The 58-year-old driver of the red pickup truck that T-boned a limousine carrying eight women in their 20s celebrating a birthday at Long Island's vineyards over the weekend, killing four of the longtime friends, tried to flee the scene after the crash and allegedly admitted to investigators that he had consumed beer prior to the accident, authorities said at a news briefing Monday.
Steven Romeo, of Bethpage, remained at the scene of Saturday's crash in Cutchogue for about 15 minutes before he walked away, climbed over a 6-foot fence 1,000 feet from the scene and headed down a steep embankment, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said.
An officer responding to the accident at the intersection of County Route 48 and Depot Lane spotted him and called for him to stop, but Romeo kept walking, Spota said. Eventually, he did stop and was taken into custody. Spota said Romeo admitted drinking beer at his home prior to the accident after working.
Romeo pleaded not guilty to a charge of driving while intoxicated from his hospital bed at Eastern Long Island Hospital, about an hour's drive from Stony Brook University Hospital, where three of the four women who survived the crash were in various stages of recovery Monday.
The limo that was driving the eight women tried to make a U-turn at the intersection of County Route 48 and Depot Lane when Romeo's truck plowed into them, Town of Southold police said. The limo driver told authorities he was turning to head westbound to take the women back to Smithtown and did not see the red pickup truck in the westbound lanes of the highway, Spota said.
A witness heading eastbound who reported seeing the "entire crash" -- including the limo making the U-turn, the pickup truck driving westbound and the impact -- told authorities the limo "was turning right in front of the truck and the crash occurred at that point," according to Spota.
The limousine driver showed no evidence of being influenced by drugs or alcohol at the scene, Spota said, and chemical tests confirmed he was not intoxicated at the time of the accident. Spota said U-turns at the accident site are not prohibited, but limo drivers have been getting summonses for the way they are making the turns. They have to "swing way out" and "many are virtually blocking the two westbound lanes" as they turn around, Spota said.
The four women in the limo who died were identified as Brittney Schulman, 23, and Lauren Baruch, 24, both of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack.
The injured women were identified as Joelle Dimonte, 25, of Elwood, Melissa Angela Crai, 23, of Scarsdale, Alicia Arundel, 24, of Setauket, and Olga Lipets, 24, of Brooklyn. A young bride was among the survivors. Spota said all four surviving women had "very serious physical injuries."
A spokesman for Stony Brook University Hospital said Monday Crai remained in serious condition, Lipets was in fair condition and Arundel was in good condition. Dimonte is out of the hospital.
Romeo had minor injuries, Spota said, which contrasts previous statements Romeo's lawyer, Daniel O'Brien, had made that indicated his client was seriously hurt in the crash, which O'Brien called "a tough situation."
The limo driver, Carlos Pino, 58, of Bethpage, was also taken to an area hospital with injuries but was expected to survive.
Witnesses described the crash scene as horrific.
"It looks like they were just thrown from one side of the vehicle out the windows," said Lynne Van Z Lulfs, who saw the aftermath from her car.
The crash left the limo crippled, with one side of it completely destroyed by the truck, which was rammed up against its right side. Debris was scattered over the roadway.
"I wish I didn't look, to be honest with you," Lulfs said. "It's something you don't forget."
Officials initially said the women appeared to be a bridal party but later said they were celebrating a birthday.
A spokesperson for Ultimate Class Limousine expressed condolences for the victims and their families in a statement, saying the Hicksville-based limo company has operated in the region for 27 years and has a good safety record, with no injuries in more than 20 years.
"In the last week, we have surely experienced some of the most tragic losses of life due to apparently intoxicated drivers than we have ever seen or experienced in the county of Suffolk," Spota said.
Last Sunday, a father and his two young children were killed when an alleged drunk driver rear-ended their Toyota on the Southern State Parkway, causing the Toyota to burst into flames.