Karen Howard Gets Jail In Hit-and-run Justice Served, Victim's Family Says

Posted: September 30, 1999

Calling her actions despicable, a Camden County judge ordered the wife of a Philadelphia Eagles executive to jail yesterday for the hit-and-run accident that killed an Atco man.

For leaving the scene of the accident in which 29-year-old Robert Hoagland 2d was killed, and for disposing of evidence afterward, Karen Jill Howard, 36, of Marlton, was ordered to serve almost a year in a county jail. She may apply for parole in four months.

"You left Robert Hoagland on the side of the road as though he were roadkill," Superior Court Judge Louis F. Hornstine said in a courtroom packed with relatives and friends of the two families.

"You then returned home after the accident and had a substantial period of time to reflect upon what had transpired. The next choice you made was just as clear and just as despicable."

Saying his decision was not influenced either way by the notoriety of the case, the judge ordered Howard to serve 270 days in jail for fleeing, followed by 90 days for disposing of evidence. She also will remain on probation for five years and must pay $270 in fines, complete therapy, and lose her driving privileges for two years.

Until a tougher law was enacted in 1997, fleeing the scene of an accident warranted only a traffic citation and fine. Under the new law, Howard faced up to 6 1/2 years.

The judge's decision yesterday immediately separated Howard from her 5-year-old son, who recently started kindergarten. In a letter Howard wrote to the judge in June, she said the thought of leaving her son, whom she described as her best friend, would break her heart.

Her attorney asked that she be allowed to report to jail on Monday so she could prepare her son for the separation, a request the judge denied.

Upon sentencing, Howard appeared stunned and twice looked back toward her husband, Ron Howard, spokesman for the Eagles.

As she has done in previous court hearings, she maintained her composure. This time, however, sheriff's deputies pressed closer to take her into custody, though they did not handcuff her.

Once she got to an adjacent holding area, Howard "wept uncontrollably," said Teri Lodge, one of her lawyers.

Soon after his wife was gone, Ron Howard buried his head in his hands and cried.

Across the courtroom, Hoagland's family wept as they embraced one another and said justice had been served. Hoagland's mother, Florence Becker, cried in the arms of her husband, Jon, and then turned to her son's widow, Maureen Hoagland.

A procession of relatives and friends comforted the Beckers and Hoagland and cleared a path for them to leave the courtroom. Ron Howard remained, his head bowed; he was surrounded by relatives, including his wife's parents.

Afterward, outside the courthouse and surrounded by reporters, Ron Howard gave a brief statement. His hands shook, his voice quavered, and he paused occasionally to maintain control.

"I hoped that my wife would leave here today with her hand in mine," he said. "I now hope if there is something to be gained from this entire tragedy, it is that others not make the same mistakes that Karen has made."

The couple realized, Ron Howard said, that no one would leave the courtroom a winner.

"Karen must now honor the terms of her sentence," he said. "This is something our family must forever cope with."

On Oct. 11, 1998, Karen Howard and the Hoaglands were returning home after a Philadelphia Eagles game. Robert Hoagland pulled his Mustang to the side of Interstate 76 in Gloucester City, just over the Walt Whitman Bridge, to change a flat tire.

According to statements Karen Howard made in court, as she approached, she turned to look at her crying son in the back seat of her leased Ford Explorer, swerved toward the shoulder, and struck Hoagland.

She stopped briefly to see if he was OK, but fled when she learned that he was seriously injured. She admitted in court that after the accident she washed the Explorer and arranged to have the front-end damage repaired to get rid of evidence.

Investigators received a tip and traced the vehicle to Karen Howard.

Going into yesterday's hearing, Howard was facing a sentence that ranged from probation to 6 1/2 years. In a lengthy sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Howard's attorneys, Lodge and Carl D. Poplar, asked for probation. Camden County Prosecutor Lee A. Solomon called for a state sentence, saying three years in prison would be appropriate punishment.

After yesterday's sentencing, Solomon said he respected the judge's decision that the sentence would serve as a deterrent to others.

"Frankly, we wish we never had to put young mothers in jail for doing things like this," Solomon said. "The bottom line is, people have to be held accountable for their actions."

Under sentencing guidelines, the law called for probation because Howard does not have a previous criminal history.

However, judges may weigh aggravating factors such as disposing of evidence, whether a defendant is remorseful or likely to commit another crime, and whether there is a need for deterrence.

In sentencing Howard, the judge said he placed great weight on the need for deterrence. And, he said, he believed it was likely Howard would commit another crime based on the totality of her offenses in this case, which included disposing of evidence more than once and not being truthful with investigators.

"Some days, nothing seems right," Hornstine said. "Regardless of my decision, there are no winners, just losers."

He chastised those in the courtroom who applauded and exclaimed "Yesss!" as he ordered jail time. He warned that those who participated in additional outbursts would be ordered out of the courtroom.

He told Howard that what she did "defines your moral character" and that the case rested much on her own decisions.

"As you entered the local lanes of Route 76 that early evening, you struck and killed Robert Hoagland, leaving his body sprawled on the shoulder of the roadway before his horrified wife and numerous passersby," Hornstine said.

Had she stopped, Florence and Jon Becker said, they could have forgiven Howard. By leaving and never coming forward, she deserved jail, they said. The Beckers said they and Maureen Hoagland were satisfied with the sentence. Hoagland left the courthouse without commenting.

"I feel sorry that she has a child who is going to miss her, but I have a child who I miss," Florence Becker said. "Now we're going to go home, we're going to rest, and then we're going to stop at the cemetery."

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