REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – An 18-year-old Redwood City woman suspected of causing a highway crash that killed royal members of the tiny island nation of Tonga, pleaded not guilty Friday to three felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

Edith Delgado was arraigned Friday afternoon in San Mateo County Superior Court, in a minutes-long hearing. Delgado’s family left the courtroom in tears, after Judge Thomas Smith raised her bail without explanation from $300,000 to $3 million.

A bail hearing is scheduled July 13 and her preliminary hearing is scheduled July 20th.

Prosecutors say Tongan Prince Tu’ipelehake, 55, and his wife, Princess Kaimana, 45, were heading north on Highway 101 just before 9 p.m. Wednesday when Delgado sped past in a white 1998 Ford Mustang. While changing lanes north of Willow Road, Delgado allegedly clipped the driver side of the red 1998 Ford Explorer in which the royal couple were riding.

The California Highway Patrol said Delgado was driving up to 100 mph and may have been racing a black Cadillac Escalade.

The death of the prince and his wife plunged the small, but tight-knit Tongan community in the Bay Area into mourning.

By Friday morning, an impromptu shrine had appeared on the side of the highway where the royal couple were killed. Several mourners gathered at the spot, and a Tongan church in East Palo Alto announced plans for a memorial service Friday night.

The collision caused the Explorer to swerve out of control, roll several times and land on its roof in the right shoulder of the highway. The royal couple and their driver, Vinisia Hefa, 36, of East Palo Alto, Calif., were dead when rescuers arrived.

The Menlo Park Fire Department said all three were wearing seatbelts but appeared to have suffered massive head injuries.

The San Mateo County Coroner’s Office has not yet determined the exact cause of their deaths.

Delgado stopped at the scene and was arrested on suspicion of three felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and a count of illegal speed contest.

California Highway Patrol spokesman Ricky Franklin said Friday that authorities still were seeking information on the black Cadillac SUV, which witnesses said had “spinner-type rims.”

Prince Tu’ipelehake, a nephew of 88-year-old Tongan King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, was a leading advocate for democratic reforms in the tiny island nation. The prince was said to be popular both at home and with Tongan expatriates abroad.

About 8,200 Tongans call the Bay Area home, according to the 2000 Census. The Tongan government keeps a 6,000-square-foot mansion in Hillsborough, Calif.

Heilala Ahio, Tongan minister at First United Tongan Church in Palo Alto, said Friday the local congregation was “very sad, very devastated,” by the tragedy. She said her church was in the process of planning a memorial event.

“We as the Tongan people accept death – it’s part of life,” Ahio said. “But the way it happened was tragic. It shocked the whole congregation, the way the prince and princess died. People are praying, and their prayers are with the royal family.”

The prince’s older sister also is visiting the Bay Area, and attended a service Thursday night at a San Bruno church. The prince had been scheduled to speak there that night, but instead the gathering became a memorial where local Tongans shared their grief and showed their support.



(c) 2006, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-07-06 1934EDT



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