Cops & Crime

DA: Driver Admitted to Drinking Before Fatal Crash in Wine Country

The Peconic man behind the wheel of a red pickup truck that struck a limousine Saturday afternoon on Route 48 in Cutchogue, killing four women, admitted to drinking beer in his home prior to the crash, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota. The man then left the scene after 15 minutes and hopped a fence before being escorted back to the scene by police.

“We do know from [the driver] that he had consumed alcohol prior to the accident. He has told us that,” Spota said during a press conference Monday in Peconic.

Steven Romeo, 55, was arraigned Sunday at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport and he remains in custody at the hospital.

“In the last week we have surely experienced some of the most tragic losses of life due to apparently intoxicated drivers,” said Spota alluding to a fiery car crash July 12 on the Southern State Parkway that killed three members of the Ostane family—a father and this two children.

Just six days later several more families would be plunged into mourning.

The day started in Smithtown at the home of Lauren Baruch, 24. Baruch along with friends Brittany Schulman, 23, of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack; Joelle Dimonte, 25, of Elwood; Angela Crai, 23, of Scarsdale; Alicia Arundel, 24, of Setauket, and Olga Lipets, 24, of Brooklyn. They headed east to the North Fork Wine Trail, a popular destination with rolling stretches of picturesque vineyards.

The women and their limo driver, Carlos Pino, first stopped at Baiting Hollow’s LiV Vodka and after an hour left for Vineyard 48 for what Spota described as “a gathering of friends to go out to the winery,” refuting earlier reports that this was a bachelorette party. At around 5:15 p.m., according to Spota, the women were picked up by Pino to return to Smithtown. The day was almost over.

There is no direct westbound access from Vineyard 48 so the limo headed east toward the nearest intersection at Depot Lane. During a U-turn the limo was struck by Romeo’s pickup truck. The speed of the vehicles is still unknown.

Schulman, Baruch, Belli and Grabina were killed. The four surviving women suffered serious physical injuries. Two were airlifted by to Peconic Bay Medical Center and one was later transferred by ambulance to Stony Brook Medical Center. Spota said he believes one of the women may be released shortly.

An eyewitness at the scene who was heading eastbound to make a right turn at the intersection described to police that the limo was turning right in front of the truck.

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley and Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota at Monday's press conference in Peconic.
Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley and Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota at Monday’s press conference in Peconic. Photo credit: Jessica Opatich

“The limo driver has told us that he did not see any vehicle in the westbound lane as he proceeded to make the turn,” Spota said.

A U-turn is not prohibited at the intersection, but the Southold Town Police Department “has been issuing summonses to limo drivers because of the way they are making the turn,” said Spota, describing a wide-swinging turn that involves “virtually blocking the two westbound lanes then backing up and continuing” westbound.

“Over the last two or three years we have had issues with limousines making very difficult turns at that intersection. We have been writing summonses for failing to yield the right of way,” said Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley, who added that the town writes at least 10 or 12 summonses a month.

Neither of the men commented on whether the U-turn involved in the accident was one that would warrant a summons citing the ongoing investigation.

Pino was interviewed at the scene and there was no evidence of any alcohol or drug intoxication. However, as a precaution police administered chemical tests, which Pino consented to, and the tests affirmed that he had not consumed any alcohol.

The other driver, Romeo, remained at the scene for approximately 15 minutes, according to Spota, before he was spotted walking away. “He got about approximately 1,000 feet and then he climbed over a 6-foot fence to a transfer station on the north side of the westbound lanes.” A police officer climbed the fence and observed Romeo heading down a steep embankment. He was ordered to stop and eventually returned after initially ignoring the officer’s order, Spota said.

When asked if Romeo would be charged with fleeing the scene of a crime, Spota said, “There’s a lot of variables to that. Essentially, the law is not just walking away. [Romeo] has to give certain information to the police department. That’s something we are investigating.” Even though Romeo initially stayed, left, and ultimately returned, “It’s not as clear as one might think,” Spota said, unsure of whether Romeo’s actions fit the “absolute definition” of leaving the scene.

A field sobriety test was administered by a police officer and Sunday Romeo was charged with driving while intoxicated.

“We are awaiting the results from the blood test that we administered to the defendant to determine the level of intoxication,” Spota said.

Earlier in the day Romeo worked from 8 a.m. until noon before returning home. “He did some work around the house. He told us he consumed some beer at his house,” said Spota, declining to say how much beer was consumed. Romeo had previously been sued for a fatal work-related accident that Spota said had been fully investigated and was just tragic accident. It has no bearing on the current investigation, according to Spota.

“What I’m going to do is I’m going to sit down with everybody,” Spota said, acknowledging that law enforcement was still in the “preliminary stages” of their investigation and that certain key information, such as an accident reconstruction, would be necessary before upgrading any charges. “We’ll make that determination a little bit later on.”

For now, a makeshift memorial of flowers and photos continues to grow on the median at the site of the crash as cars rush by and rows of vineyards roll on in the background.

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