Crime

Miami defense lawyer clings to life after high-speed hit-and-run crash

Naphtali Hertz Wacks, a Miami Beach defense attorney, was seriously injured by a motorist.
Naphtali Hertz Wacks, a Miami Beach defense attorney, was seriously injured by a motorist. Facebook

A Miami Beach defense lawyer is clinging to life after police say a driver — speeding at over 100 mph — clipped the man’s car on the MacArthur Causeway in a hit-and-run crash.

Naphtali Hertz Wacks, 57, suffered broken ribs, a severed spine, collapsed lungs and paralysis in his legs early Tuesday morning when his car careened into a retaining wall, according to an arrest warrant. The warrant noted that Wacks was not expected to survive.

The driver, Elia Soto, 44, was arrested after police said he ditched his Nissan Armada near Miami’s criminal courthouse. He made his first appearance Thursday morning in bond court to face charges of leaving the scene of an accident involving serious bodily injury and reckless driving.

Soto was on federal probation for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. A Miami-Dade judge granted him a $30,000 bond. If he is able to post it, he must stay on house arrest with a GPS ankle monitor.

Colleagues at Miami’s criminal courthouse were stunned to hear about Wacks, who cut a distinct figure in the first-floor cafeteria, with bright copper-colored hair and a customarily rumpled gray suit, but few people in the building knew him well outside the courtroom.

Wacks, who ran a solo practice from his South Beach home, was a “brilliant writer’ who used to craft appellate briefs in criminal cases, recalled defense lawyer Albert Levin. “One of the nicest, sweetest guys you’ve ever met,” Levin said.

Former prosecutor Ergio Fernandez recalled trying cases against him in the early 2000s.

“He was always someone who struck me as really out of place in criminal court, where it’s dog-eat-dog and things can get very heated and nasty,” Fernandez said. “He was always so pleasant and kind and so mild mannered.”

Wacks was driving west, presumably to Miami’s criminal courthouse, at about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday when his car was hit.

According to an arrest warrant, Soto was behind the wheel of a rented black Nissan Armada that was captured on surveillance videos speeding “in a reckless manner.” Witnesses and detectives estimated he hit speeds of over 100 mph.

As the Nissan SUV weaved through causeway traffic, it changed lanes, hitting the back of Wacks’ Honda Civic at about 95 miles per hour. “The force of the crash was so significant” that the Civic was “propelled 368 feet” into the wall, according to a warrant by Miami Beach Detective Nick Guasto.

The Armada was ditched on the off-ramp of the Dolphin Expressway at Northwest 12th Avenue, just yards from Miami’s criminal justice complex. Soto lives nearby and investigators believe he walked home on foot.

Surveillance footage — taken from the office of the Miami-Dade’s state attorney — shows the bearded Soto ditching the SUV. Detectives also found surveillance video from just before the crash, showing Soto behind the wheel of the SUV on Ocean Drive, the warrant said.

An eyewitness also placed him driving the Nissan just before the crash, according to the warrant.

Soto surrendered Wednesday night at Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center. His defense lawyer in the previous federal case declined to comment because he yet to speak to Soto.

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