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Driver pays $280 fine, ending Md. traffic case after deaths of two law enforcement officers

July 10, 2018


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The driver of a Honda Accord that fatally struck an FBI agent and a fire investigator on the side of a Maryland highway has paid a $280 fine, concluding a case of negligent driving lodged against him.

Roberto Garza Palacios, 28, did not have to appear in court and did not receive jail time, according to court records and lawyers involved in the case, which ended with the June 25 payment.

The outcome reflected what prosecutors had concluded about Garza Palacios’s driving the night of Dec. 8 and how state laws could be applied.

While he drove in a “careless and imprudent manner,” prosecutors found, his actions did not rise to a “gross deviation” from careful driving or a “reckless disregard” for human life — the conditions needed to support more-serious charges.

The night of the crash, Garza Palacios had been driving south on Interstate 270 in Montgomery County, with two passengers.

Ahead of him were two off-duty law enforcement officers who had stepped out of their personal vehicles: Carlos Wolff, 36, and Sander Cohen, 33, both standing on the left shoulder.

Wolff, an FBI agent, had crashed his car into a concrete median after reaching for his cellphone and becoming distracted while driving south on I-270, a Maryland State Police crash investigation later determined. Cohen, an arson investigator who was passing by, had pulled over to help and put on his hazard lights to warn other drivers.

Garza Palacios drove up on the scene from behind and told investigators he could not swerve right, because cars were in that lane, so he went left, not seeing the two men.

“This case is about an unfortunate accident. Mr. Garza Palacios feels terrible about the situation,” said his attorney, Asim A. Humayun.

After he reach for his cellphone, Wolff’s Acura SUV veered left, crashed into the median wall, careered back toward the far-left traffic lane and came to rest, according to a Detailed Crash Investigation Report compiled by state police.

Wolff got out of his vehicle and walked to the concrete wall.

Cohen by chance was headed down the same highway, saw the disabled SUV, pulled in and put on his warning hazards and called for help before walking to the median. The men were at the side of the road for only a few minutes, state officials said.

As Garza Palacios drove up on the two cars, he should have reacted more quickly, according to the state police findings.

When he tried to react, he told investigators, a car was to the right of him. He then veered left, striking Wolff and Cohen and sending them over the concrete wall. He told investigators he had not seen the men.

Wolff died at a hospital. Cohen — thrown into the path of northbound interstate traffic and hit by another car — was pronounced dead on the scene.

None of the four drivers in the incident were found to be drunk, high or speeding, state police wrote.

The northbound driver who hit Cohen after he and Wolff were propelled over the median did nothing wrong, the state police report stated, describing her as driving at a legal 55 mph when she suddenly saw a body horizontal across the lane she was in, three feet ahead of her Acura sedan.

Garza Palacios, a Guatemalan native, still faces possible deportation. On May 3, officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement took him into custody at his home in Gaithersburg and charged him with overstaying and violating the terms of a work visa that had expired in 2009, according to ICE officials.

Three years earlier, ICE learned he had been arrested in Montgomery County and asked jail officials to place a hold on him, but that request was not honored and Garza Palacios was released, according to county and federal officials.

Humayun said the immigration case is ongoing but declined to discuss it.

Garza Palacios had previous traffic and criminal convictions. In a 2015 case, he pleaded guilty to driving while impaired. Around that time, he also served about four months in jail after being arrested for smashing windows on about 16 cars and lighting a sofa on fire near a construction site.

After the traffic case concluded, Wolff’s widow, Marla, said that particularly given Garza Palacios’s record, the penalty in the recent case seemed woefully inadequate. “It’s ridiculous,” she said. “He just pays $280, and that’s all he has to do.”

Marla Wolff and her children — 7 and 3 — are trying to rely on a support system of friends and family members to cope with their loss. On what she calls the “new reality” of Father’s Day, the three visited Carlos’s grave. At the cemetery, she recalled, she asked her 7-year-old his favorite memory of his father.

“When Daddy taught me how to ride a bike” he said.

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