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In the wind: How was illegal alien suspected in DWI crash allowed to jump bail?
Sunday, February 11, 2007
By Jim Six
and Jonathan Vit
Juan Luis Bautista had more than three strikes. He was in the United States illegally, he was drunk, he was speeding, and he crashed an SUV into another car, putting a 21-year-old woman into a coma.

Yet, he was able to walk away, unrestricted, several times twice on bail posted by others on his behalf and twice from unproductive court status hearings before skipping the country nearly three years ago.

Bautista, 25, is still at large.

Christina Applegate, 24, is still in a coma.


Everyone knew from the start that Bautista was an illegal.

Born in Puebla, Mexico, he was living with his mother and others in a duplex on Laurel Street in Bridgeton. He worked at The Plant Place, a landscaping service and nursery in Clayton.

On Sept. 16, 2003, after a hard day's work with two friends, Bautista had enough to drink to raise his blood alcohol content to .117, above the then-legal limit of .10.

Zooming down Delsea Drive at the wheel of a red 1994 Ford Explorer, Bautista reached the dangerous Franklinville intersection where traffic meets from five directions.

It was 6:20 p.m.

Christina Applegate was also done work for the day at the Wawa food market located at the intersection. She'd picked up some food to take to her husband, Jim,

who was working in Bridgeport.

She pulled out of the Wawa lot onto Route 47 and was making a left turn.

Bautista's SUV rocketed through the intersection and crashed into the passenger side of Applegate's white 1987 Ford Mustang.

Crushed and crumpled, the Mustang stopped just about where it was hit, a few feet from the Wawa sign at the point of the intersection, with Route 47 on one side and Porchtown Road on the other.

The Explorer went on to hit a traffic light pole. It rolled over and somehow landed on its wheels on the grassy lawn in front of the Franklinville Fire Co. a few yards away.

Investigators said the SUV was traveling at 73 mph in a 35 mph zone. There were no skid marks Bautista never hit the brakes.

Paramedics, stationed at the fire house, were already working on the critically injured Applegate when Ptl. Jim Rosiello arrived. She was airlifted to Cooper Medical Center in Camden.

The two passengers in the Explorer had less serious injuries. They were admitted to Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Washington Township.

Bautista sustained minor injuries. Because he smelled of alcohol, though, police had him taken to South Jersey Hospital in Elmer where a blood sample could be taken to determine his blood-alcohol content.

"We knew right away he was illegal," Ptl. Rosiello recalled. "He had a Mexican driver's license, and the pictures are never any good."

Police charged Bautista with three counts of assault by auto one for Applegate and two for Bautista's passengers.

Rosiello placed a call to Municipal Court Judge Charles J. Sprigman Jr., who set Bautista's bail at 10 percent of $10,000.

"I told the judge he was an illegal that he had no ID and we had no idea who he is, and the judge said there was only so much they can do, that the system doesn't allow them to do any more," said Rosiello.

Thanks to co-workers at The Plant Place, the $1,000 bail was posted that same night.

Bautista was freed.

In the days that followed, Christina Applegate's condition worsened. Meanwhile, police started to hear troubling talk from the street.

Bautista was planning to run, people said.

At The Plant Place, Bautista was still showing up for work but only till he could reimburse the friends who posted his bail.

"Once he paid them back, he'd be fleeing the country," said Rosiello, recalling his suspicions at the time.

"We told the Prosecutor's Office. We said The kid's still in a coma, he's going to take off. We need to charge him with a more serious offense,' " said Franklin Township Police Chief Michael DiGiorgio, who was a lieutenant at the time of the crash.

Bautista was charged with aggravated assault. Superior Court Judge Walter L. Marshall Jr. set bail at $35,000, cash or bond. (Contacted for this story, both Sprigman and Marshall said that they could not comment about a case.)

On Sept. 24, police arrested Bautista as he left work in Clayton. He spent the night in county jail. The next day, his mother signed over her house even though she only rented the place and didn't own it to a bail bond company.

Bautista was released.

"'They took a bond for the damned thing," DiGiorgio said. "His mother put up the house that she doesn't even own."

Throughout the next few months, status hearings opportunities for the prosecution and the defense to prepare the case and hammer out potential plea agreements were scheduled for March, April, May and June.

It appears that only two took place. Others were postponed for a variety of reasons, including the lack of an interpreter at least twice.

"We requested seven years in state prison, with him having to serve 85 percent" before being eligible for parole, said Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton.

By May, according to Christina Applegate's mother-in-law, Sue Applegate, authorities were beginning to suspect that Bautista had fled.

When the charges were upgraded, "The judge was told at the time that he was a known flight risk," she said.

According to the prosecutor, the purpose of bail is to make sure a defendant shows up for court. That's what it's meant for.

"When you have an illegal alien, there's an additional concern that they have already broken the law," said Dalton. "That makes the flight risk even greater."

Then, there's the matter of the injuries suffered by the victim.

Christina Applegate's injuries "were, in some ways, worse than a fatality," the prosecutor said.

"I guess from our standpoint, the court should be permitted to take into consideration the illegal status of a defendant when considering any bail requests," Dalton said. "Obviously, someone who comes to this country illegally shouldn't enjoy the same liberties as a U.S. citizen especially when they have been charged with a serious crime like this."


There's a sizable immigrant worker community in Bridgeton, in the neighborhood where Bautista used to live.

Bridgeton police Lt. Dan Mourning said that arresting an illegal immigrant always involves the potential for jumping bail.

That risk is not lessened by bail regulations, he said.

"If they get into serious enough trouble, there is always a risk of flight because they are here illegally anyway," said Mourning. "On our department Web site ... our Most Wanted list, most of them are Mexicans who are involved in some serious crime. They can flee to Mexico," the lieutenant said.

The Bridgeton police Web site lists four men.

All were born in Mexico.

All are wanted for homicide.

All are missing.


Christina Applegate worked at the Franklinville Wawa for two years before the crash. She made friends there.

At the store, they keep a plaque with Applegate's photo on the counter, a constant reminder of the tragedy that affects so many lives.

"It is heart-wrenching," said Sue Foster, a co-worker. "I think she got the worst-case scenario to be alive but not living."

Early on, Foster visited Applegate at the hospital with other co-workers. Often, she said.

Now, she rarely visits.

"It got hard to deal with your own life when you leave," she explained.

© 2007 Gloucester County Times
© 2007 All Rights Reserved.