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Driver Pleads Guilty In Death Of Little Silver School Principal

Written by The Two River Times. Posted in Breaking News, Featured, News

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Markham Place School Principal Don Merce

Published on October 27, 2011 with No Comments

Smentkowski admitted in court he took at least four 12.5 mg doses of the drug, which rendered him “impaired under the laws of New Jersey,” federal authorities said in their released statement.

LITTLE SILVER — The driver of the vehicle that collided with Markham Place Principal Donald Merce three years ago, killing Merce, pleaded guilty yesterday to involuntary manslaughter, attributing the collision to his overdose of a prescription sleep aid.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Dennis Smentkowski, 46, a Tinton Falls resident, pleaded guilty in federal court in Trenton to the collision that killed Merce on May 6, 2008. Smentkowski also acknowledged to taking more than four times the recommended dosage of the sleep aid Zolpidem. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, that drug is designated as a Schedule IV controlled substance sold under the brand name Ambien.

Smentkowski admitted in court he took at least four 12.5 mg doses of the drug, which rendered him “impaired under the laws of New Jersey,” federal authorities said in their released statement.

Authorities said Smentkowski was driving his 2007 Ford Explorer southbound on Oceanport Avenue, in the vicinity of Fort Monmouth, when the vehicle crossed the road’s double yellow lines into oncoming northbound traffic and collided head-on into Merce, who was driving his 2004 Chevrolet Malibu on his way to work at the school.

Merce, 58, lived in the Oakhurst section of Ocean Township, and had worked as the Markham Place School principal for 19 years.

Before U.S. District Court Judge Joel A. Pisano, Smentkowski, along with admitting to taking the overdose, he also admitted his actions led to Merce’s death, and “admitted he consciously disregarded the substantial risk to the safety and the lives of others by operating a motor vehicle while his ability to drive was impaired by Ambien,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in its statement.

Merce is a former Long Branch police officer who retired on a disability pension. He is scheduled to appear before Pisano on Jan. 24 for sentencing. The one-count charge to which Smentkowski pleaded guilt carries with it a maximum penalty of eight years federal prison sentence and a $250,000 fine, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

“Dennis deeply regrets that his conduct led to the death of Mr. Merce and prays that the Merce family can in someway in time forgive him,” today said Smentkowski’s attorney, Charles Uliano, West Long Branch.

Smentkowski continues to undergo treatment for the injuries he received in the collision and will require additional surgery, Uliano said.

The case was prosecuted by federal authorities and conducted in federal court because the roadway where the collision occurred was technically part of the Fort Monmouth, a federal military installation, which closed last month.

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