A New Jersey man faces up to eight years in prison after he admitted Wednesday he took four times the recommended dose of the sleep aid Ambien before drifting into oncoming traffic and crashing into a school principal, killing him instantly.
Dennis Smentkowski of Tinton Falls pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Newark to involuntary manslaughter. The 46-year-old Smentkowski was retired from the Long Branch police force when the accident occurred. He is to be sentenced Jan. 24.
The crash occurred on military property near Fort Monmouth in 2008. The facility has since closed, but the federal courts have jurisdiction over the former Army land.
Smentkowski, who also was injured in the accident, told the judge he took four 12.5 milligram pills an hour before getting into his car that morning — four times the recommended dosage. He acknowledged causing the death of Donald Merce, principal of Little Silver's Markham Place School.
"Dennis deeply regrets that his conduct led to the death of Mr. Merce, and prays that the Merce family can in some way forgive him," Smentkowski's lawyer, Charles Uliano, told The Associated Press. "Every waking moment he has is a reminder of what occurred."
Smentkowski told Judge Joel Pisano he was driving his Ford Explorer near the east gate of Fort Monmouth at 7 a.m. on May 6, 2008, when he drove across a double-yellow line into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with a vehicle driven by Merce, 58, who was on his way to his job.
In court, Smentkowski acknowledged he consciously disregarded the substantial risk his conduct posed to the safety and lives of others by driving while impaired.
He also faces a fine of up to $250,000 when he is sentenced.