The families of the four young women killed in a stretch limo crash in Cutchogue five years ago, as well as families of the four women who survived, renewed their calls for justice when they gathered on a street in Smithtown Thursday.
Two attorneys representing two of the families suing the Town of Southold and Suffolk County allege police and local officials covered up the truth by hiding an accident witness and ignoring alarm bells that were sounded about the dangerous North Fork intersection three years before the fatal collision.
“We are sickened that we must still come before the media and call for justice,” said Steven Baruch, whose daughter lost her life on July 18, 2015. “The picture of what actually happened remains unclear. We will not rest until justice is brought.”
Baruch and other victims’ family members attended the press conference held on LABS Lane — which is adjacent to Smithtown High School West, from where three of the four women killed had graduated. The street was renamed in 2018 to honor the four who died; Lauren Baruch, Amy Grabina, Brittany Schulman and Stephanie Belli.
Along with four friends, they hired a stretch limousine for a day of wine tasting on the North Fork to celebrate an upcoming wedding. After leaving a winery on County Road 48, the driver, Carlos Pino, made a U-turn at the intersection of Depot Lane when the limo was T-boned by a pickup truck, driven by Steven Romeo of Southold.
The four who survived the crash, Joelle DiMonte, Melissa Angela Crai, Alicia Arundel and Olga Lipets, suffered extensive injuries and are still recovering, family members said Thursday. All eight women were between the ages of 23 and 25.
The driver of the pickup was charged at the time with driving with ability impaired by alcohol, a lesser charge than driving while intoxicated. A blood test performed over 90 minutes after the accident came back with a .06 reading. This gave prosecutors wiggle room to argue to a grand jury that Romeo’s alcohol level was actually much higher at the time of the accident, an argument the grand jury accepted, indicting him for DWI.
Two years later, he pleaded to the original charge, a violation, in the courtroom of New York State Justice Fernando Camacho. He avoided jail time, was fined, and lost his license for 90 days.
Eventually charges were filed against the limo driver, who, while sober at the time, acted recklessly in making the U-turn, prosecutors believed. Pino, of Old Westbury, was charged with four counts of criminally negligent homicide and assault.
But, Camacho dismissed the indictment against Pino. The U-turn Pino was making was legal, since there was not a sign prohibiting it posted at the intersection. Ultimately, no one was held criminally responsible.
“So, how much has happened in these last few years since these young girls were ripped from our lives?” asked Susan Arundel, whose daughter Alicia Arundel survived the crash. She had to pause several times, overcome by emotion. “So much has happened to stop certain facts from becoming public.”
Robert Sullivan, one of the attorneys, unveiled new ambulance records that he said uncovers a new witness at the accident scene, a female passenger in Romeo’s truck. According to the patient care report, in which an emergency medical technician documented taking the woman’s vital signs, it states she reported being the front passenger.
“She saw the whole thing. That information was never given to us for three years,” he said. “The Suffolk County police knew it. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office knew it . . . and it was never turned over to the lawyers, to the families, to the people. Why? It’s all part of a cover up. Put your head in the sand and don’t be involved.”
Sullivan said his team has been trying, without success, to depose her to find out what she saw.
Sullivan said that Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell and the town board had been warned repeatedly about how dangerous the intersection where the accident occurred was, yet had done nothing. He showed an email a Southold resident sent to town officials three years earlier, describing the potential dangers.
Suffolk County and its executive, Steve Bellone, also bear responsibility for what happened, Sullivan said. “Steve Bellone, it is your county. It is your county that was supposed to maintain that road. What has happened to the town engineers who dropped the ball? What has happened to the people on the Southold Town Board who dropped the ball?”
Later Thursday, during a press briefing, Bellone was asked for a response. “That was one of the most tragic incidents that occurred in the time I’ve been county executive or any time I can recollect here.” He declined to address the issue further, because of the current litigation.
Frank Lane, the other attorney to speak, alleges there was a police coverup. He claims that a local Republican politician, John Helf Sr., had been allowed into the crime scene by police, and that Romeo was a friend of Helf’s. Lane said that Romeo had been allowed to consume five bottles of water, and that police delayed drawing blood, all at Helf’s behest.
Lane said that the officer who made the arrest was eventually let go from the police department due to political pressure.
The officer involved, Garrett Lake, was in his probationary period as an officer when he made the arrest. Lake was named a “top cop” in Suffolk County in May 2016 for his record-making DWI arrests. But, two weeks later, the Southold Police Department declined to retain Lake at the end of his probationary period.
Lake litigated the matter, making the same claim Lane made Thursday, that he was let go for political reasons. That case was ultimately dismissed.
“We will not stop,” Sullivan said. “We will be in litigation for another two years unless Steve Bellone and Scott Russell step up to the plate and do the right thing for these people.”
Nancy DiMonte, whose daughter, Joelle DiMonte survived the crash, said that, since the accident, New York State has become the first state to pass laws regulating safety in the limousine industry. She called on Congress to do the same, nationally. “The Safe Limo Act will require that the industry comply with a set of safety measures for the interior stretch limos,” she said.