The Peconic man accused of drunken driving in the fatal 2015 limousine crash that led to the death of four young women in Cutchogue pleaded guilty Wednesday to driving while ability impaired.
Steven Romeo, who a grand jury ultimately found not criminally responsible for the crash, will pay a $500 fine and avoid jail time, according to Suffolk County Criminal Court Judge Fernando Camacho. His license will also be suspended for 90 days.
The victims’ families were inside the Central Islip courtroom Wednesday, expressing disappointment in the penalties.
“What a disgrace,” one woman shouted.
The driving while ability impaired charge, an infraction, was the lesser of two charges Mr. Romeo was facing, the other being a misdemeanor DWI charge.
Mr. Romeo, 56, declined comment outside the courtroom Wednesday, but his attorneys offered a statement.
“We’ve said from the beginning of this case that Steve Romeo was not at fault for the cause of the accident nor was he intoxicated,” said attorney Stephen O’Brien. “And today the resolution of the case confirms that. What no one has known is that Steve has felt sorrow for the families from day one … he wanted me to express his condolences to all the families.
“There’s just nothing that Steve can do that will ever restore the families to what they were before the accident and that’s the bottom line we wanted to convey to the families.”
The attorneys attempted to give their statement inside the courtroom, but an audience member shouted “Why don’t you look at us?” Mr. O’Brien then stopped his remarks and thanked the court.
At the start of the proceedings, Judge Camacho moved everyone to another courtroom to accommodate the larger than usual crowd. In addition to the victims’ families, Mr. Romeo had more than 20 supporters behind him.
Speaking to Judge Camacho prior to the plea being entered, Assistant District Attorney Maggie Bopp described the plea agreement as a “fair and equitable resolution” based on reviewing the evidence in the case.
Assistant District Attorney John Scott Prudenti said Wednesday that prosecutors are still appealing Judge Camacho’s previous decision to dismiss a grand jury indictment against the driver of the limousine. Carlos Pino, 59, of Old Bethpage, had been charged with criminally negligent homicide and other lesser charges, all of which were dropped in October.
“The findings were that a sober driver would not have been able to react and prevent the crash based upon the limo driver’s actions that day,” Mr. Prudenti said outside the courtroom Wednesday.
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. Four additional passengers survived the crash.
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.
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 to head west on Route 48 despite having a “limited sight line,” Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota outlined at a March 2016 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.
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.
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.
The judge’s decision to dismiss the charges against Mr. Pino 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.