NORRISTOWN — Prosecutors have upgraded charges to include homicide against a New Jersey woman who allegedly “plowed” her vehicle into emergency responders, causing the death of a firefighter and injuring three others who were investigating a crash on Interstate 76 in Lower Merion.
Jacquelyn Walker, 63, of the 700 block of Wild Oaks Court, Little Egg Harbor, N.J., was arraigned on Tuesday on charges of third-degree murder, homicide by vehicle, aggravated assault by vehicle, recklessly endangering other persons, reckless and careless driving and several other summary traffic offenses in connection with the 3:23 a.m. July 24, 2021, crash in the westbound lanes of I-76 in Lower Merion.
The crash killed Lower Merion firefighter Thomas Royds, who was covering a shift with the Belmont Hills Fire Company, of Springfield. Royds was a career and volunteer firefighter for more than 30 years, serving the Lower Merion community at the Union Fire Association and the Belmont Hills Fire Company as well as seven years as a volunteer in Clifton Heights.
“Our extensive investigation found that Walker operated her vehicle despite knowing that her brakes were not in functioning order, operating her vehicle in such an extreme reckless manner that she plowed through an active, well-marked emergency response area, severely injuring three first responders and killing another first responder, leading us to add the third-degree murder charge,” Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said during a news conference on Tuesday.
“This crash is every first responder’s nightmare and it’s the nightmare of every first responder’s family, also,” Steele added. “An incident like this is going to live with all of these individuals for the rest of their lives.”
Walker remains in the county jail while awaiting an Oct. 14 preliminary hearing on the charges before District Court Judge Henry J. Schireson.
After the crash, Walker allegedly told investigators she consumed alcohol earlier and that she believed she was on I-295 at the time of the crash, according to court papers.
Walker was suspected of driving under the influence and originally was charged with homicide by vehicle while DUI, but that charge was withdrawn after toxicology tests determined Walker was not impaired by drugs or alcohol, officials said.
According to the investigation, at 3:06 a.m. state troopers and firefighters responded to a report of a two-vehicle crash in the westbound lane of the highway between the Gladwyne and Route 23 exits and found the two vehicles on the berm of the roadway. A fire truck, with all of its emergency lights activated, parked in the right-hand travel lane and a state police vehicle, with its emergency lights activated, parked in front of the fire truck, officials said.
Traffic was moving through the emergency scene at about 10 mph, Steele said.
But at 3:23 a.m. Walker, operating a 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee westbound, allegedly entered the active emergency response area at highway speeds, drove around an emergency vehicle and onto the right berm area. Walker drove over the rumble strips demarking the right berm “and proceeded to drive straight toward, and through, several emergency response personnel that had been working the scene on foot,” county Detective Robert Turner and state police Sergeant Charles N. Burckhardt alleged in the criminal complaint.
Royds, 48, was transported to Paoli Hospital where he was later pronounced dead. A subsequent autopsy determined Royds died of blunt impact injuries.
“Walker had struck firefighter Royds with such force as to forcibly remove the shoe from his right foot,” Turner and Burckhardt alleged in court papers.
Belmont Hills Firefighter Alex Fischer, 23, was struck by Walker’s Jeep and was transported by medical helicopter to Penn-Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia and was treated for a head injury, according to court papers.
A third Belmont Hills firefighter, a 17-year-old, and State Police Trooper Jarred Burnett, of the Philadelphia barracks, also were injured and underwent medical treatment.
After striking the first responders, Walker’s vehicle struck the rear of one of the vehicles involved in the original crash and parked on the right berm.
Steele was joined at the news conference by Pennsylvania State Police Captain Jamie B. Kemm.
“You think you’re doing your due diligence by putting a fire truck behind you, and the lights and the sirens and the cones. You’re trying to make it as safe as possible to complete the investigation as best as we can. And to have that happen to you while you believe that you’re in a safe zone, there’s just no words for that. It’s horrific,” Kemm said. “This tragedy strikes all first responders to our core. It is one of our greatest fears, to be hurt or severely injured while we are assisting others.”
The investigation determined Walker’s 2004 Jeep was in poor condition with severe rusting and three of the four brakes on the Jeep were not functional.
“The rear brakes were not working at all. The front brakes, one of the two was working in a slight way,” Steele alleged. “Evidence revealed also that she knew about it, which is very significant to the charges in this case. She declined to get the brakes fixed when she had an opportunity to do it. She knew it and she kept driving.
“So she operates this vehicle, knowing that the brakes are not in functioning order. She operates this vehicle in an extreme reckless manner in that she plows through an active emergency zone,” Steele alleged.
The lack of maintenance and the continued operation of the vehicle with the condition of the brake system was a major contributing factor to the crash, authorities alleged.
“There’s choices she made in this case,” Steele alleged.
The investigation also determined that Walker was stopped by three separate New Jersey police departments in the approximate 2½ hours before the fatal crash and she was given warnings for such things as driving without headlights and inoperable brake light, according to court documents. During those stops, Walker allegedly told police she was lost and trying to find Route 38 and officers provided her with directions.