Driver in West Portal crash who killed family pleads not guilty

A 79-year-old woman pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of felony vehicular manslaughter related to a car crash that killed a family of four at a bus stop in San Francisco's West Portal neighborhood in March.

Mary Fong Lau remains free before trial. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kenneth Wine forbade her from driving, but refrained from putting her under house arrest as prosecutors requested. Lau has not driven since the crash, her defense attorney Sam Geller told the court.

With his hand on the small of her back, Geller urged Lau to speak more loudly to the yes and no questions at her arraignment. Cantonese is Lao's first language, but no interpreter was available during the arraignment. Lao waived that right.

Over a dozen supporters of Lau attended court Friday at San Francisco's Hall of Justice. Several surrounded the short woman in a group hug as she left the courtroom.

Just after noon on March 16, the crash killed Diego Cardoso de Oliveira and Matilde Ramos Pinto, their 2-year-old son Joaquin and infant Caue Ramos Pinto de Oliveira near Ulloa Street and Lenox Way. Lau sped in her 2014 Mercedez-Benz SUV at the time of the crash, according to both prosecutors and Geller.

After the arraignment, Geller said that the speeding was not habitual for Lau, who has lived in the neighborhood for over 50 years. He stated it was an isolated moment, that Lau was delivering lunch to her brother "when her car just took off."


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Geller added that he provided law enforcement with information about a similar sudden acceleration in New Jersey involving the same make, model and year of SUV. He did not provide documentation to support that claim by press time.

In a press conference on Tuesday, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said that the mechanical failure of the vehicle was not a factor in the crash.

"It just doesn't make any sense that this 79-year-old lady would be speeding through West Portal, it just doesn't add up," Geller said.

He continued that the collision traumatized Lau. Geller gave her a ride in his car earlier this week and she was visibly terrified to sit in his passenger seat, he said.   Geller maintained that Lau has led a "straight-edge life" with no record of tickets for speeding, parking tickets nor accidents.

In discussing the fatal collision, Geller said it was an unspeakable tragedy but accidental. He said that community pressure has escalated the crash into a criminal matter, continuing that it was a natural reaction and that he respects the grief of loved ones.

"No matter what happens behind these doors," Geller said in the courtroom hallway. "It's not going to bring anybody back."  

The judge permitted the out-of-state family of the victims to attend future court appointments via video conference. He set a pretrial conference date for Oct. 10.

Geller said outside of the courtroom that they would need that time to conduct their own investigation and work through the evidence that the District Attorney's Office has compiled. He estimates the documents and video footage add up to over one terabyte.