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WITNESS IN FATAL CRASH TAKES 5TH AMENDMENT

The white sports car that struck and killed three teenagers on Niagara Falls Boulevard on Jan. 14 was "too fast" and was hard to control, driver Jeffrey W. Kramer's girlfriend told police at the scene of the accident.

Jillian M. Walkowiak, 26, now engaged to marry Kramer, broke down in sobs Thursday as she testified about the fatal accident during an unusual traffic court trial in Amherst Town Court.

But when prosecutors tried to question Walkowiak about her signed statement given to police minutes after the accident, she stunned courtroom observers by invoking her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, refusing even to acknowledge her signature.

Kramer, 26, formerly of Glenhaven Drive, is on trial before Justice Mark G. Farrell, charged with three noncriminal traffic infractions -- failing to use due care, imprudent speed and having illegally tinted car windows.

"It felt like the car was just spinning," Walkowiak told prosecutor John Michalski as she described how the white 1996 Pontiac Trans Am traveled out of control on Niagara Falls Boulevard near Hennepin Avenue.

Killed were 16-year-olds Christopher J. Rogalski and his girlfriend, Amy DiNatale, both of Amherst, and their friend Charlene Sewar of Lockport. A fourth youth, James McCabe, 17, of Amherst, was seriously injured.

The four were walking south on the east side of the boulevard at Hennepin Avenue when they were struck by a car going north. According to police, the teens were forced to walk in the road because of a heavy buildup of snow and ice on the sidewalks.

Kramer's attorney, Joseph M. La Tona, repeatedly attempted to establish that there were ice patches on the road that could have caused the car to skid. However, several police and prosecution witnesses testified the roadway was wet, not icy.

Walkowiak also balked three more times when Michalski asked if she told police that she didn't like riding in Kramer's car because it was "too fast," "too light" and could "fishtail too easily" if there were a strong wind.

Farrell ruled that Walkowiak, the second prosecution witness in the trial, could refuse to answer because she had not been granted immunity by prosecutors and could face future charges for any misstatements.

Standing by Walkowiak's side during the one-hour testimony was her defense attorney, Herbert L. Greenman.

Kramer, who resides with his fiancee in Cheektowaga, showed no emotion during her testimony.

No verdict is expected on the charges for at least a month. Farrell, who adjourned the case until Oct. 10, has indicated he will allow attorneys for both sides to submit their final arguments in writing once testimony is completed.

If found guilty, Kramer could be sentenced to up to 45 days in jail and fined up to $200, according to court officials.

According to Walkowiak, she and Kramer left her house in Cheektowaga at about 6:30 p.m., had dinner in a Maple Road restaurant and then stopped at a nearby grocery store before heading north on Niagara Falls Boulevard shortly after 9.

Walkowiak said Kramer drove north several miles in the right lane of Niagara Falls Boulevard to a location north of Ellicott Creek Road, where the Pontiac suddenly started swerving out of control.

"At first I thought we were going towards the (left), and then we went clockwise," she said.

Michalski then tried to ask the witness, "Do you recall seeing the pedestrians?," indicating the four teens who were walking alongside the road.

However, Walkowiak began sobbing at the question, and Farrell called a 10-minute recess.

Also in court were family members of the victims and lawyers representing them in what are expected to be civil damage trials.

Amherst Police Officers Thomas Thielman, one of the first to respond to the scene, and Melvin R. Creamer Jr., a senior accident investigator who also studied the crash site, also testified.

La Tona tried to question the officers about who submitted weather observations on the night of the fatal accident. One police report indicated there may have been ice patches on the road at the time. However, both officers testified that the road was wet, and they saw no ice.

Another witness, Clarence mechanic Dale Schmigel, said he was asked by police to inspect Kramer's car, which was impounded after the accident. Schmigel, who is certified to conduct state auto inspections, said that both front tires were worn and would not pass a state inspection, but that he observed no other violations.

The last witness of the day was Michael Moore, a senior investigator with the Amherst Police Department's accident investigation unit, who testified that his investigation showed a "quick acceleration" combined with the wet road conditions caused Kramer's car to fishtail.

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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