04/17/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Under other circumstances, Heta Raythatha might have been excited to find herself in the same room as a movie star. But this was the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and Raythatha, 27, was on a stretcher awaiting treatment for injuries she had suffered in a 2:30 a.m. accident that left her 1996 Pontiac Sunfire a smoking wreck. "My whole body was in so much pain...I was in tears," remembers Raythatha of the Feb. 23 ordeal. Then she saw a famous actress—wearing—jeans, a tank top and a bandage on her forehead—pass by. Thought Raythatha, who at the time did not know who had hit her car: "Oh, that's Halle Berry
It wasn't until a few days later that the Santa Monica real estate agent and part-time accountant would learn there was anything more than coincidence to her ER sighting. Investigators told Raythatha that it was Berry, 33, who had driven a rented white Chevy Blazer through a red light before smashing into her car—and then taking off. On March 31 the actress was indicted on charges of leaving the scene of an accident, a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to a year in county jail and a $10,000 fine. (According to law-enforcement sources, a more serious felony count of hit-and-run was not pursued, mainly because Berry, who had been alone in her vehicle, ultimately reported the accident to police at the hospital when she turned up there to seek treatment.) "She is really eager to set the record straight," says Berry's publicist Allan Mayer of his client, who, on March 8, was slapped with a civil lawsuit by Raythatha for "gross negligence." "A lot of people...have come to believe terrible things about her—like this notion that she's some serial hit-and-run artist," he says.
Despite rumors that Berry had been involved in prior hit-and-runs, her only previous, confirmed accident appears to have been a February 1997 collision (after which no charges were tiled) just a block from the site of last February's crash. (The other driver, Kevin Ackerman, sued Berry, but the suit was later dismissed at his request.) That dismissal, however, doesn't convince Marisa Meola—who was driving about 15 ft. behind Raythatha's car when it collided with Berry's SUV—that the actress belongs behind the wheel. "It was a brutal, brutal car accident—that girl could have been dead," says Meola, 22, who adds that the D.A.'s office never contacted her during its investigation. "To drive away with blatant disregard? I'm extremely outraged."
Raythatha thinks Berry's star status played a role in the D.A.'s decision. "If it was me, I don't think that I would have gotten off so lightly," says the young woman, who has not returned to work since the accident. Multiple fractures in her right wrist cause constant discomfort, she says, and she is also suffering from persistent neck and back pain. "I really was very petrified when that smoke was going up in my car and I could not get out," says Raythatha of the moments while she waited for the firefighters Meola had summoned to arrive and pull her out of her crumpled vehicle. "I was totally scared."
For her part, Berry, who received a gash in her forehead that required 22 stitches and has not been seen at public events since the crash, has apparently also been in considerable distress. "Eric has been with her an awful lot," says Mayer of Berry's fiancé, singer Eric Benét, 33. "I know she feels there's no way she could have gotten through this without him."
Berry is slated to appear May 4 in Beverly Hills municipal court to answer the misdemeanor charge. A court date for Raythatha's civil suit has yet to be scheduled, though her lawyer Richard Sherman says she is looking forward to "our day in court." Not surprisingly, Berry's lawyer Blair Berk says the past few weeks "have been very difficult for her. We are looking forward to resolving this entire matter as soon as possible."
Mark Dagostino and Paula Yoo in Los Angeles