Limousine driver Carlos F. Pino, 58, of Old Bethpage has been indicted by a special grand jury investigating last summer’s fatal crash on Route 48 in Cutchogue, which claimed the lives of four of his passengers, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota announced yesterday.
Mr. Pino pleaded not guilty when he was arraigned yesterday in Central Islip before State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho on four charges of criminally negligent homicide, four counts of assault, failure to yield the right of way, reckless driving and other traffic infractions.
Steven Romeo, 55, of Peconic, the driver of the truck that struck the limousine, was charged with DWI the day of the crash, though toxicology reports later that afternoon turned up a blood alcohol level of .066 percent — just below the legal limit of .08 percent for a DWI charge.
Mr. Romeo was also arraigned Wednesday afternoon before Justice Camacho. The indictment charges Romeo with driving while intoxicated and driving while ability impaired by alcohol.
Mr. Pino’s lawyer, Brendan Ahern, told the judge that his client had been a police detective before immigrating to the U.S. from Chile, and has two daughters. Mr. Pino’s bail was set at $100,000 bond, while Mr. Romeo was released on his own recognizance.
The four victims of the accident were among a group of eight young women visiting North Fork wineries to celebrate their upcoming role as bridesmaids in one of the women’s weddings. The bride-to-be survived.
The victims included Amy Grabina, 23, who had just graduated from college and started her first job as an accountant at Ernst & Young; Stephanie Belli, 23, a business student at SUNY Farmingdale; Brittany Schulman, also 23, who graduated last year from SUNY Cortland with a degree in communications; and Lauren Baruch, 24, who was juggling three jobs and loved to plan fun adventures with her friends.
Mr. Spota said the investigation, which included a reconstruction of the crash and accounts from five additional witnesses who were at the intersection at the time of the crash, found Pino had “limited sight lines looking into westbound traffic” because a Jeep Liberty — one of Jeep’s largest sport utility models — was in the intersection, waiting to turn left into the southbound lane of Depot Lane southbound.
“The Jeep Liberty completely blocked the limo driver’s view of the oncoming traffic in the main travel lanes,” said Mr. Spota. “Despite the fact that the main westbound travel lanes were not visible, the limo driver, Carlos Pino, failed to take any precaution or any action to make sure he could safely enter the westbound travel lanes and he continued to make the U-turn.”
Mr. Pino told police at the crash scene that he did not see any traffic.
“There is no evidence that demonstrates he ever came to a stop,” said Mr. Spota.
Mr. Spota added that, because of the profile of the Jeep Liberty in the intersection, Mr. Romeo, who was traveling at about 55 miles per hour westbound, did not see the limousine enter the intersection until he was about 200 feet away, effectively making a collision unavoidable.
“Romeo had only 200 feet to react to the hazard he saw, and stop his vehicle. Traveling at 55 miles per hour, it would have taken 1.6 seconds to perceive the limo in his path, to realize he must apply his brakes, and then to begin braking,” said Mr. Spota.
He added that, at 55 miles per hour, Mr. Romeo had just 129 feet to react to the limo in his path, while experts say it would have taken anyone 263 feet to stop and avoid the crash.
“A perfectly sober Steven Romeo could not avoid this crash. An intoxicated Steven Romeo could not avoid this crash. It was simply unavoidable from Romeo’s perspective,” he added.
By law, there must be a link between Romeo’s intoxication and the cause of the crash in order for him to be charged in the deaths of the four passengers, said Mr. Spota.
“Here – because the crash was unavoidable, there is no such link and the grand jury did not indict him for Vehicular Manslaughter or Criminally Negligent Homicide,” he added.
Mr. Romeo’s lawyer, Stephen O’Brien, told reporters at the courthouse that, despite the news that his client won’t be held responsible for the women’s deaths, “there is no happiness for us” in this tragic case.
“Romeo can be held criminally responsible for driving while intoxicated but he cannot be held criminally responsible for the crash,” said Mr. Spota. “The person who is criminally responsible for the crash is Carlos Pino and Carlos Pino alone. Pino failed to take any precaution or action to make sure he could safely enter the westbound traffic lanes. He continued to attempt his U-turn without stopping. Because of his actions, he failed to see the Jeep Liberty in front of him, or Mr. Romeo’s pickup converging on the intersection.”