MAYS LANDING — A Somers Point man was reckless when he sped down Shore Road drunk in 2011, crashing his car and killing his passenger, a jury found Tuesday.

Antonio Vargas, then 21, had already lost his license six times when he crashed into the front of Gregory's Restaurant and Bar just before 1 a.m. Jan. 6, 2011.

After four hours of deliberations, a jury found him guilty Tuesday of eight criminal counts, including vehicular homicide, aggravated manslaughter and three counts of assault by auto.

Vargas shook his head slightly as the first guilty verdict was read. A few supporters began to cry softly.

Vargas and friend Kevin Botta, 33, had been drinking at the bar Jan. 5, 2011, when they decided to take a trip to the nearby Wawa to get cigarettes and so Vargas could show off his new “10 second car,” so named because the car can go a quarter-mile in less than 10 seconds.

On the way back, Vargas stopped at a red light at New York Avenue — about a quarter-mile from the bar. When it turned green, he sped off, witnesses said. He hit the curb, a lightpole and a pickup truck, dislodging a fire hydrant and then crashing into the front door of the Somers Point bar.

Another friend, Joseph Higbee, was outside and suffered serious injuries when he was struck by the hydrant. Two others also were hurt.

An expert put Vargas’ blood-alcohol content at .14 at the time of the crash, well above the .08 that defines intoxication.

Defense attorney Lou Barbone tried to raise doubts about who may have been driving that night, saying three minutes were unaccounted for between when Wawa surveillance video showed Vargas getting behind the wheel of the car and when it crashed.

In that time, the two men could have traded places, he alleged.

A civil suit Vargas filed against Botta's estate makes the same claim.

But acting First Assistant Diane Ruberton showed that only 55 seconds ticked by on the video between when the car was seen leaving the Wawa parking lot and when the lights in that area went out — a result of the car crashing into the pole at Gregory's.

The time difference, she pointed out, was a three-minute discrepancy between the Wawa time stamp — which showed 12:55 a.m. at the time the lights went out — and the time on the police and emergency responder reports, which had the crash happening at 12:58 a.m.

Botta's family and friends left the courtroom without comment, hugging and thanking Ruberton in the hallway.

Vargas is scheduled to be sentenced July 31. At that time, he will face a possible 10- to 30-year prison term for the aggravated manslaughter charge alone. Vehicular homicide and aggravated assault — for the injuries to Higbee — each carries five to 10 years in prison.

Superior Court Judge Max Baker also will decide on several outstanding traffic violations, including driving while intoxicated and reckless driving.

After seeing all the evidence and hearing the testimony at trial, Baker said he planned to find Vargas guilty on all charges.

Contact Lynda Cohen:


Follow Lynda Cohen on Twitter @LyndaCohen

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