The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

July 30, 2011

Michelle L. Knapp found guilty on all four counts against her

Convicted of vehicular homicide in death of Melanie Moretti

JEFFERSON — Geneva accountant Michelle L. Knapp was found guilty of two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide Friday in the hit-and-run killing of 15-year-old Melanie Moretti.

Knapp, the only witness called to testify Friday, was also found guilty of operating a vehicle while impaired and failure to stop at the scene of an accident.

Knapp, 48, showed little emotion throughout the four-day trial, shedding a tear Friday only at the mention of her deceased mother. She never mentioned Moretti, the victim, by name, instead referring to Moretti as “the decedent” and “the object.”

“I remember hitting something, and it made a little bump,” she said. “I didn’t stop my car. I thought I hit a mailbox maybe.”

Knapp hit and killed Moretti with her sport utility vehicle while driving down Fargo Drive in Ashtabula Township on Dec. 12, 2009, after having drinks at Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar in the township. Knapp left the crash scene and turned herself in, two days later, amid a concerted search by the Ohio State Highway Patrol and other area law-enforcement authorities.

Knapp faces as many as 22 years in jail, according to the Ohio Revised Code: eight years for each count of aggravated vehicular homicide, one year for OVI, and five years for leaving the scene of a fatal crash. Each aggravated vehicular homicide charge also carries a maximum fine of $15,000.

Ashtabula County Prosecutor Thomas Sartini grilled Knapp on when she learned of Moretti’s death, noting that Knapp’s brothers had told her about the crash three times before she turned herself in two days later.

Defense attorney William Bobulsky asked his client why she went to the police to give a statement.

“Because I had to,” she said.

Knapp testified that she had one and a half Great Lakes Christmas ales on Dec. 12, 2009, the day she struck and killed Moretti. The bar tab and sales receipt show Knapp, along with her brother and his girlfriend, were served 11 of the 23-ounce beverages, which are 7.5 percent alcohol by volume.

Knapp also said she looked in her rear-view mirror after she hit “the object in the road” but didn’t see anything.

“Did you see a young boy waving his arms and screaming?” Sartini asked her, referring to then-15-year-old Nicholas Magda, who was walking with Moretti when she died.

Sartini also took Knapp to task over her statement to OHP troopers in which she indicated she had had “about three beers” on the night of the crash. Her brother and his girlfriend also gave similar statements to troopers but then testified Knapp had had fewer than two drinks that night.

In his closing arguments, Sartini told the jury Knapp’s lack of remorse was “almost insulting.”

“I would defy anyone,” Sartini said as he showed the jury photographs of Knapp’s damaged sport utility vehicle. “Who can say they didn’t know they hit something when that something does this kind of damage to a car? Who would think this is no big deal?

“It is almost insulting for (Knapp) to say Melanie Moretti was just a ‘bump,’ especially because (Moretti’s) body flew up over the hood of her vehicle,” he said.

Bobulsky said Knapp was in “an impossible situation” but dutifully turned herself in and answered “every question posed to her.”

In the prosecution’s rebuttal argument, assistant prosecutor Cecilia Cooper focused on the details of the case, including Knapp’s sloppy signature after drinking Christmas ales at Buffalo Wild Wings as compared to her neat script on a sales receipt earlier in the day.

Cooper also said Knapp dialed in-vehicle support-service OnStar by GM to see whether the service could pinpoint her vehicle at the time of the crash.

“When (Knapp) took the stand today, she gave you every excuse she had,” Cooper told the jury. “She told you lies that you don’t have to believe. What you didn’t hear from Michelle Knapp was ‘Oh, my God, I hit Melanie Moretti.’”

After two hours of deliberation, the 12-person jury — six men and six women — found Knapp guilty of all charges. She is to report to the adult probation office Monday, Judge Alfred Mackey said, but was not held in jail until her sentencing. She left the courthouse with her family immediately after the trial.

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