Michelle Canberg has a story she tells about the evening of July 18, 2015, when she was driving to work with her stepdaughter and passed by a ‘horrific’ limousine crash on Route 48 in Cutchogue. She rushed to the limo to find a group of eight young women badly injured by a pick-up truck that crashed into them.
It’s the same story she told her boss when she showed up late to work that evening.
And also what she told the four women who survived the crash, which claimed the lives of four of their friends, when she later befriended them.
“I just pulled over to do the right thing,” Ms. Canberg said in an interview at her Mattituck home Wednesday. “I pulled up 45 seconds after the crash.
“I pulled right into the median … I walked to the front [of the limo] and it was not a good scene.”
She said she then crouched down next to the mangled limousine and sat with the four survivors, one of them struggling to remain conscious, all of them “in shock,” as the Depot Lane intersection turned into a fatal crash scene, with first responders swarming to save lives among the wreckage.
Now five years later, public court records reveal that recent witness testimony in an ongoing civil trial related to the crash and a report filed at the scene that evening call into question key elements of Ms. Canberg’s story.
An attorney representing the estate of limo crash victim Lauren Baruch in a lawsuit against the limo company, both drivers in the crash and the town and county, which maintain the two roads at the intersection, held a press conference Thursday to raise awareness to the new developments.
Why would an ambulance attendant fill out an ambulance report that says ‘patient states she was in the red pick up truck front passenger seat.’ Who do you believe?Attorney Robert Sullivan
In an interview Wednesday, Baruch family attorney Robert Sullivan of Cutchogue confirmed he will discuss recent testimony from an emergency medical technician who court records show claims Ms. Canberg identified herself as a passenger in the pickup truck that struck the limousine while being treated at the scene. That information was recorded on an ambulance report generated the evening of the crash, though the official police reported states Steven Romeo of Peconic was alone when he crossed Depot Lane and drove into the limousine as its driver attempted to make a u-turn to head back west on Route 48.
“This was all kept a secret,” Mr. Sullivan said of Ms. Canberg never being identified as a passenger in the crash. “Why?”
The ambulance report, which court records show was entered as an exhibit in the civil case last November, was written by Southold EMT Janet Auer. It states that she checked Ms. Canberg’s vitals at the scene before she refused further medical attention. The report states Ms. Canberg was wearing a seat belt and was not injured, court records show.
“[Patient] states she was in red pick up truck front passenger seat that impacted limo,” Ms. Auer wrote in the report. Last November, she repeated that claim in a sworn deposition, adding that Ms. Canberg told her “she could not be seen at the scene,” court records show.
“So we took her inside the police command unit,” said Ms. Auer, who did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
Ms. Canberg, 39, who court records show has been served with a subpoena to give a deposition in the case on two occasions but has not yet shown up to testify, sat at a table in her garage accompanied by her husband Brendan, as she told her side of the story Wednesday. She repeatedly denied being in Mr. Romeo’s vehicle at the time of the crash, which made national headlines. She said she has not met Mr. Romeo and hadn’t heard of him until after the incident.
Ms. Canberg said of not appearing for her scheduled deposition that she “doesn’t want to be a part of any lawsuit.”
“Because I’m for the girls,” she said.
Ms. Canberg’s stepdaughter, Ryleigh, backed up her story in a telephone interview two days later. She spoke of how traumatized her stepmom was from seeing the dead women in the limousine. How it led her to sell the black Hyundai Elantra she was driving that day.
“It reminded her of the accident and how she saw those young girls dying,” said Ryleigh Canberg, who is now 19 years old.
She said her stepmom had someone she knew from high school drive her to the restaurant for her shift and her stepmom joined her a couple hours later.
Of Ms. Auer’s testimony, the younger Ms. Canberg said “she must be twisting it.”
Rebecca Devlin, an attorney for Mr. Romeo also did not respond to requests for comment after the press conference was announced Wednesday. At a deposition last June, Mr. Romeo testified that he was alone in his car.
Asked if he knew Ms. Canberg, he responded “Not that I can remember.”
Toward the end of the proceeding, he was shown a photograph, a transcript from the deposition shows, and asked if he knew the person in it.
“Not — doesn’t ring a bell. This is the person that was in my car allegedly?” he asked.
After some back and forth, an attorney asked him again if he knew the person in the photograph.
“I don’t recognize that person,” he said.
The transcript does not indicate who was in the photograph.
“It comes down to this,” Mr. Sullivan said Wednesday. “She says she wasn’t [in the truck.] Why would an ambulance attendant fill out an ambulance report that says ‘patient states she was in the red pick up truck front passenger seat.’ Who do you believe?”
