What to Know
- Steven Romeo's pickup truck t-boned a stretch limousine in July 2015
- Four women died in the accident; another four, including a bride-to-be, were hurt
- The limo driver had also been indicted, but a judge dropped those charges over questions about grand jury testimony impropriety
The pickup driver who t-boned a limousine carrying eight women leaving a Long Island winery in July 2015, killing four of them and injuring the others, including a bride-to-be, has pleaded guilty to driving while ability impaired in a deal that will cost him a fine and his license for a time but avoid jail.
Steven Romeo had been indicted on DWI charges after allegedly admitting to cops he had had "a few beers" before the ghastly tragedy, but a grand jury declined to charge him with manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, instead blaming the limo driver for making a reckless U-turn.
Lawyers for both sides explained the Romeo deal Wednesday, saying a DWI charge wouldn't stick because his blood alcohol level was technically below the legal threshold by the time it was tested. In accordance with the deal, Romeo will pay a $500 fine and lose his license for 90 days.
Brittany M. Schulman, 23, of Smithtown; Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Amy R. Grabina, 23, of Commack, were killed in the crash. Four other women were seriously hurt.
Romeo's lawyer said after the plea was announced that he felt "awful" for the victims' families.
"Steve has felt sorrow for the families from day one," said defense attorney Steve O'Brien.
The families didn't appear pleased with the agreement, but did not speak after court Wednesday.
"This is heartbreaking," Suffolk County prosecutor John Prudenti acknowledged. "This is a parent's worst nightmare."
"It's probably the saddest case I've been involved in in 30-plus years in the system," he said.
Prosecutors had said the limo driver, Carlos Pino, was the one responsible for the deaths and injuries because he "failed to take any precaution or action to make sure he could safely enter the westbound traffic lanes" and made a U-turn on state Route 48 without stopping. A grand jury indicted Pino on multiple counts of criminally negligent homicide and other crimes, but a judge tossed all charges against him in October, ruling the case had been flawed by improper grand jury testimony and thus freeing the only person who had been charged in the deaths of the four young women.
Prosecutors pledged at the time that they would appeal, but the status of the case wasn't immediately clear Wednesday.
Despite Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho saying he had "agonized" over the decision to toss the Pino charges "more than any other in my 20 years," the families of the victims were outraged. Relatives were seated in the jury box, facing the judge, at the time the ruling was announced.
One relative yelled, "How could you look at him and do this? He doesn't deserve it!" Others burst out in tears.
The four women who survived the crash have filed civil lawsuits; Pino is named as the defendant in most if not all of them.
A special grand jury investigating the crash released a 156-page report in December calling for better safety regulations for stretch limousines. Limos built in factories are already required to meet stringent safety regulations, but when cars are converted into limos, like the one involved in the 2015 Long Island crash, safety features are sometimes removed, leading to gaps in safety protocols, the grand jury wrote.
The panel, convened by the Suffolk County district attorney, said that some limousine companies have falsified paperwork with the state Department of Motor Vehicles in order to avoid more stringent inspections required for buses, which under the law are any vehicles that can carry 11 or more passengers.