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Grand jury finds limo driver at fault, indicts him for criminally negligent homicide

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The limousine driver involved in last summer’s fatal crash in Cutchogue has been indicted by a special grand jury on four counts of criminally negligent homicide. 

Carlos Pino, 58, of Old Bethpage was arraigned on the felonies and other charges before Judge Fernando Camacho in 1st District Court in Central Islip Wednesday afternoon.

Witnesses who testified before the grand jury, including a driver and three passengers waiting behind the limousine in an eastbound turning lane on Route 48, stated that Mr. Pino attempted to make a U-turn at the Depot Lane intersection despite having a “limited sight line,” Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said. A westbound Jeep Liberty attempting to make a left-hand turn off Route 48 to head south on Depot Lane obstructed Mr. Pino’s view, he said. Despite this, Mr. Pino attempted to make the U-turn without ever coming to a full stop, the DA added.

As Steven Romeo, 55, of Peconic approached the westbound intersection in his 2005 Dodge Dakota, the turning limousine blocked his lane of travel, Mr. Spota said.

While Mr. Romeo still faces a grand jury indictment on two counts of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated, the criminal liability for the crash falls on Mr. Pino.

“A perfectly sober Steven Romeo could not avoid this crash; an intoxicated Steven Romeo could not avoid this crash,” Mr. Spota said. “It was simply unavoidable from Romeo’s perspective.”

Left: Amy Grabina, Lauren Baruch, Stephanie Belli (top) and Brittney Schulman. (Credit: Facebook)

Left: Amy Grabina, Lauren Baruch, Stephanie Belli (top) and Brittney Schulman. (Credit: Facebook)

The July 18 crash took the lives of Brittney Schulman, 23, of Smithtown; Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack.

Injured but surviving the crash were four additional passengers: Joelle DiMonte, 25, of Elwood; Melissa Crai, 23, of Scarsdale, N.Y.; Alicia Arundel, 24, of Setauket; and Olga Lipets, 24, of Brooklyn.

The eight women had hired Mr. Pino, an employee of Ultimate Class Limousine in Hicksville, for a Saturday afternoon of visits to North Fork tasting spots. The limo had just left nearby Vineyard 48 and the women were headed home when Mr. Pino attempted the ill-fated turn.

“The Jeep Liberty completely blocked the limo driver’s view of the oncoming traffic in the main travel lanes,” the DA said. “Mr. Pino failed to take any precaution or action to make sure he could safely enter the westbound travel lanes and he continued to make the U-turn.”

Mr. Romeo, who told investigators he had been drinking beer at home in the hours before the crash, was charged with DWI the following day and pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors had asked the grand jury to consider one count of second-degree vehicular manslaughter and one count of criminally negligent homicide against Mr. Romeo, but after reviewing all the evidence in the case and listening to more than six months of testimony the panel declined to indict him on those charges, Mr. Spota said.

Instead, Mr. Romeo faces a grand jury indictment on two counts of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated and an infraction for driving while ability impaired. He was also arraigned in county court Wednesday, where he pleaded not guilty and was released without bail. He is due back in court April 26.

Defendants Carlos Pino, left, and Steven Romeo, right, enter court Wednesday. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo, left, and Paul Squire)

Defendants Carlos Pino, left, and Steven Romeo, right, enter court Wednesday. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo, left, and Paul Squire)

A blood test taken one hour and 40 minutes after the crash revealed that Mr. Romeo’s blood alcohol was 0.066 — under the legal limit of 0.08 — Mr. Spota announced days later. However, he maintained that Mr. Romeo was “most likely” over the legal limit at the time of the crash.

Mr. Romeo’s attorney, Steven O’Brien, said his client will fight the DWI charges based on Mr. Spota’s comments about blood alcohol content.

On Wednesday, Mr. Spota shared many details of the crash investigation for the first time, including how the grand jury visited the scene during its investigation. He said the inquiry revealed that the two drivers could not have seen each other until the truck, traveling at more than 55 mph, was within 200 feet of the intersection. He added that Mr. Pino told investigators on the evening of the crash that he never saw Mr. Romeo’s truck or any other vehicles in the moments before impact.

Mr. Spota said that, given the time he had to react to the sight of the limousine, Mr. Romeo could not have applied the brakes until he was about 70 feet from the limo. Expert testimony revealed that at the speed he was traveling, Mr. Romeo would have needed more than 260 feet to come to a stop.

To hold Mr. Romeo criminally responsible for the crash, a link between his drinking and the cause of the crash would have to be made, Mr. Spota said.

“Romeo can be held criminally responsible for driving while intoxicated but he cannot be held criminally responsible for the crash,” he added. “The person who is criminally responsible for the crash is Carlos Pino and Carlos Pino alone.”

The crash scene on the evening of July 18. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

The crash scene on the evening of July 18. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

In addition to criminally negligent homicide, Mr. Pino faces four misdemeanor assault charges related to injuries sustained by the four surviving passengers in his limo; a misdemeanor reckless driving charge; one count of failing to file a required report upon an accident with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, also a misdemeanor; and infractions for turning at an intersection, failure to yield the right of way and failing to stay in a designated lane, the DA said. Mr. Pino pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Wednesday. He was released on a $100,000 bond and is due back in court April 19.

Mr. Pino’s attorney, Brendan Ahern, said his client worked as a police detective in his native Chile before moving to the United States in 1989.

The crash has led to several civil court proceedings, including at least two lawsuits filed by surviving victims of the crash naming Mr. Romeo as a defendant. Mr. Pino also filed a notice of claim against Southold Town blaming a defective intersection for the crash.

Family members of the crash victims were notified of the indictments Wednesday morning, Mr. Spota said, adding that they met immediately afterward with Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley.

“[Chief Flatley] came into the room and they were very appreciative of the work the prosecutors and police did,” Mr. Spota said.

The DA applauded investigators, including the New York State Police Department Collision Reconstruction Unit, during the press conference, saying they did “yeoman’s work.”

The grand jury will remain in place to hear additional testimony on limo and road safety, Mr. Spota said.

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