Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota is expected Tuesday to release the findings of a special grand jury investigation into the July 2015 limo crash that resulted in the death of four women in Cutchogue, his office has announced.
Details of the 156-page report are expected to be unveiled at a noon press conference in Riverhead.
“Among the topics District Attorney Spota will address during the news conference: the Grand Jury’s finding there is a complete lack of regulation of stretch limousine construction, and the existence — to this day — of an inadequate traffic light at the historically dangerous intersection of County Road 48 and Depot Lane in Cutchogue,” the DA’s office said in a press release Monday night.
The special grand jury was in place for one year beginning in October 2015, continuing to meet after indicting limo driver Carlos Pino in March. In those last seven months, jurors heard additional testimony and completed the report that will include recommendations being unveiled Tuesday.
Mr. Pino, 59, an employee of Ultimate Class Limousine in Hicksville, was driving the limousine in the July 18, 2015 crash that killed 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 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 U-turn.
The charges filed against Mr. Pino in March, including negligent homicide, were dismissed by Suffolk County Criminal Court Judge Fernando Camacho in October, after defense attorneys filed a motion alleging prosecutors used improper testimony to produce an indictment by the grand jury. Prosecutors said at the time they planned to appeal that decision.
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 outlined at a March press conference. 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, 56, of Peconic approached the westbound intersection in his 2005 Dodge Dakota, the turning limousine blocked his lane of travel, Mr. Spota said.
“The Jeep Liberty completely blocked the limo driver’s view of the oncoming traffic in the main travel lanes,” Mr. Spota said in March. “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 misdemeanor DWI the following day and pleaded not guilty.
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.
Last week, Judge Camacho met with prosecutors and attorneys for Mr. Romeo at a scheduled hearing on a motion to reconsider the blood evidence. The judge told The Suffolk Times afterwards that Mr. Romeo will likely accept a plea deal when he returns to court in January.
In addition to the felony criminally negligent homicide charge, Mr. Pino had faced 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, according to online court records. All charges were dismissed.
Credit: Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota at the March 2015 press conference announcing the indictment of Carlos Pino. (Credit: Paul Squire)