DRIVER PLEADS GUILTY IN PRINCIPAL’S DEATH

img_6457Students and parents mourn the death of Markham Place School principal Donald Merce in May, 2008. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

The motorist who killed Little Silver middle school principal Donald Merce in an automobile accident in 2008 pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in federal court Wednesday, the Asbury Park Press reports.

Dennis Smentkowski, a 46-year-old retired Long Branch police officer, claimed he’d taken four times the recommended dosage of the sleeping aid Ambien before he plowed into 58-year-old Merce’s car outside the east gate of Fort Monmouth on Oceanport Avenue, killing him instantly, the newspaper said.

From the Press:

Merce is survived by his wife, Bobbi, and five children.

The fatal accident was not Smentkowski’s first run-in with the other side of the law, and it wasn’t to be his last.

Smentkowski, who retired on disability in 1999 after 14 years on the Long Branch force, was cleared of charges he burglarized a city restaurant in 2002, after successfully completing a pretrial intervention program, which allows for such dismissals, according to a past report.

Following the fatal accident, Smentkowski was ordered to surrender his drivers license but in 2009 was ticketed in Ocean Township on an unlicensed driver summons.

Smentkowski is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 24. The involuntary manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of eight years and up to a $250,000 fine, Fishman said.

The article didn’t say why the matter was heard in federal court.

The gym at the Markham Place school was renamed the Don Merce Athletic Center in early 2009.