Ms. Canberg said she was checked out by an EMT at the urging of Southold Town detective Kenneth Richert, who she described as a friend. That evaluation did take place inside the mobile command unit, she confirmed. She said she offered concern about being spotted at the scene, but only because her family believed she was at work.
“[The EMT] asked me that day if I was in the truck,” Ms. Canberg said. “I said, ‘No.’ I said ‘I was just here.’ I remember I was all foggy, but I was like ‘I’m just a person passing and I had nothing to do with this.”
Mr. Sullivan said that while Ms. Canberg did nothing to cause the accident, he described the lack of any mention of her in a police report as a “cover-up.” He also said the town ignored frequent complaints from nearby residents over the hazardous nature of the intersection, something he called “shameful.”
In a statement, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said “all complaints I receive regarding Route 48 get referred to Suffolk County, which owns the road.”
“In addition to the supervisor’s office forwarding complaints received about the intersection to county, since 1998 the Town Board has made several requests that the county study the intersection based on constituent complaints,” Town Attorney Bill Duffy wrote in an email. He added that the town “categorically denies” Mr. Sullivan’s accusation of a cover-up by town police.
Police chief Martin Flatley declined comment on the possibility that Mr. Romeo was accompanied by a passenger.
“We are still in litigation with the families of the victims of this horrific crash so I am not able to comment on this theory,” he wrote in an email.
Mr. Sullivan said Thursday that the families want the town and county to take responsibility for the crash and that they’ve made no effort to do so. He said that while the limo company has made an offer on a settlement, the town and county refuse to do so.
Criminally negligent homicide charges brought against limo driver Carlos Pino, who attempted the ill-fated turn, were dismissed after his attorney argued the charges should be invalidated because prosecutors improperly presented evidence to the grand jury. In October 2017, Suffolk County Judge Fernando Camacho agreed, dismissing the charges. The grand jury, which was empaneled for an extended time to study limo safety and make recommendations, ultimately determined that Mr. Pino was criminally at fault for the crash and that the blinking light at the intersection was inadequate. Mr. Romeo, who had initially been accused of driving while intoxicated, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, served a license suspension and paid a $500 fine.
Ms. Canberg explained that her car was not at the scene soon after the crash because she did not want it to get “too barricaded in.” She said another man at the scene drove her daughter to the former Deep Water Grille in Greenport, where they both worked. After spending some time with the victims, Ms. Canberg was driven to the restaurant by an EMT, she said.
“This is the actual truth,” Ms. Canberg said of her account of that afternoon.
Deep Water Grille owner Beth Pike recalled Ms. Canberg being late to work that evening and that she told her she had stopped at the scene of the limo crash. She declined further comment.
Ms. Canberg said she first reached out to the survivors about a month after the crash and she developed a friendship with each of them and even some family members. Her first in-person meeting came when she drove to Brooklyn to meet survivor Olga Lipets, who she said later came out to visit her in Mattituck. Her husband Brendan recalled them attending survivor Joelle DiMonte’s wedding together. On the first Thanksgiving after the crash, Ms. Canberg said she messaged survivor Alicia Arundel and told her “it’s OK to be thankful to be alive today.” She later went with all four survivors for a day out in Port Jefferson, she said.
Ms. Canberg would go on to set up a meeting where two of the survivors’ mothers — Nancy DiMonte and Susan Arundel — met with fire department volunteers who responded to the scene.
On the first anniversary of the crash, Ms. Canberg reached out to friends on the Southold Town Police Department to shut down the intersection so the survivors could visit, she said. She posted a photo of her with each of the four women at the intersection that night to her Instagram account, where her bio includes the word forever, a heart and the initials of all four survivors.
Ms. Canberg, who also works as a medical assistant, said her contact with the families stopped when she was informed by Susan Arundel that her attorney advised the families to no longer speak with her. She said prior to that day she felt a close bond with them.
“I would always tell them when they would say thank you that I didn’t do much, I couldn’t do much,” she said.
Nancy DiMonte, who has served as a spokesperson for the families, declined comment, saying that the ongoing civil suit prevents the families from discussing Ms. Canberg.
She offered only the following statement: “Five years after the crash we feel that justice has not been served.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated three times. On Thursday July 16, we added some information from that morning’s press conference. On Friday July 17 it was updated with comments from Ryleigh Canberg. We also clarified that Ryleigh is Michelle’s stepdaughter. On Sunday, it was amended to correct a line that suggested Ms. Canberg was never named during Mr. Romeo’s deposition. While she was not mentioned at that point of the deposition, Mr. Romeo was asked about her earlier in the proceeding. We updated the story to include that line of questioning.