ELIZABETH, New Jersey (WABC) --A man charged in a hit-and-run crash that killed an off-duty New York City police officer appeared in court Wednesday and pleaded not guilty to second-degree leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
William Espinal-Mejia, 35, is accused of fatally striking 25-year-old Officer Vincent Harrison with his SUV on the New Jersey Turnpike early Sunday. Police said he stopped for a moment but then drove off.
He was arrested and charged Monday after surrendering to authorities.
Harrison, of Valley Stream, was struck after a fender bender on the New Jersey Turnpike between Exit 13 and 14A in Elizabeth around 3 a.m. Now, disturbing new details are emerging about how the accident occurred.
Authorities say Harrison had rear ended a vehicle driven by a 26-year-old Rahway woman who was traveling southbound in the Turnpike's right center lane. Harrison got out of his vehicle and walked up to the other car, occupied by the woman in the driver's seat and her 2-year-old son in the back.
The two reportedly got into a verbal dispute, and sources say Harrison pulled his service weapon and pointed it at the woman, who was remained seated in her car. He allegedly yelled words to the effect of, "You don't know who I am" and "I can kill you right now" numerous times.
As Harrison backed away from the woman, he stepped into the Turnpike traffic lanes and was struck by a passing vehicle.
At this time, the female driver is being treated as a victim, and no charges are expected. The Union County Prosecutor's Office will only say that the incident remains under investigation.
Espinal-Mejia's lawyer argued that he had no malicious intent in fleeing the scene.
"It was just a very, very dangerous situation," attorney Victor Rotolo said. "He had his wife and cousin in the car. And he made the decision."
The judge ruled that bail would be kept at $100,000. He was given the 10 percent cash option. His attorneys were working to have him released as early as Wednesday, saying his wife and 11-year-old son need him at home.
"He didn't stay on the roadway, he left," assistant prosecutor Robert Rosenthal said. "He didn't pull over somewhere further down and make a phone call. He didn't get off the highway and make a phone call. He didn't drive to a police station and make a phone call."
Harrison's cousin, Drexel Berry, spoke to Eyewitness News about the family's loss.
"Genuinely nice guy," he said. "You didn't have to ask him for anything, because he was already giving it to you...Justice should be swift, because from what I can see, there's no reason that this should have happened."
Espinal-Mejia is due back in court on April 6.