Amir Pelleg, a hard-working real estate lawyer, relished moments with his wife and two daughters — including strolls to a park near their Sunny Isles Beach condo.
But during one of those walks in July 2018, a van suddenly veered off Collins Avenue and plowed into the young family.
Pelleg, 34, died immediately. His wife, Zulma, suffered a traumatic brain injury. His two daughters, now ages 4 and 8, also were injured and today struggle to cope with their dad’s death. “Daddy died because he wanted to take me to the park,” one girl recently told her mother.
Zulma Pelleg tried to soothe her daughter. No, she said, it was someone on drugs.
That person, Joseph Franco, 28, who drove his 4,000-pound Honda Odyssey van into the family, pleaded guilty Wednesday and agreed to spend three years in prison, and five on probation.
“Inside, I’m destroyed and I will always be destroyed,” Zulma Pelleg told a judge Wednesday as her husband’s teary family and friends packed into a Miami-Dade courtroom.
Franco pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide, three counts of reckless driving and unlawful possession of nitrous oxide.
He burst into tears — as did his family sitting in the courtroom gallery — as the hearing concluded.
“I know there is nothing I can do to make up for this terrible accident,” Franco said. “I know there is nothing I can do to bring you back. What I can do is to work to be a better person.”
He was led away in handcuffs. But the emotion of the day continued after the hearing.
In the hallway, there was a confrontation between Zulma Pelleg and a woman supporting Franco. As police officers separated the two, the two women grew more emotional, yelling repeatedly: “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
Investigators believed Franco inhaled canisters of nitrous oxide — also known as “whippets” — shortly before veering his van off Collins Avenue near 174th Street. After hitting the family, witnesses told police, Franco got out of the car while appearing to talk to someone on his phone, then dumped a duffel bag in a nearby garbage can.
Police officers discovered 12 used canisters of nitrous oxide, and nine more unused ones inside the bag. Franco was initially charged with tampering with evidence and distribution of nitrous oxide.
The cans were labeled “XXX Platinum Triple Refined Cream Chargers,” an adult-themed product ostensibly used to make whipped cream. “Ready for slathering,” according to the packaging of one box being sold online.
According to evidence in the case, the canisters had been purchased at a North Miami-Dade smoke shop the previous day. Investigators believe the product is used mostly for inhaling the gas, which gives users a euphoric jolt.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office charged Franco after sending some of the canisters to a specialized forensic lab in Texas, which confirmed they contained illegal amounts of nitrous oxide. His car’s black box showed he did not brake or even steer before he crashed.
Despite the guilty plea, Franco’s lawyer, Robert Reiff, insisted that his client veered off the road to avoid hitting someone on a bicycle who darted into the road. Prosecutors say there’s no witness or evidence to support that story.
An examination of the van’s electronic computer system showed Franco “never stepped on the brakes, and there is no evidence that he tried to steer away from hitting the Pellegs,” prosecutor Laura Adams wrote in her final memo on the case.
Reiff also said Franco was not high on nitrous oxide and blood tests proved it. “These allegations were proven to be untrue,” Reiff told reporters.
The State Attorney’s Office, however, said Franco appeared to be under the influence that day. And nitrous oxide wouldn’t have shown up in blood tests taken after the crash because “that drug/gas is so rapidly metabolized by the body,” the memo said.
“There was enough evidence to establish that the defendant was ‘huffing’ nitrous oxide while driving, and in the moments of the high he experienced afterwards, lost control of the car and hit the victims,” Adams wrote.
Pelleg, 34, was an attorney with Kayne Anderson Real Estate, and an active member of the Beth Torah Synagogue.
The case was not an easy one — the evidence of criminal wrongdoing was largely circumstantial. Still, Pelleg’s family blessed the plea deal of the three years in prison.
His relatives found Wednesday’s sentencing hearing difficult.
Pelleg’s father, Shimon Pelleg, lives in Israel and was too emotionally devastated to attend. His mother, Adrienne Pelleg, recalled learning about her son’s death while she was on a business trip in China. She spent 30 agonizing hours traveling back to Miami.
She said three years in prison wasn’t enough for Franco’s crime.
“It’s murder in my book,” Adrienne Pelleg told Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie. “Cold murder.”
Tears streamed down the face of Maia Pelleg, his sister, as she remembered their childhood going to camps, playing the piano and, later, attending law school at the same time.
“Our world is so broken. Joseph Franco broke it,” Maia Pelleg cried. “I live in a state of trauma. I’m tense. I’m in pain. It’s trauma. I loved my brother. He was a part of me. I have no peace.”