Upper Providence man faces prison for canal drowning deaths

Robert Hoffman walks toward District Judge Walter Gadzicki’s District Court in Limerick for his preliminary hearing Feb. 24, 2016.
Robert Hoffman walks toward District Judge Walter Gadzicki’s District Court in Limerick for his preliminary hearing Feb. 24, 2016. Digital First Media File Photo
Robert Hoffman walks into district court in Limerick on Feb. 24, 2016, for his preliminary hearing in connection with the death of two people.
Robert Hoffman walks into district court in Limerick on Feb. 24, 2016, for his preliminary hearing in connection with the death of two people. Digital First Media File Photo

NORRISTOWN >> An Upper Providence man is on his way to state prison after he admitted to engaging in reckless conduct that caused the deaths of two passengers in a vehicle he was operating when it ended up overturned in a township canal.

Robert Bruce Hoffman, 23, of the 800 block of Black Rock Road, was sentenced in Montgomery County Court on Thursday to 1½ to three years in state prison after he pleaded guilty to two counts of homicide by vehicle and one count of driving under the influence of a combination of alcohol and drugs in connection with the Oct. 5, 2015, incident at Lock 60 in the Schuylkill Canal Park.

Judge Thomas C. Branca, who accepted a plea agreement in the matter, also ordered Hoffman to complete four years’ probation following parole, meaning Hoffman will be under court supervision for about seven years.

Under the plea agreement Hoffman must report to prison on Aug. 11 to begin serving the sentence. Hoffman is prohibited from driving and using drugs or alcohol while waiting to begin his prison term, the judge said. Hoffman also must check-in on a regular basis with probation officials.

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Killed during the crash were Clinton Berger, 29, and Lauren Magargal, 25, who were passengers in the vehicle.

“He admitted to being the driver of the vehicle and that his driving was reckless or grossly negligent and that as a result led to the deaths of two people,” said county Assistant District Attorney Richard Bradbury Jr., explaining the nature of Hoffman’s guilty plea. “It’s an absolute tragedy.”

That reckless or grossly negligent conduct included that Hoffman did not have a valid driver’s license at the time and that he had alcohol, marijuana and clonazepam in his system at the time he was driving. Hoffman acted in an unsafe manner despite being aware that the canal was nearby, prosecutors alleged.

“And obviously the drugs and alcohol, we believe, played a role in influencing his decision-making to a certain extent,” Bradbury said.

Hoffman, who was represented by defense lawyer Carrie Allman, pleaded guilty just days before his jury trial was slated to begin. An emotional Hoffman expressed remorse and apologized to the victims’ families before learning his fate.

An investigation began about 11:34 p.m. when Upper Providence police responded to Lock 60 along the 400 block of Tow Path Road in the Mont Clare section of the township, for a report of a man screaming in the area. Police found Hoffman and Ronald Burns, another passenger of the car, at the entrance to the park.

“The subjects were frantically screaming that there was a car in the canal with a person possibly trapped inside,” county Detective David Schanes wrote in the arrest affidavit.

First responders found a 2007 Volkswagen Passat station wagon resting upside down in about four feet of water in the Lock 60 Park canal. Authorities found Berger unresponsive in the canal, outside the vehicle, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Magargal was trapped in the front passenger seat of the car when first responders arrived. According to the arrest affidavit, the car had to be towed out of the canal and the doors to the car had to be pried open before rescue workers could gain access to Magargal. She was also pronounced dead at the scene.

Autopsies conducted by the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office determined the victims died of drowning and the manners of death were ruled to be accident.

Hoffman told investigators at the scene that he had two shots of whiskey and smoked marijuana prior to the crash.

Blood tests revealed a blood-alcohol content of 0.035 percent, which was within the legal limit of 0.08 percent, and the presence of marijuana and clonazepam, a seizure medication, in Hoffman’s system, according to court papers. Clonazepam can cause drowsiness, sedation, impairment of judgment, confusion and disorientation, detectives alleged.

Hoffman also did not possess a driver’s license, detectives said.

Hoffman told detectives that the group had parked in a gravel pull-off area to “hang out.”

“We were all getting ready to leave and Lauren was drunk and didn’t want to back the car up,” Hoffman is quoted in the arrest affidavit as telling detectives. “I told her that I would back it out and then she would drive home.”

Burns, who had been sitting in the back seat of the car, told police, “I think in all honesty Robert just misjudged the turning…when he was backing out,” according to the arrest affidavit.

Detectives determined that as Hoffman backed up, the driver’s side of the vehicle started to slip down an embankment toward the canal and the car rolled onto its roof and landed in the canal. The car’s sunroof reportedly was open and it quickly filled with water.

The car sank in about four feet of water in the canal, detectives said.