Hit-and-run driver gets 3 years in prison, faces deportation

NEWARK -- The man who struck and killed a Verona artist and longtime business owner was sentenced to three years in prison Friday and could be deported for being in the country illegally.  Jose Asencio, 44, a Guatemalan national, admitted he...

Hit-and-run driver gets 3 years in prison, faces deportation

NEWARK -- The man who struck and killed a Verona artist and longtime business owner was sentenced to three years in prison Friday and could be deported for being in the country illegally. 

Jose Asencio, 44, a Guatemalan national, admitted he fled the scene after fatally hitting Matthew BeneduceMcGrath, 59, near his shop on Bloomfield Avenue on June 24. Asencio previously pleaded guilty to a second degree charge of leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident that resulted in death. 

Asencio, who has remained in custody since his July arrest, stood handcuffed and silent in court as Superior Court Judge Siobhan Teare told him she had received several "heartfelt" letters from the community attesting to his good character and deep Christian faith. 

Jose A. Asencio, 44 (Photo: Essex County Prosecutor's Office) Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com 

"This is a very tough matter to review," Teare said. "Sometimes a lapse of judgment ... can pay a dear price."

Teare said though Asencio had no prior criminal record, "an individual's life has also been taken." She sentenced him to three years in prison; he is eligible for parole after nine months and will receive credit for the 227 days he's spent in jail.

Asencio's lawyer, Jonathan Kessous of Garces, Grabler & LeBrocq, asked the judge to consider a lower sentence to allow immigration authorities to get involved sooner. Otherwise, Asencio could be "compelled to serve significantly longer than what the sentence calls for," Kessous said, citing the backlog in immigration court and a new federal directive widening the net of those targeted for deportation

"His biggest mistake was not raising his hand and saying he was the man," Kessous said, adding that Asencio returned to the scene to make sure BeneduceMcGrath was receiving help but did not tell authorities he was the driver

Kessous said the whole situation was tragic and an accident. "Everybody lost in this one," he said.  

Tara Creegan, assistant prosecutor in the case, said Asencio did not call 911 or turn himself into police. "This man did not identify himself, that is where the crime is," Creegan said.  

Creegen said a three-year sentence was a negotiated plea and one that had been approved by BeneduceMcGrath's family. She read a letter from BeneduceMcGrath's wife, Gloria BeneduceMcGrath, who she said was "too shocked" to come.

"The emotional pain lives with me every day," the letter said. "I understand what happened was an accident ... He made a big mistake by leaving another human being to die." 

Matthew BeneduceMcGrath owned Benegrathic Sign Design on Bloomfield Avenue and was known for creating hand crafted signs used at parks around the area. The Indiana-native was married for 32-years and lived in Verona for nearly 30 years.

Asencio, of Newark, worked as a painter for the last 15 years and served as a deacon at Iglesia Mision Cristiana Church in Orange. 

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a detainer request to keep Asencio in custody while his immigration case proceeds but he has yet to appear before an immigration judge, his attorney said. 

"I'm very sorry for these circumstances," Teare told Asencio through a Spanish interpreter. "May you find some peace."

Karen Yi may be reached at kyi@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @karen_yi or on Facebook

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