A stream of tickets, a death in his wake

The Baltimore Sun

The head of Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration calls Frederick Henry Hensen Jr. "a menace to highway safety." The prosecutor who put him in jail says he has no business having a driver's license.

But nothing, it seems, can keep Hensen off the road.

In 1999, Hensen, then 22, was convicted in Carroll County Circuit Court of manslaughter by automobile in the death of Geraldine "Geri" Lane Wu. A jury found that a road race on Route 140 involving Hensen and two other drivers led to the crash that killed the popular middle school teacher and seriously injured her daughter.

Hensen spent 15 months in prison for his part in her death - a sentence that stemmed in part from his long record of speeding and other driving violations. He'd run up 33 points for more than a dozen traffic tickets in the four years before the crash without losing his license for even a day.

When he got his license back in 2003, he got a fresh start. But Hensen, now 32, went back to his old ways. The Westminster man has been ticketed for speeding six more times with four convictions - including one for going 80 in a 55-mph zone. In each case, he was allowed to get back on the road by a legal system that quickly forgives past violations.

The driving career of Frederick Hensen is a case study in how lenient laws, breaks from judges and slipshod court procedures help to keep Maryland's riskiest drivers behind the wheel. At virtually every turn, the state's legal system appears to have been stacked in favor of preserving or quickly restoring his driving privileges.

"He clearly is a menace to highway safety, but as a motor vehicle agency we're limited in what we can do as far as revocation or suspension," said John Kuo, the MVA administrator. Laws passed by the General Assembly limit what his agency can do to curb a dangerous driver, he said.

In fact, the state's MVA is more constrained in the actions it can take against a dangerous driver than other motor vehicle agencies in the region. Maryland assesses fewer points for serious speeding offenses than most of its neighbors and requires more points to trigger a suspension or revocation. In some nearby states, Hensen's offenses in the year preceding the fatal race could have cost him his license.

"This guy in my opinion should not have a license," said David Daggett, Carroll County deputy state's attorney. "I don't think he's earned the privilege."

Hensen declined to comment for this article.

He is scheduled to be in Carroll County District Court on Wednesday to face new charges - reckless driving and driving on a suspended license, the result of a traffic stop in January. This time, he could lose his license and get up to 60 days in jail.

The events that led to the crash that killed Geraldine Wu started with a chance meeting of three young men in fast cars, court records show.

Shortly before 9:30 p.m. on June 1, 1998, their encounter turned into an impromptu road race along busy Route 140 - the main artery connecting Baltimore and Carroll County. The drivers were Hensen, Scott D. Broadfoot Sr. of Parkville and Mark E. Eppig of Westminster.

With the men driving at speeds estimated at more than 100 mph, one of them - Eppig - lost control of his car near Sunset Lane in Finksburg. He crossed the grassy median and crashed head-on into the 1997 Mitsubishi in which Wu, 42, and her 15-year-old daughter, Min-Li, were traveling.

Though only Eppig actually struck Wu's car, Carroll County prosecutors decided to treat all three racers as equally culpable. A judge agreed. Eppig pleaded guilty in October 1998, accepted a three-year sentence and testified against the other two.

The next April, after a first trial ended in a hung jury on the felony counts, Hensen and Broadfoot were convicted of homicide by automobile and second-degree assault.

At sentencing, Daggett sought long prison terms for both men, based on their extensive records of driving violations. He presented Judge Daniel W. Moylan with a list of Hensen's offenses that started with speeding and running a red light in 1994, the year he got his license, and escalated.

In 1995 alone, Hensen received at least six speeding tickets. In three of those cases, he was convicted of driving more than 30 mph above the limit - a 5-point offense in Maryland. In one case he was clocked at 102 mph.

Late that year, with Hensen far over the 12-point limit that triggers revocation, the MVA moved to take away his license. But after a hearing, the agency decided to let him continue driving for work purposes only. The restrictions were removed after nine months.

His record stayed clear for another year. But Hensen began a new string of offenses in November 1997, when he was ticketed for driving 95 mph in a 55-mph zone. In spite of his history, District Judge JoAnn M. Ellinghaus-Jones knocked down the ticket from a 5-point offense to a 2-point violation. Hensen would receive two more speeding tickets - including one for going 87 mph - before the fatal race.

In sentencing, Judge Moylan imposed a six-year term but later cut a year off that. The judge said he was impressed with the young man's prison conduct record and his "deep remorse."

Hensen served 15 months before being paroled in August 2000.

Meanwhile, with 21 points on his record - manslaughter by automobile is itself a 12-point offense - Hensen's license was revoked. His driving privileges were restored in February 2003 with limits in place today that allow him to drive only for work or school purposes.

For a year, Hensen stayed out of trouble, but in 2004 he got a ticket for operating a vehicle with an illegal exhaust system. The next year he was stopped for speeding at least four times. Twice he was found guilty, and twice he got breaks.

One break came in May 2005 when Judge Marc C. Rasinsky granted Hensen probation before judgment for going 69 in a 50-mph zone, a resolution that spared him another conviction on his driving record.

