MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ — (Updated March 4 at 1:50 p.m.) A yellow sign posted on the front lawn of the Summit Road residence shows the home for sale eight months after a driver struck and killed the 79-year-old woman who lived there.
Rita D’Anna, a longtime paraprofessional at Deerfield Elementary School, was crossing just outside her house on June 6, 2019 when the driver, 27-year-old Danielle Rego, fatally hit her with her Honda Civic just after 7 p.m., police reports show. D’Anna died on the street, one report says.
“She was very, very fit,” D’Anna’s daughter, Cecilia Walsh, of Berkeley Heights, told TAPinto. “She took that same walk every single night for 30 years. She would come out of her house, cross the street, walk the neighborhood and come back.”
A witness told officers she saw D’Anna go “airborne and then tumble off the hood onto the ground,” a police investigation report says. The witness, who said her window was rolled down as she was stopped at the intersection of Wyoming Drive, “did not hear a horn or tires screeching but heard the impact of the vehicle and the victim,” according to the police report.
Rego told officers that D’Anna “appeared out of nowhere,” and that she did not have time to brake, the police report says. The speed limit on the two-lane road is 40 mph, and there is no crosswalk in the area near to Summit Road's intersection with Wyoming Drive where police reports show D’Anna was crossing.
While officers found a partially consumed bottle of wine on the floorboard of Rego’s car, a blood test later found she did not have alcohol content in her system, according to the police reports.
Police charged Rego, a resident of Lebanon, with careless driving and having an open container of alcohol in her vehicle, the records show. Rego pleaded guilty to the open container charge and the careless driving charge, according to the court records.
On Feb. 6, Municipal Court Judge Frank P. Sahaj ordered her license be suspended for 14 days and that she pay $528 in fines, according to a court disposition, which shows a “civil reservation” indicating that Rego's guilty pleas may not be used against her in a civil lawsuit.
At least one question about the crash, however, remains unanswered.
In the investigation, officers had sought to obtain a warrant to search Rego’s cell phone, the police records show. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office did not find cause to issue the search warrant.
“Based on the facts and circumstances presented, there was insufficient probable cause for law enforcement to pursue a communications data warrant for the driver’s phone,” the prosecutor's office said in a statement provided to TAPinto.
In court, Municipal Prosecutor James Foerst said the state could not prove fault. Foerst did not seek the license suspension, which the judge issued after hearing testimony from D’Anna’s family.
“While this was horrible for this person to die and for the family to have to suffer through that, nonetheless there was no egregious action that could be proven, which would lead me to believe that a loss of license or any enhanced penalty should apply to this matter,” Foerst said.
Donald A. DiGioia, the Mountainside based defense attorney representing Rego, noted the police finding in the blood alcohol test in favor of his client, and said her driving was not “egregious.”
“It was a tragic accident. There was nothing egregious about the conduct,” DiGioia said. “It could happen to you and I.”
The Mountainside paraprofessional left behind four children, in addition to grandchildren and other family, her obituary says. D’Anna’s daughter said the family intends to seek justice in civil court.
“Myself and my family were very upset about the outcome,” Walsh said. “Her life was taken.”
Email Matt Kadosh at firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @MattKadosh
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the plea entered on one of the charges in the case. Danielle Rego pleaded guilty to both the careless driving charge and the open container of alcohol charge. Additionally, this story has been updated to include comments from the municipal prosecutor, which were not available at the time of first publication.