REDWOOD CITY, California – A teenage driver charged with killing two members of the Tongan royal family and their driver after slamming into their car pleaded not guilty Friday to vehicular manslaughter.
Edith Delgado, 18, of Redwood City, was held in lieu of $3 million (euro2.35 million) bail after her arraignment in San Mateo County Superior Court on manslaughter and speeding charges.
Delgado, who received her driver's license in February, was charged with killing Prince Tu'ipelehake, 56 and Princess Kaimana, 46, in the Wednesday night crash on Highway 101 in Menlo Park, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of San Francisco.
Vinisia Hefa, 36, of East Palo Alto, who was driving the red Ford Explorer carrying the prince and princess, also was killed, authorities said.
"This collision is extremely tragic," said Deputy District Attorney Karen Guidotti. "There was a loss of three innocent lives. They were just driving down the freeway minding their own business."
Defense attorney Randy Moore described Delgado as a hardworking honors student and bank teller who was not necessarily culpable for the accident.
"My client is very sorry she was involved in this. It remains to be determined whether she bears any criminal responsibility for what took place," Moore said. "Nobody has proven anything. There has only been accusations."
If convicted of the three manslaughter counts, Delgado faces up to eight years in prison, a prosecutor said.
Delgado was driving her Ford Mustang as fast as 100 mph (160 kph) while racing another vehicle when she crashed into the driver's side of Hefa's car, causing it to swerve across several lanes before rolling on its roof, said California Highway Patrol Officer Ricky Franklin.
Delgado was not injured in the crash.
The prince and princess had come to the U.S. to discuss political reforms for the South Pacific island nation with Tongan communities in the Bay Area and other parts of the country, according to Senter Uhilamoelangi, a distant relative and longtime friend of the prince who now lives in East Palo Alto and helped arrange the visit.
Tu'ipelehake is a nephew of 88-year-old King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, who owns a mansion in Hillsborough, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) south of San Francisco. He was the leading reformist in the royal family and headed a national committee studying democratic reforms for the kingdom.
"People are very much concerned, especially the people who are pushing for change," democracy movement leader 'Akilisi Pohiva said from the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa. "I think it's a great loss to the country."
Now the last monarchy in the Pacific, Tonga has been a Polynesian kingdom and a protectorate of Britain, from which it acquired independence in 1970.
The 170-island archipelago about halfway between Australia and Tahiti has a population of about 108,000 and an economy dependent on pumpkin and vanilla exports, fishing, foreign aid and remittances from Tongans abroad.
About 37,000 U.S. residents identified themselves as at least part Tongan in the 2000 Census; 15,000 of them live in California.
A small group of Bay Area Tongans showed up at Delgado's arraignment, but they were outnumbered by teenage friends of the defendant.
Near the crash site, Tongans set up a memorial Friday that included flowers, their country's flag and pieces of the wreckage.
Hefa's cousin, Tulu Musua Pongi, of East Palo Alto, placed flowers on the shrine Friday morning. She said Hefa worked as the royal couple's secretary in Tonga before emigrating to the U.S. three years ago and served as their driver when they came to the Bay Area.
Pongi described her cousin as a "very kind, caring" person who worked as a babysitter and sent money home to support her mother and sister. She said the tragic accident had left the community in shock.
"Everybody's feeling sad," said Pongi, 35. "They didn't expect this to happen. They're wondering what really happened that night."