A Somers Point man convicted of vehicular homicide was sentenced to 29 years in prison Wednesday and will never drive legally again after a 2011 crash outside a local bar killed a father of two young girls.
“My father will never walk me down the aisle or threaten that little boy I go on my first date with,” Morgan Botta, 13, wrote in an impact statement read by a victim-witness advocate in court.
Antonio Vargas, 24, was convicted in June of eight criminal counts, including aggravated manslaughter and three counts of assault by auto in the crash outside Gregory’s Bar and Restaurant that killed Kevin Botta, 33, and injured three others. He must serve just more than 22 years before he is eligible for parole. With time served, he could be free by the time he is 44 years old, but he will not be able to get a driver’s license.
Vargas was not driving legally at the time of the fatal crash, having had his license suspended six times in just four years as a driver. He was told by judges 24 times not to drive, acting First Assistant Prosecutor Diane Ruberton told the judge.
“He gave no thought to the consequences,” Ruberton said, adding that the crash was avoidable. “To call this an accident is an outright lie.”
“I want my best friend back,” Morgan Botta wrote in her statement read by victim-witness advocate Jackie Simonson. “My daddy.”
In a school assignment, Erin Taylor Foster wrote about her uncle and the night police came to the door to tell her grandmother Carolyn Botta about the crash. She wrote of the older woman’s screams of “No” as the police officer said her son had not made it.
“The word ‘loss’ is a very small word that means a lot,” Carolyn Botta told the judge, struggling to hold back her tears. “The loss of my son has taken the life out of me.”
During Vargas’ trial, the defense questioned whether he was the one driving at the time of the crash, despite video surveillance at the nearby Wawa showing him getting behind the wheel shortly before the car struck a curb, lightpole and truck, and dislodged a fire hydrant that severely injured Joseph Higbee. The car then crashed into Gregory’s just before 1 a.m. Jan. 6, 2011.
Botta died at the scene.
A civil lawsuit Vargas filed against Botta’s estate charges the now-deceased man was driving.
That “goes beyond the definition of adding insult to injury,” Ruberton said.
A jury found Vargas was reckless and drunk when he drove Botta to the Wawa that night in his “10-second car” — so named because it can go a quarter-mile in less than 10 seconds. An expert put Vargas’ blood-alcohol content at 0.14 at the time of the crash, well above the 0.08 that defines intoxication.
“It was just a trip to Wawa, and it turned into a terrible night,” Vargas said as he addressed the family Wednesday. “I wish I could change this. I wish I could.”
He did not address who was driving the car.
It was the first time Vargas appeared serious in court, Superior Court Judge Max Baker said before imposing the sentence. He agreed with the victim impact statement of Botta’s sister, Michele Foster, who wrote that it was difficult to watch the defendant smile and smirk at friends during the trial as if he were at a party.
“Until today, Mr. Vargas did not take this seriously,” the judge said. “Today is his day of reckoning.”
There has been no show of remorse, Baker added: “What is surprising is that the defendant blames his friend as the cause of the crash.”
Botta had been the sole caregiver for his two daughters at the time of his death. His sister, also a single parent, said she and her brother had planned to grow old together and take care of their kids.
“I’m so angry that Tony took that from me,” Michele Foster wrote.
“He made me laugh and smile so big,” wrote Kevin Botta’s daughter Ryleigh Botta, now 9.
She said she thought she would have her father through eighth grade “or at least fourth grade.”
Contact Lynda Cohen:
Follow @LyndaCohen on Twitter