A tearful Lower Township man pleaded not guilty Thursday to striking and killing two teenage girls on a Middle Township road, even as prosecutors told a judge they would seek to increase his bail and charge him with aggravated manslaughter.
Joshua Malmgren, 30, accused of being drunk when his vehicle struck cousins Nioami Lazicki, 15, and Ashley Dauber, 13, as they walked home from the playground Thursday evening, appeared in court, his face swollen and tear-stained, wearing a neon-green jail jumpsuit.
Public defender H. Parker Smith entered a not guilty plea on Malmgren’s behalf.
First Assistant Prosecutor Rob Johnson told Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten that he planned to upgrade the charges against Malmgren to first-degree aggravated manslaughter, and he would seek a higher bail than the current $50,000.
Batten set Malmgren’s bail hearing for 1:30 p.m. Monday, noting that the bail range for the vehicular homicide charges is $150,000 to $300,000.
Malmgren’s parents, older sister and girlfriend comforted each other as they watched the proceedings.
Funeral services for Nioami Lazicki will be held Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Radzieta Funeral Home, 9 Hand Avenue, in Cape May Court House. A viewing will begin at 1 p.m. Interment will be private.
After the eight-minute hearing, Elizabeth Melli, who described herself as Malmgren’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, spoke to reporters outside the courtroom Thursday, saying he has four children, including 3-year-old twins with Melli. Melli said she and Malmgren had been together for six years.
Melli said Malmgren did not have a drinking problem, and she recalled spending time with him the day of the crash that killed Lazicki and Dauber. Malmgren left her house about 3:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. that day, but she didn’t know everything that took place between that time and the crash, which took place about 9:15 p.m.
“I feel so bad for the family. I really do,” Melli said. “He just messed up.”
“Josh is a great guy and a great father,” she added.
Authorities said the 1992 Ford Bronco that Malmgren was driving hit cousins Lazicki, of Middle Township, and Dauber, of Philadelphia, as the two girls and Lazicki’s younger sister, Farrahanne, 14, walked along the side of Bayshore Road, not far from Lazicki’s home, on Tuesday night.
Lazicki and Dauber died at the scene.
Malmgren, who did not leave the scene, was initially charged with vehicular homicide, a second-degree crime, as well as driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, failure to maintain a lane of travel and consumption of alcoholic beverage by an operator of a motor vehicle.
Once the charges are upgraded to first-degree aggravated manslaughter, the bail range increases to between $200,000 and $500,000, Johnson said.
The first-degree offense also comes with a minimum prison term of 10 years and a maximum of 30 years for each charge.
A search of municipal court records did not indicate any past drunken-driving arrests for Malmgren in Cape May County.
Melli said Malmgren worked hard, putting in 60 to 70 hours of work a week as an assistant store manager at Wawa in Lower Township. She asked that Malmgren’s parents, who she said are in bad health, be left alone.
The families of Lazicki and Dauber were not in court Thursday, but Lazicki’s parents again returned to the roadside memorial where the accident happened across the street from the Green Creek firehouse.
Lazicki’s mother, Christina Lazicki Gaston, said she plans to start a fund to build a sidewalk along the road there and call it “Nioami and Ashley Way.”
“They say a walkway’s too expensive, but losing a child ...,” she said, trailing off as she spoke and looking away.
A row of orange cones lines the shoulder there now, and on Thursday, many drivers came around the curve heading east on the road, as police said Malmgren was, and slammed on their breaks when they saw the markers.
“That’s why I moved the cones out,” Lazicki Gaston said.
The memorial there has grown in size since Wednesday morning, when friends and family of the girls started visiting the site to cry and console each other.
By Thursday afternoon it was filled with flowers, stuffed animals and hardened candle wax from the vigil held there late Wednesday night.
“People were saying it was a hundred of us, but I bet it was more than a hundred,” said Karen Sanchez, whose daughters went to school with Nioami Lazicki.
As Sanchez spoke, several girls who knew Lazicki looked in the thick underbrush around the memorial for the girl’s glasses.
“They’ve really pulled together to comfort each other,” said Sanchez, of Cape May Court House. “They’re really nasty to each other in the schools down here, but last night they all came together. ... They just learned a tough lesson too young in life.”
Dauber, Lazicki’s cousin, is from Philadelphia but was visiting for the week. Her former assistant principal at Austin Meehan Middle School, where she would have been in eighth grade this fall, said the school plans to have guidance counselors ready when students return to class.
“She was very pleasant and popular with her classmates,” said Gregory Hailey, who is now principal at Ben Franklin High School in Philadelphia. “She was always smiling ... just a normal teenage girl.”
To remember the victims
A candlelight vigil will be held 8 p.m. Monday on Wildwood Beach at Magnolia Avenue for Nioami Lazicki, 15, and Ashley Dauber, 13.
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