An audio recording of that trial shows that Hensen offered the excuses that he was driving a car with which he was unfamiliar and that he "wasn't paying attention" to his speed. The judge gave him probation and a $52 fine.

It is not clear from the recording whether Rasinsky knew about Hensen's record. The judge did not ask Hensen about it in court. In a recent interview, Rasinsky said it is possible the record was unavailable because of computer problems. Another possibility, the judge said, is that the driving record did not come up because Hensen's name was misspelled "Henson" in the court file.

Hensen's luck helped him escape any penalty for another 2005 speeding citation in which he was charged with driving 69 mph in a 25-mph zone - a 5-point offense.

The case was lost in the system after Hensen failed to appear for trial. Carroll County court officials say they wrote the MVA asking that it suspend his license; an MVA spokesman said a clerical error in transcribing Hensen's driver's license number kept the agency from matching the violation to Hensen.

In 2007, Hensen's license was suspended for failing to appear in court for a new speeding charge. The suspension was withdrawn four months later when he paid a fine. Then last year, the MVA suspended his license again when he didn't show up for a required driver improvement program. His license was reinstated July 20 after he completed the course.

He got his next speeding ticket that night, court records show. He was convicted, and his license was suspended in December for failure to pay his fine.

Hensen is scheduled to be in court this week because of his alleged driving offenses Jan. 27. He was stopped in Westminster and charged with reckless driving (6 potential points), negligent driving (1 point) and driving on a suspended license (12 points).

Since he got his license back in 2003, Hensen has accumulated 8 points on his driving record. But under Maryland law, points expire after two years, so four of the 8 have been wiped away.

Hensen's co-defendants have also had traffic law violations since serving terms for their roles in the fatal crash. Eppig was convicted of drunken driving in 2007. Broadfoot pleaded guilty to driving on a suspended registration last year.

One person who keenly feels the result of the men's driving is Laurence Wu, professor emeritus of philosophy at McDaniel College and widower of Geraldine Wu. He was left to raise their three children. After being told about Hensen's record, Wu said he sees something wrong in a system that wipes away points after two years. "There should be a law saying that in cases like his, people should not be driving any more," Wu said.

driving record

Frederick H. Hensen Jr. got his driver's license in 1994 at age 17. Here is a record of traffic offenses for which he was later found guilty, except as noted. Also listed are dates the MVA moved to suspend his license.

1994

Oct. 11: Speeding. Clocked 67 mph/50 mph zone. (Judge later reduced charge to exceeding by 1-9 mph.) 1 point

Nov. 20: Driving through red signal. 1 point

1995

March 3: Speeding: 85/50. 5 points*

June 9: Speeding: 102/55. 5 points*

June 17: Speeding: 55/35. (Reduced to 1-9 mph) 1 point

July 11: Speeding: 85/55. 5 points. Passing in no-pass zone. Passing on right.*

July 21: Speeding: 52/35. 2 points

July 28: Unreasonable speed. 1 point

Aug. 9: Spinning wheels. 1 point

Aug. 18: Speeding: 63/45. 2 points

1996

Feb. 7: Based on points, MVA restricts license to work driving only.

Nov. 7: License restriction removed.

1997

Nov. 26: Speeding: 95/55. (Reduced to exceeding by 10 mph). 2 points

Dec. 26: Speeding: 87/65. 5 points

1998

March 24: Speeding: 51/30. 2 points

June 1 (Fatal crash): Manslaughter by automobile. 12 points

Also speeding 30 mph or more, negligent driving, reckless driving, imprudent speed, racing on street, improper passing.

Sept. 25: For tallying more than 8 points in two years (1997 and March 1998) MVA suspends license for 30 days.

1999

Feb. 24: Failure to drive in designated lane. 1 point

May 17: Begins prison sentence for role in fatal crash.

Sept. 21: MVA revokes license.

2000

Aug. 17: Released on parole.

2003

Feb. 21: License reinstated with restrictions (work/school).

2004

April 3: Illegally modified exhaust. 0 points

2005

Feb. 11: Charged with speeding: 69/25. 5 potential points. Failed to appear and never tried, apparently due to clerical error.

May 19: Speeding. PBJ.

May 31: Speeding 80/55. (Reduced to 10-mph-plus) 2 points*

Aug. 20: Speeding: 69/50. 2 points*

2007

April 22: Speeding: 75/55. 2 points.

Oct. 9: License suspended for failure to appear.

2008

Feb. 20: Fine paid, suspension withdrawn

May 1: Assigned to driver improvement

June 10: License suspended, failure to attend driver improvement

July 20: Attended driver improvement, suspension withdrawn

July 20: Speeding: 65/50. 2 points

Dec. 9: License suspended, nonpayment of fine.

2009

Jan. 27: Charged with reckless driving (6 potential points),

Negligent driving (1 potential point).

Driving on suspended license (12 potential points)

Feb. 9: Fine paid, December suspension withdrawn

April 1: Trial scheduled

*Name misspelled in court records.

Sources: Court and MVA records

An article in Sunday's editions incorrectly reported that Mark Eppig of Westminster was convicted of drunken driving in 2007. He was not, and court records show no traffic offenses on his part in recent years.The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
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