Tests show the 58-year-old pickup driver who t-boned a limo carrying eight young women celebrating a birthday in Long Island's wine country over the weekend was not legally drunk, though authorities say the blood was drawn nearly two hours after the crash and forensic analysts believe he was above the limit at the time of the accident.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said the testing of pickup driver Steven Romeo's blood alcohol content was delayed as emergency responders focused on trying to save the lives of the eight women in the limousine and the limo driver, as is common in such complex accident situations.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said Romeo's blood alcohol content, which was tested one hour and 40 minutes after the crash, was .066, below the legal limit of .08. He said analysts believed Romeo, who allegedly admitted to investigators that he had consumed a few beers at home prior to the crash, had a blood alcohol content above .08 at the time of the crash.
Spota said the driving while intoxicated charge against Romeo would not be reduced to driving while impaired, and his office was still considering whether to upgrade charges against him in the crash that killed Brittney Schulman, 23, and Lauren Baruch, 24, both of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack.
The district attorney's office is also investigating whether Romeo may have had any drugs in his system at the time of the crash; Spota said those toxicology results would take more time.
Romeo pleaded not guilty to the DWI charge earlier this week from his hospital bed, where Spota said he was being treated for a broken nose and other injuries, which police had described as minor.
Romeo's lawyer said his client was seriously hurt in the crash and that he expects Romeo to remain hospitalized for the foreseeable future. Previously, the attorney did not comment on the specific charge against Romeo but called the accident "a tough situation."
Three of the four women killed in the crash were laid to rest this week. The fourth, Belli, was mourned at a funeral Friday.
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. One of the survivors has been released from the hospital, but the other three victims remain hospitalized with what Spota described as "very serious physical injuries."
Investigators hope to interview the surviving women next week, depending on their conditions.
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 Saturday, 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.
Authorities say Romeo initially stayed at the scene after the crash, then walked away, climbed over a 6-foot fence 1,000 feet from the scene and headed down a steep embankment. 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 authorities have Romeo's cellphone as well as two cellphones belonging to the limo driver and are looking into call and text records.
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.
Investigators reexamined the limo Friday and say the fact it had no side protection -- a safety concern for the vehicles nationwide -- may have exacerbated the injuries in the crash. Some companies use crossbars to reduce impact, but there is no regulation requiring the mechanism.
It's not clear if the limo passengers were wearing seat belts. The limo driver was also taken to a hospital after the crash but was expected to be OK.