A Carbon County man pleaded guilty Tuesday to homicide by vehicle for the March death of a 47-year-old jogger.
Donald Vito, 55, of Lehighton, told Lehigh County Judge James Anthony that he dozed off moments before swerving across Route 873 in Washington Township and striking Angela Pope, a wife and mother from North Whitehall Township.
Vito said prescribed medication he takes for mental illness makes him sleepy and that he doesn’t remember much about the fatal wreck. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety, defense attorney Matthew J. Rapa said.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Renee Smith said Vito was driving a Kia Rio south on Route 873 as Pope ran the same direction on the northbound traffic lane shoulder shortly before noon March 12. Vito was speeding and tailgating a Jeep Wrangler when he suddenly crossed the double yellow line and the northbound traffic lane, hitting Pope from behind and then a utility pole near Phillips Road, she said.
Pope, an avid runner, died at the scene from multiple blunt force trauma suffered in the crash, according to the county coroner, who ruled her death a homicide.
Vito was on his way to The Mitchell Center, a psychiatric clinic in Emmaus, when the crash occurred, he said. The defendant remembered feeling drowsy before crossing the double yellow lines, but said he has no recollection of the wreck.
When he came to, his car was sitting in a grassy area near Route 873 and blood was gushing from his nose, Vito said. “I don’t remember hitting Mrs. Pope at all…I dozed off,” he said.
Other motorists on Route 873 that day told authorities Vito was driving erratically, speeding and tailgating the Wrangler before he crashed, Smith said. A motorist who was driving south behind Vito said he slowed down because he feared the Rio was about to rear-end the Wrangler, she said.
Initially, that witness thought Vito was attempting to pass the Wrangler when he crossed the double yellow line, Smith said. Another witness told authorities she saw the Rio strike Pope in her rear-view mirror, the prosecutor said.
Vito said he doesn’t remember driving erratically or tailgating anyone, but estimated he was going 45 to 50 mph when he hit Pope. The speed limit on that stretch of Route 873 is 35 mph.
Smith said investigators were unable to determine how fast Vito was driving, but noted that multiple witness accounts indicate he was speeding. She said authorities can’t prove that Vito’s medication played a role in the crash.
In addition to homicide by vehicle, Vito pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and the summary offenses of leaving his lane of travel, following too closely, driving at an unsafe speed, careless driving and reckless driving. His sentencing is scheduled Jan. 20 before Anthony.
Three of Pope’s family members attended Tuesday’s plea hearing. They declined comment after the proceeding.
Vito’s sentencing is scheduled Jan. 20. Charged in May, he remains in county jail in lieu of 10 percent of $100,000 bail.