Jury must decide who was driving
Suspect in crash that killed Boca biker denies being behind the wheel
They were lovers. And then their pickup truck plowed into a bicyclist.
Now it’s “he said, she said” — and a jury needs to sort it out.
So what happened on that clear Sunday morning in Boca Raton in the spring of 2014, when 65-year-old George Morreale died?
Who was behind the wheel of the pickup truck? Paul Maida Jr., whose DUI manslaughter trial begins with jury selection today? Or was it his then-girlfriend Bianca Fichtel, who was originally named by police as the driver?
And there is a third possibility, says Maida’s lawyer: Neither is at fault. It was a tragic accident due to a dangerous stretch of road where crashes with injuries happen, no matter who is driving.
The flip-flop that turned Fichtel from the lead suspect to the prosecution’s star witness happened after police saw emails apparently sent between the couple. Maida states his desire to come clean as the driver and take Fichtel off the hook, police said.
So they cleared her and arrested him.
The case could come down to the potentially incriminating emails, and the defense has argued to toss them as evidence.
Maida’s attorney first said prosecutors can’t prove his client was the author. More recently the defense suggested Fichtel’s father or a cop could have typed some emails to Maida that demanded he confess “as he promised he would.”
Even if the judge allows most of the emails in the trial, the jury still is going to hear that Fichtel is the person the police blamed first.
“The jury will have to determine
beyond a reasonable doubt that Bianca, who was behind the wheel at the scene, was not the driver,” defense attorney Robert Resnick said.
Not in dispute: Morreale was killed about 10 a.m. April 6, 2014, when a Ford F-150 hit his blue Schwinn within a marked bike lane on westbound Yamato Road, just west of Interstate 95. The expert carpenter was out for his routine ride.
Records show that one hour after the crash, Fichtel, 27, told officers she was driving her green truck and Maida was the front-seat passenger. That’s also what Maida, 32, said at the time, though an officer noted both appeared impaired and confused.
In an interview with police five days later, Maida said he hadn’t been driving because his license wasn’t active.
At the scene, Fichtel asked to speak with a lawyer and then mentioned she uses various medications; a blood sample from her that day detected nine drugs, including the pain medicine Oxycodone, according to a police report. Maida’s blood alcohol level was never tested.
While attorney Resnick contends there is no scientific proof his client was impaired, Officer Adam Reisner this year gave a statement that he observed Maida “as being highly intoxicated to the point of being barely able to stand and on the verge of drooling.”
More than a year after the accident, Fichtel went to the State Attorney’s Office to give a statement: Maida was the driver who hit Morreale, but moments later they switched seats at a red light without getting out of the cab, because he refused to turn back to the crash site.
Fichtel, then on house arrest, disclosed she and Maida had been emailing each other. She pointed out that he had written often of his desire to turn himself in because he loved her.
Police later obtained the emails from an account tied to Maida. One reads, “I promise I am going to do everything I can so they don't charge you and only charge me.”
Maida didn’t go to the cops, but they charged him with leaving the scene of a crash involving death; DUI manslaughter; driving while license canceled, suspended or revoked causing serious bodily injury; and false report of a crime.
In a July 5 court document, Maida’s lawyer argues the emails purportedly sent from Fichtel to Maida should be inadmissible.
Fichtel’s pleas that Maida “not let her suffer, not go forward with their relationship unless he confesses to being the driver … are all statements that either play to the emotions of the jury or will inflame the jury against the defendant,” the attorney wrote.
Prosecutor Laura Laurie did not respond to the defense’s positions on the emails, but she has told Circuit Judge Charles Burton she plans to share some of the writings with the jury.
No matter how much of the correspondence comes into the trial, Resnick said he’ll raise significant doubts as to whether Maida, a former security guard, actually drove the pickup.
Officers interviewed three witnesses, motorists who were near the crash. But they were unable to identify the pickup’s driver.
Maida’s attorney also said he plans to tell the jury the death was an accident, considering it’s a “dangerous intersection” where Yamato meets I-95.
According to an online database from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, between April 2012 and April 2017, there were 82 crashes in a half-mile stretch of Yamato on both sides of the expressway.
Of those, 46 crashes involved injuries and there was one crash where somebody died — George Morreale.
Regardless of the verdict, Maida could face another jury one day in civil court. Lois Morreale, who lost her husband of 43 years, has sued Maida for wrongful death.
Construction slows traffic recently on Yamato Road near I-95. George Morreale was killed in 2014 when a pickup hit his bicycle within a marked bike lane on westbound Yamato.