By Wayne Parry
Maria Caiafa, of Marmora, N.J., holds photos of her late daughters Christina, 19, in the photo at left, and Jacqueline Becker, 17, at right in the other photo. The sisters were killed after New Jersey state trooper Robert Higbee ran a stop sign and collided with their vehicle while on patrol on September 27, 2006. Two and a half years later, what happened that night will be scrutinized in a New Jersey courtroom this week, where a jury will decide whether Higbee should go to jail for 5 to 10 years — or whether he was just doing his duty, chasing a speeder, when a tragic accident occurred. (AP Photo)
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. — From opposite sides of tragedy, they came together for a few brief seconds: the grieving mother, full of pain and questions about the deaths of her two teenage daughters, and the state trooper who killed them.
He, too, was brokenhearted over the deaths. He has a daughter of his own. She's 14 months old; if a jury doesn't see things his way, he might not be able to hold her in his arms again until she's 11.
Maria Caiafa and State Trooper Robert Higbee exchanged a few words and a brief embrace after a court hearing two years ago. The trooper towered over the middle school principal as she looked up at him and placed her hand on his shoulder.
The exchange took 15 seconds. They parted, retreating behind legal barricades on either side of the case. Neither would reveal what was said.
A jury in southern New Jersey could begin hearing evidence this week in the case, which will hinge on two questions: Was Higbee acting recklessly as he sped down a road in Upper Township on Sept. 27, 2006, chasing what he said was a speeder? Or was the crash that killed Jacqueline and Christina Becker a tragic but unavoidable accident?
Christina and Jacqueline were so inseparable that they even accompanied each other to the bathroom.
Jacqueline, a 17-year-old high school senior, hoped to study international marketing and foreign languages at the University of Michigan. She spoke Spanish and Italian and was studying Japanese.
Christina was quieter, known for her compassion and creativity. At her job delivering medicine for a local pharmacy, the 19-year-old would sit and talk to senior citizens for as long as she could before the next delivery, trying to keep them company.
On this particular night, the girls were staying with their grandmother, Geraldine Caiafa, because their mom was working late. They realized they needed milk and hopped into their grandmother's minivan to drive to a convenience store less than a mile away. Jacqueline drove; her sister slid into the front passenger seat.
They told their grandma they'd be right back.
Higbee joined the police force in 2001 following a promising sports career that never quite caught fire. He played tight end for the University of Delaware, caught 20 passes for 306 yards in 1994 and signed with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent two years later.
But he never played in a regular season NFL game. He switched to basketball, playing for the Washington Generals, the opposing team that travels with the Harlem Globetrotters.
He was on patrol that night in 2006, when, he says, he spotted a speeder and gave chase. He told investigators he was accelerating to catch up to the speeder, but was not using his lights or siren. New Jersey policy recommends that an officer get as close as possible to the speeder before activating lights and siren - without jeopardizing anyone's safety.
Higbee's police cruiser got to the intersection exactly as the girls' minivan did. It crashed into the front driver's side of the van, partially ejecting both girls. The van and patrol car then skidded across the road, smashing into a Mazda minivan stopped at the intersection. The girls suffered fatal head injuries when their vehicle hit the Mazda.
Back home, the girls' grandmother was getting nervous as the minutes ticked by. The milk run should have been a 10- to 15-minute trip, at most. When more than an hour had passed, she called the girls' mom.
"They never do that," Maria Caiafa said three weeks after the crash. "If they're going to be late, they call."
The grandmother drove around looking for the girls and passed what looked like a gruesome crash. She stopped and asked police if that was her two grandchildren. The white vehicle was too damaged to recognize. But police said no, it wasn't Christina and Jacqueline, according to their mother.
The mother called her daughters' cell phones. She sent them text messages. She got no answer.
She said she called the police, giving the names of her two daughters and the license plate number of the van. A dispatcher said he'd call her back.
She and her ex-husband went to the accident scene and pleaded with officers for confirmation of what they feared in their hearts.
Bathed in the swirling patterns of red and blue emergency lights, she begged, "Are those my daughters? Please tell me if those are my daughters."
She hung back from the accident, not wanting to see what was there. She prayed her kids weren't dead.
Officers eventually told the girls' grandmother what had happened. She began to scream, "It's them! Oh God!"
It wasn't until the next day, reading newspaper accounts of the crash, that Maria Caiafa learned that a state trooper had crashed into her daughters' vehicle.
The head of the state police union, David Jones, says Higbee was shattered by the crash.
"From Day One, he's heartbroken," Jones said last week. "Rob Higbee is a wonderful guy, a wonderful father, a wonderful family man. It's a heart-rending situation for him."
Higbee's lawyer, D. William Subin, says criminal charges never should have been brought against the trooper.
Higbee was issued summonses for failure to stop or yield right of way, and careless driving. He was indicted in 2007 on the death by auto charge and remains suspended without pay pending the resolution of the case. If convicted, Higbee could face a prison term of five to 10 years.
The state settled a lawsuit brought by Caiafa for $2 million but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.
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"We're not saying it's not a tragedy," Jones said. "But it never was a criminal act."