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‘IT’S RIDICULOUS’: Illegal immigrant driver who caused deaths of officers only pays $280 fine
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The driver who struck and killed an FBI agent and a fire marshal with his vehicle in December got off with a mere $280 fine, leaving the victims’ families frustrated and angry.
28-year-old Roberto Garza Palacios didn’t have to serve jail time nor did he have to appear in court for his role in the deaths of 36-year-old FBI agent Carlos Wolff, and 33-year-old Fire Marshal Sander Cohen.
But Garza Palacios hasn’t completely escaped the law; the Guatemala native is facing possible deportation for overstaying and violating the terms of a work visa that expired in 2009. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him in May and is currently investigating.
Garza Palacios was driving two passengers in his Honda Accord southbound on Interstate 270 in Montgomery County, MD on the night of the fatalities. Just ahead, Wolff had crashed his vehicle into the concrete median, apparently after reaching for his cell phone. Cohen, who was off-duty at the time, pulled over to help Wolff, who had already exited his vehicle.
Both men were standing on the left shoulder of the highway when Garza Palacios struck them, sending them over the concrete wall. Cohen went flying into the northbound side of the interstate where he was hit by another vehicle. Wolff was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Cohen’s death was called at the scene.
During the subsequent investigation, Garza Palacios told authorities that when he came up to the accident, he could not swerve right because that lane was clogged with cars. Not seeing Wolff or Cohen, he swerved left.
None of the drivers, including the northbound driver that struck Cohen, were found to have violated any traffic laws; the investigation found that they had neither been speeding nor intoxicated. With this, prosecutors determined that although Garza Palacios drove in a “careless and imprudent manner,” he did not do anything that was a “gross deviation” from careful driving or with “reckless disregard” for human life.
Prosecutors found that a $280 fine would suffice as consequence for Garza Palacios’ actions. The fee was paid on June 25, ending the matter.
Was justice served?
In a statement, Garza Palacios’ attorney said that the case “is about an unfortunate accident,” adding: “Mr. Garza Palacios feels terrible about the situation.” But those are hollow words to Wolff’s wife, Marla, and his two children, ages 7 and 3, who will now grow up without their father.
“It’s ridiculous,” Marla Wolff said of the menial penalty. “He just pays $280, and that’s all he has to do.”
Previous criminal record
And the fine seems even more inadequate considering Garza Palacios’ previous record. In 2015, he served four months in prison for smashing the windows of 15 cars and lighting a sofa on fire, and in that same year, he pleaded guilty to driving while impaired. At the time, ICE attempted to have him detained but Montgomery County authorities did not comply with the request.
Wishing Garza Palacios had been deported after the earlier crimes, Sander Cohen’s father, Neil Cohen, told NBC News4 that while he doesn’t agree with anti-immigrant sentiments, “The truth is that there are people who shouldn’t be here.”
Echoing Wolff’s sentiments on the light sentence, he’s angry that the driver won’t serve any time in jail. “Because the person who caused the accident really didn’t get punished, it doesn’t feel like there’s closure,” Cohen said.
Marla Wolff said that she and her children have been relying on the support of friends and family during this difficult time. Heartbreakingly, she visited her husband’s grave on Father’s Day with her children — and when she asked her 7-year-old son what his favorite memory of his father was, he responded: “When Daddy taught me how to ride a bike.”
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