury and driving without a license, Montgomery County police said.

Additional charges could be added, police said. Gonzalez-Geronimo has been held without bond following an Aug. 14 court hearing in Rockville.

Gonzalez-Geronimo was driving a white Ford Econoline 150 work van on northbound Route 29 near the Howard County line just after 1 p.m. Aug. 13 when ‘‘for unknown reasons it abruptly swerved” into a construction vehicle before careening into a group of construction workers, according to the charging documents.

Martin Ruffin, 30, of Baltimore was pronounced dead at the scene. James Cronin, 37, of Glen Burnie died Aug. 14 after being flown to the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore following the crash.

Hugo Perez, 28, is in good condition and Rafael Ramos, 30, was discharged Aug. 14 from Washington Hospital Center, a hospital spokeswoman said Monday.

Jose Padillo, 35, was released from Prince George’s Hospital Center hours after the crash, said Officer Rodney Barnes, a police spokesman.

Gonzalez-Geronimo is an undocumented worker from Guatemala, police spokeswoman Blanca Kling said.

Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, confirmed Gonzalez-Geronimo’s illegal status and said he will come into custody of immigration officials to begin deportation proceedings after all local charges against him are resolved. If Gonzalez-Geronimo is sentenced to jail, he would be handed over to immigration officials after he serves his time, Fobbs added.

Gonzalez-Geronimo left the scene of the crash and returned home, only to turn himself in to Prince George’s County Police early Aug. 14, at which point he was placed in Montgomery County Police custody. Gonzalez-Geronimo said he fled because ‘‘he was scared and didn’t have a license,” according to the charging documents.

Kling said police do not know how Gonzalez-Geronimo got home and evaded a search effort that included helicopters and canine units. Police are also still investigating where he was going and if there were any passengers in the van.

The five construction workers were part of a seven-man crew with PDI-Sheetz Construction Corp., a subcontractor for the State Highway Administration based south of Baltimore, preparing to start a bridge patching project over the Patuxent River that is a boundary between Montgomery and Howard counties, the SHA said. Calls to PDI-Sheetz for comment were not returned.

One of the injured workers who was trapped under the van told police Gonzalez-Geronimo got out of the vehicle and asked the worker if he was all right, according to the charging documents. The worker said he was injured, at which point Gonzalez-Geronimo ‘‘ran from the scene,” the charging documents state.

Work at the Route 29 site will resume in two or three weeks, SHA spokesman Chuck Gischlar said, calling the project ‘‘very routine work.” The two uninjured workers will join an existing crew to work on the site, Gischlar said.

Gonzalez-Geronimo did not own the van and police continue to search for the owner, Kling said.

Finding the owner may be key for the victims’ families to receive damages from the crash because any auto insurance policy would cover the vehicle and not the driver, said Robert E. Lewis, a State Farm agent and president of the Robert E. Lewis Insurance Agency, Inc., in Burtonsville.

‘‘If the van is uninsured, there is no liability insurance to cover this,” Lewis said.

In that case, the victims’ families could receive compensation only if the victims have personal injury, life or disability insurance or receive worker’s compensation, Lewis said.

The crash follows two recent work zone fatalities in Maryland. In June, an SHA maintenance worker was killed along U.S. 340 in Frederick County, and a prison worker on litter detail was killed along Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County.

There are as many as 300 active work zones around the state each day, according to SHA. In 2006, there were more than 2,200 work zone-related crashes resulting in 13 deaths and nearly 1,100 injuries, the SHA said. Nationwide, there were more than 1,000 work zone fatalities last year, though four out of five killed were motorists or passengers, the SHA said.