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Cops: Driver Who Killed 7-Year-Old Girl in Astoria is Collared

5:35 PM EDT on May 9, 2023

The intersection where Dolma Naadhum, 7, (inset) was killed by a driver on Feb. 17. File image

Police on Tuesday morning arrested the woman they say fatally struck a 7-year-old girl in Astoria with her car in February, charging the motorist with criminally negligent homicide, a felony that carries a top jail sentence of four years.

Cops cuffed Claudia Mendez-Vasquez, 46, within the 105th Precinct at the eastern edge of Queens, even though she lives in Maspeth and the crash was in Astoria, and law enforcement officials did not immediately provide more details about an arrest nearly three months after the fatal collision.

According to police, Mendez-Vasquez drove her SUV into Dolma Naadhun as the girl was crossing at the intersection of Newtown Road and 45th Street in the western Queens neighborhood on Feb. 17.

After the deadly crash, the motorist had stayed at the scene while medics took Dolma to Elmhurst Hospital where she died from severe head trauma.

Police also charged Mendez-Vasquez with a license restriction violation, failing to stop at a stop sign, failing to exercise due care, and reckless driving. Spokespeople for the NYPD and Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz did not have more specifics available on her license violation.

Grieving dad Tsering Wangdu at a recent rally.
Grieving dad Tsering Wangdu at a recent rally.

Mendez-Vasquez was arraigned at Queens Supreme Court on Tuesday and pleaded not guilty to the charges, according to court records. Criminally negligent homicide is rarely charged in fatal crashes, as police and prosecutors typically rely on misdemeanors or mere violations, if there are charges at all. Criminally negligent homicide is the lowest-level felony.

The intersection was dangerous due to drivers blocking visibility by parking close to or even in the crosswalks. State law says all intersections must be clear of cars within 20 feet, a design guideline known as daylighting, but the city exempts itself from that requirement.

In the days after the crash, the Department of Transportation painted missing sections of the crosswalk that they had left unfinished, and added "No standing anytime signs" near the crossing to keep it clear of cars.

Dolma's father, Tsering Wangdu, and local pols demanded the city install a traffic light at the intersection, which DOT agreed to do, along with setting up all-way stop signs one block over at 46th Street.

Some pols called for more dramatic changes to calm traffic in the area, citing the success of the nearby 34th Avenue open street, which has dramatically reduced crashes by banishing cars most of the day (see this interactive chart).

Dolma's father said he was concerned about the criminal case possibly separating the motorist's 12-year-old child from its parent, but that he would let officials do what they needed to, according to a friend of the family, Rebecca Van Kessel, who relayed his reaction to the arrest to Streetsblog.

The traffic light and the stop signs were in place by early this month, according to Van Kessel, who said they already made a big difference — but some drivers have been speeding up to make the light.

"The intersection is much improved, it’s not nearly so chaotic at rush hour from the traffic light," Van Kessel said. "It’s noticeable, although my neighbors also who live right there are also saying there is some speeding happening of people trying to race to make the red light, so maybe they can add a red light camera."

Locals recently raised money to dedicate a bench to Dolma at Astoria Heights Playground, just a two blocks away from where she died, according to Van Kessel.

At the driver's arraignment, Queens Supreme Court Judge Michael Aloise released Mendez-Vasquez and ordered her to return to court on June 20, according to court filings. Mendez-Vasquez's lawyer did not return a call from Streetsblog.

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