Jury must de­cide who was driv­ing

Sus­pect in crash that killed Boca biker de­nies be­ing be­hind the wheel

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Marc Free­man Staff writer

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.

Fich­tel

Maida

MARIA LORENZINO/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

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.

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