LEVITTOWN, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — A retired NYPD officer charged in connection with the hit-and-run death of a 13-year-old girl with Down syndrome in Levittown faced a judge Tuesday.
Bail for Michael Elardo, 48, of Syosset was set at $1 million during his arraignment in First District Court in Hempstead.
Elardo, who is a retired, disabled and decorated 13-year veteran of the NYPD, surrendered to police on Monday and was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, authorities said.
Police said Elardo fled the scene after he blew a red light and hit 13-year-old Bryanna Soplin as she crossed Hempstead Turnpike early Sunday.
“There was impact, but he didn’t believe he hit anybody,” attorney Michael DerGarabedian said. “This is one of the most dangerous intersections in the United States. What he believed he hit was one of those construction cones.”
As CBS 2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported, Elardo claims that he received an emergency phone call from one of his children seconds before the crash. The call was cut off and Elardo said he looked back, and decided to rush home when he didn’t see anything.
Bryanna’s mother, Jennifer Curuchaga, said that’s no excuse.
“If it was a piece of garbage, if it was an animal, a raccoon, a dog, a person, you should have stopped,” Curuchaga said. “It doesn’t matter what you hit. Your car got damaged. Why would you not stop knowing that your front light came off or to see what the damage is. What happened?”
Curuchaga said Bryanna had been tucked into bed Saturday night, but just after midnight, she was discovered missing.
“I looked – she wasn’t there,” Curuchaga said.
Her parents said Bryanna likely went out a backdoor and was trying to walk to her grandparents house nearly two miles away when she was hit.
First responders performed CPR on Bryanna after she was struck, but to no avail, her mother said. The girl was taken to a hospital, where she died hours later, police said.
“She’s my life. She’s my oxygen. She’s my oxygen,” said Bryanna’s grandmother, Patricia Curuchaga. “I can’t believe it.”
Witnesses claimed they saw Bryanna knock on the door of a closing business, but she was turned away.
“They just closed the door and said, ‘We’re closed,’ and she turned around kept on walking,” Curuchaga said.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation. Traffic cameras may show the speed of Elardo’s vehicle and who had the right of way.
“We are waiting for the results of several more witness interviews and also, I’m waiting for results from of the cameras that are located at that intersection,” Nassau County Police Det. Lt. John Azzata said.
Police said other cars were stopped at the light, Gusoff reported.
Many of Elardo’s neighbors were shocked to learn that he had been charged in the crash. They described him as a nice guy who was very friendly.
“I feel bad for him,” one woman told WCBS 880’s Mike Xirinachs. “I feel very bad for him. I’m sure it was an accident.”
“He’s always done everything right, he always is there to help everyone. This is just a horrible accident,” said Elardo’s uncle, Robert Nicholetti.
The single father of four children faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
Police said he could face additional charges based on the outcome of the investigation. It’s too soon to tell if drugs, alcohol or speed were factors, CBS 2’s Weijia Jiang reported. Elardo is due back in court Thursday.
Meanwhile at Wisdom Lane Middle School, grief counselors have been helping to cope with the loss of the sixth grader.
“Everyone who ever knew Bryanna, knew Bryanna was the best thing that ever happened to their life,” her mother said.
A wake for Bryanna will be held Wednesday in Bethpage.
Safety upgrades are underway on Hempstead Turnpike, but may take years to implement through a 16-mile stretch.
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