A 21-year-old man who drove 115 mph down River Road in Bethesda before slamming into a car carrying a family of four was sentenced to 12 years in prison Friday for the tragic crash that killed three members of the family.
“You took a huge risk, a selfish, almost sociopathic risk,” Montgomery County Circuit Judge Mary Beth McCormick told the driver, Ogulcan Atakoglu.
She noted how River Road has traffic lights and intersections. McCormick said she had never heard of such speeds on such a road, with a speed limit of 45 mph.
“It’s just beyond any thought that anybody would travel that speed,” she said.
Citing Atakoglu’s poor driving record and past speeding infractions, the judge sentenced him to three four-year terms for the deaths of Michael Buarque de Macedo, a father; Alessandra Buarque de Macedo, a mother; and their 18-year-old son, Thomas.
The fourth family member, Helena, who had been best friends with her brother, was critically injured but survived. She has returned to high school and is being raised by extended family members.
Sometimes, the teenager tells them she just wants to go home.
“What do you mean by home?” one of her uncles will ask, according to remarks he made in court Friday.
“I want to go back to my house in Bethesda with my parents and my brother before this happened,” Helena will say, according to the uncle, Pedro Steven Buarque de Macedo.
The night of Feb. 27, Helena stepped into the back seat of her family’s Chevrolet Volt. Next to her was her mother. In the front passenger seat was Thomas, known as Tommy. Behind the wheel, her father, known as Mickey.
They headed to a play at Walt Whitman High School, where Helena and Tommy were students. At the corner of River Road and Braeburn Parkway, Mickey began to turn left – across River Road.
Atakoglu was coming from the other direction – alone in a turbocharged BMW leased by his father – having just picked up Chinese food for his family. His speed, 115 mph, had him covering about half the length of a football field every second. The BMW slammed into the side of the Volt.
Speaking in court Friday, Pedro Buarque de Macedo, said after the crash, he quickly went to the hospital to see Helena, who fell into a coma. A neurologist, he knew how grave her condition was. “She’s not going to make it,” a doctor friend told him.
But Helena did, waking a week later to three uncles standing above her – instead of her parents. “You can imagine how that conversation went,” Pedro Buarque de Macedo said.
Another uncle, Charles Buarque de Macedo, also spoke in court, recalling what Helena told him as she recovered in the hospital: “Don’t leave me alone. Please stay with me for the night. I don’t want to be alone.”
The family spoke warmly about the three who perished.
Tommy was a brilliant student at Whitman, who’d been accepted to engineering school at Georgia Tech. Mickey and Alessandra ran a tax software company from their home – he writing algorithms, she handling the business end.
Atakoglu’s parents addressed the court Friday, speaking emotionally about their only child, about the girl whose family he took away, and about the three who died.
“What a beautiful family, just vanished like that,” said Atakoglu’s mother, Tulin, crying in court. “My family, my husband, my son. We are broke. We are shattered … I will pray for Helena until my last breath.”
Like Tulin, Atakoglu’s father Fahir – an accomplished jazz pianist and composer from Turkey – spoke about his son’s kind nature. “He is my everything,” Fahir Atakoglu said.
Ogulcan Atakoglu also spoke, telling the judge about how young drivers often ignore risks.
“I was indeed once that kid who felt invincible, living in a bubble, and never thinking that my actions could result in such a tremendous tragedy,” he said through tears.
In August, he pleaded guilty to three counts of vehicular manslaughter – a crime defined by gross negligence rather than intended harm. Because each count carried a maximum of 10 years, Atakoglu had faced up to 30 years. State sentencing guidelines, while not binding, had called for a range of several months to 12 years.
Atakoglu will probably not serve the full 12 years. He could be released earlier for good behavior and for participating in prison programs.
And because Maryland parole rules classify vehicular manslaughter as a nonviolent offense, he also will become eligible for parole consideration after serving 25 percent of his sentence.
Prosecutor Christina Rodriguez had sought a “substantial” period of incarceration for Atakoglu. Defense lawyer David Felsen had sought considerably less. “This was a much harsher sentence than we had argued for,” Felsen said. “Ogulcan remains deeply remorseful.”
But the judge said she was disturbed by Atakoglu’s history of speeding.
“When were you going to wake up?” she said to him.
In sentencing Atakoglu at the top of state guidelines but below the maximum penalty, McCormick said she was trying to strike a balance.
“I am convinced that you have remorse, significant remorse,” she told him. “And I’m not interested in ruining yet another family.”