In the early morning hours of July 8, Alisha Cutler was driving home northbound on I-95 after her shift in the police communications department when she saw a motorcycle approaching in her rear-view mirror.
She checked her odometer, saw she was speeding and moved out of the passing lane with the hopes of averting a ticket.
“He just gave me a nice grin and a nod,” she testified in Municipal Court on Wednesday morning about Officer Brian Lorenzo, who was on the motorcycle that proceeded past her once she decelerated from 70 miles an hour.
What she saw was likely the last grin and nod of the 48-year-old highway patrol officer’s life.
A violent, fatal wreck
Within moments, Cutler said she heard a loud “boom” which she would quickly learn was Lorenzo’s motorcycle slamming head first into a sedan driving the wrong way on I-95 a half mile south of the Cottman Avenue exit.
John Leck Jr., the driver of that other vehicle which left a police motorcycle a fiery ball of wreckage, was allegedly drunk at the time that he drove the wrong way onto the highway, having missed numerous do-not-enter signs along more than a half-mile span.
He was held for trial without bail after Wednesday’s preliminary hearing, the gruesome nature of which left Lorenzo’s survivors in tears as police officers lined the walls and filled many seats in Courtroom 306.
While Cutler did not see the collision, she testified that she saw the immediate aftermath, which prompted her to call 911.
“The motorcycle was on fire,” she noted in testimony that was backed up by footage recorded from inside a State Police cruiser. The body of Lorenzo, a 23-year veteran of the force with three children, was about “40 or 50 feet away. One leg was not attached to the body. I just stood there shaking. I couldn’t do more than that.”
Leck, 48, from Levittown, sat at the defense table in an orange prison jumpsuit while Cutler recounted her memories of the tragic night. In a leg brace and with pins in his injured arm, he was reportedly heavily medicated for the hearing.
Also testifying were state police Troopers Brendan Connor and Charles Burckhardt.
Connor and his partner had another car stopped a bit farther north on the highway when the “officer down” call came over police radio. They rushed to the scene.
He saw Lorenzo’s body and quickly covered him with a fire blanket before approaching Leck who he said “was grasping the car [and] wouldn’t let go” despite the engine being on fire.
He also testified that he detected a “strong odor of alcohol” from Leck, who had glassy eyes, no balance, slurred speech and mentioned he had a foot injury. Blood taken from the suspect at Aria Torresdale Hospital shortly thereafter registered a .218 blood alcohol content (BAC).
“He didn’t answer when I asked if he was drunk,” Connor testified.
Accident reconstruction efforts
Burckhardt was not on duty that night, but was called to the scene to perform collision analyses. It was during his testimony that photographs and video of the mangled vehicle and motorcycle were presented.
At one point, Connor is shown placing a second blanket over Lorenzo’s body. His motorcycle is fully engulfed in flames, with smoke billowing into the southbound lanes, while Leck is shown leaning against his car.
“It looked like a bomb went off on I-95,” Burckhardt said, detailing how the officer’s blood was found on the hood of Leck’s car, and his bullets, helmet, Highway Patrol pin, handcuffs and other personal effects were strewn across a 255-foot area surrounding the point of impact.
The accident reconstruction specialist said the only skid mark from the police motorcycle started when Leck’s car pushed it northbound while the officer flew in the opposite direction.
“The force of impact ripped Officer Lorenzo out of his boots,” the trooper testified, clinically detailing the physics of a 4,300-pound car crashing into an 1,100-pound motorcycle when each is traveling in the mid- to upper-sixties. “The vehicles become a high-speed guillotine.”
Failed attempt to dismiss murder charges
Leck’s attorney, Michael Parlow, asked Judge Teresa Carr Deni to dismiss the third-degree murder and aggravated assault charges filed against this client as there was no evidence that he intended to kill Lorenzo, whose family sat near the front of the courtroom.
He maintained that both he and his client understood severity of the case, and sympathize for the victim. Leck “was really drunk, got on 95 the wrong way and unfortunately caused the death of Officer Lorenzo” in a non-premeditated accident, the attorney stated.
Siding with Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coehlo, Deni held Leck for trial on all charges and set an Oct. 17 arraignment date.
Outside the courthouse, Lorenzo’s family was escorted to a waiting van by police officers and did not comment on the hearing.
James Binns, the attorney representing them in civil action, said an ongoing investigation is trying to determine who served Leck alcohol, besides a TGI Friday’s in Bensalem, in the hours before the fatal collision.
“In my 27 years on the job, I never heard anything as chilling as that [testimony] and what Brian went through in his last minutes of life,” said John McNesby, president of FOP Lodge 5, the police officers’ union, about the hearing. “You saw the [crash] unfold before your eyes.”