Spota: Grand jury found light at Depot Lane is ‘inadequate’

On August 12, 2012, a Southold Town resident sent an email to a town official. Attached was a photograph of a limousine attempting to make a U-turn to head west on Route 48.

Unable to complete the maneuver, the driver backed up into the eastbound lane, blocking traffic in a 55 mph zone. 

“We have been complaining about these same problems for 18 months,” the person wrote in the email. “If a limo is broadsided by another car that you see in the picture … how many injuries will occur? … [That’s an answer] none of us would like to see.”

That foreboding email was listed among dozens of examples of the danger limousines pose on Route 48 included in a 156-page special grand jury report released Tuesday. The report was prepared by the same grand jury impaneled in October 2015 to consider criminal charges related to the July 18, 2015 limo crash that led to the death of four young women at the Depot Lane intersection.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota discussed the report at a press conference Tuesday in Riverhead, where he outlined recommendations from the grand jury, including a statewide ban on U-turns by limousines operating with nine or more occupants and similar bans in Southold Town and Suffolk County.

“The grand jury’s message is loud and clear: Don’t allow stretch limousine drivers to make U-turns,” the DA said at Tuesday’s press conference.

The special grand jury stayed in place for exactly one year, meeting periodically for seven months after indicting limo driver Carlos Pino in March. In the year it was impaneled, the grand jury heard testimony from 47 witnesses, including individuals involved in the crash, first responders, law enforcement, and local representatives of the limousine and winery industries. The jurors also examined 180 exhibits and more than 1,000 documents related to the crash; they also visited the scene during an accident reconstruction last December.

The report prepared by the jury concludes with four pages of recommendations. Other suggestions include more stringent safety regulations — including the installation of multiple “anti-intrusion bars” in stretch limousines — and license requirements specific to stretch limos and commercial drivers.

Among the final recommendations is a call for a left-turn arrow both east and westbound traffic at Depot Lane. Much of the report, a copy of which was given to The Suffolk Times and has been published in its entirety below, speaks to the perceived dangers of that intersection, including specific data about violations and collisions reported both before and after the fatal crash. Between 1999 and 2015, there was a total of 88 crashes reported in the vicinity of the intersection, including at least a dozen since 2006 that caused personal injuries.

The scene of the limo crash on the one-year anniversary this past July. (Credit: Krysten Massa)
The scene of the limo crash on the one-year anniversary this past July. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

The report also includes details of crashes and complaints related to the intersection dating as far back as 1985 and shows that more than 15 years before the crash town officials had requested improvements the county never took action on outside of a few traffic studies and recommendations.

Mr. Spota called the traffic light installed two months after the crash “inadequate,” since it features no turn signals.

“The grand jury concluded the current light is potentially more dangerous than the [blinking yellow lights] it replaced,” Mr. Spota said. “It’s the wrong type of light.”

Much of Mr. Spota’s press conference Tuesday focused on the inadequate safety provided by a small “anti-intrusion” bar designed to prevent injuries from side-impact collision. Mr. Spota called the devices a $50 piece of equipment, saying the single bar welded in the limo involved in the crash failed to protect the passengers. He said a forensics expert testified that the “welds were woefully inadequate and unacceptable.”

“This tube became just another part of the debris first responders found and had to cut through in order to bring the passengers to safety,” Mr. Spota said Tuesday.

The criminal charges filed against limousine driver Carlos Pino, 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. Mr. Spota said prosecutors intend to appeal that decision.

Killed in the crash were 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 at the time, 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.

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,” Mr. 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.

The four victims in last year's crash.
The four victims in last year’s crash.

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.

Some of the more dramatic passages included in the report appear toward the beginning, including testimony from first responders who said they’ll carry the visions from the crash scene with them for the rest of their lives.

One Southold Town police detective called it “absolute chaos. The worst scene I’ve ever seen,” according to the report.

The evening crash occurred nearly eight hours after Mr. Pino picked up the eight passengers from the Baruch family home in Smithtown, according to the report.

Shortly before departing, Ms. Baruch’s mother, Felicia, leaned into the driver seat to take a photograph of the eight young women before they left. She kissed her daughter and said goodbye before offering parting words to Mr. Pino.

“You see these eight beautiful babies?” the report quotes Ms. Baruch as saying. “The way I’m leaving them with you, I want them back.”

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2016 Special Grand Jury Report fatal limousine crash by Grant Parpan on Scribd