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DA to appeal decision to dismiss charges against limo driver

Limo Driver Charged in Fatal Limo Crash
Charges have been dismissed in the case against the limousine driver involved in last summer’s crash that killed four young women on Route 48 in Cutchogue.

But in a statement Wednesday evening, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said prosecutors will “certainly appeal” the decision.

Carlos Pino, 59, of Old Bethpage, had been charged with criminally negligent homicide and other lesser charges, all of which have been dropped.

Judge Fernando Camacho asked family members of the victims to approach the bench so he could explain his decision in First District Court in Central Islip Wednesday morning. They left the court room sobbing and screaming.

The judge’s decision was based on a motion filed by defense attorney Leonard Lato of Hauppauge claiming the grand jury indictment was invalid because it was improperly presented to the grand jury. The motion alleged that prosecutors used improper testimony to produce an indictment for a collision that does not amount to a crime.

“[I had] no doubt the case would be thrown out,” Mr. Lato said afterward. “Everybody in the DA’s office knew this.

“They knew all along that this was not a criminal case, but rather than have the integrity to tell that to the families of the four girls who died and [those] who survived they went ahead and made a bad presentation.”

[Related story: Grand jury testimony in fatal limo crash released to attorneys]

[Editorial: One year later, let’s not forget limo crash victims’ names]

Mr. Pino 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, 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.

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

Assistant district attorney John Scott Prudenti said prosecutors knew they had “an uphill battle” with the case against Mr. Pino, but are disappointed in the end result.

“We’re disappointed for the families,” he said, adding that he still believes Mr. Pino was responsible for the crash.

“Mr. Pino was not in danger,” Mr. Prudenti said. “He in fact created the danger.”

In his statement, Mr. Spota said the limo driver’s actions were “far from just careless.”

“Pino, an experienced professional limousine driver carrying eight passengers, turned blindly into a roadway when his view was completely blocked by another car,” Mr. Spota said. “Pino was driving a vehicle he knew or should have known could never make a safe U-turn under the circumstances. Justice Camacho’s decision appears to ignore this critical and distinguishing fact.”

Mr. Spota also said there was “no evidence” that the grand jury was confused by the prosecutor’s presentation.

Mr. Lato maintained that his client made a legal turn and should not be held liable simply because he didn’t see another vehicle. He added that Mr. Pino did not make a statement afterward due to ongoing civil litigation.

The dismissal means it’s unlikely anyone will be held criminally responsible for the crash, though a driving while intoxicated charge is still pending against the other driver.

Mr. Pino had been indicted by a special grand jury in March nearly eight months after the actual crash.

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.

File photo: Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota at a March 2015 press conference. (Credit: Paul Squire)
File photo: Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota at a press conference March 16, 2015. (Credit: Paul Squire)

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.  

“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 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.

Mr. Romeo’s attorney, Steven O’Brien, has said his client will fight the DWI charges based on Mr. Spota’s comments about blood alcohol content. Mr. Romeo is due back in court Nov. 3.

In addition to criminally negligent homicide, Mr. Pino 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.

Mr. Lato said that by presenting its case to the grand jury in the manner in which it did, prosecutors forced Judge Camacho into “the unpleasant duty of doing what he had to do.”

“The blame here is really on the district attorney’s office,” said Mr. Lato, himself a former Suffolk County assistant district attorney.

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Top photo: Carlos Pino, right, at his arraignment with attorney Brendan Ahern. (Credit: James Carbone/Newsday pool photo)