CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Four women were killed during a summer day of wine tasting on Long Island last year, and on Wednesday, a grand jury placed the blame on a limo driver who was supposed to keep them safe.
As CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan reported, Carlos Pino, 58, was indicted on four charges of criminally negligent homicide, four counts of assault, failure to yield the right of way, reckless driving and other traffic law infractions, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said.
Eight friends were in his limousine after touring local wineries on July 18, 2015 when authorities said a pickup truck slammed into the limo, which was making a U-turn on Route 48 in Cutchogue at the time.
Brittney Schulman, 23, of Smithtown; Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack, were killed.
Four other women in the limo survived.
The pickup truck driver, Steven Romeo, was initially charged with driving while intoxicated. Romeo was also arraigned in Central Islip Wednesday on charges of driving while intoxicated and driving while ability impaired by alcohol, Spota said.
The grand jury said Pino was hired to drive the victims safely on the winery tour and failed to do so.
“The person who is criminally responsible for this crash is Carlos Pino, and Carlos Pino alone,” Spota said. “He failed to take any precaution or any action to make sure he could safely enter the westbound lanes. He continued to attempt to make his turn without stopping, without looking.”
Because of the Jeep, Romeo, who was heading west at around 55 miles per hour, did not see the limo pulling into the intersection until he was about 200 feet away, Spota said.
“Mr. Romeo had only 200 feet to react to the hazard he saw, and stop his vehicle,” Spota said. “A perfectly sober Steven Romeo could not avoid this crash. An intoxicated Steven Romeo could not avoid this crash. It was simply unavoidable from Romeo’s perspective.”
A husband and father of two, and formerly a police captain in his native Chile, Pino entered a not guilty plea Wednesday and called the crash a terrible unintentional accident.
He said he did not see the drunken driver barreling toward him at 60 mph.
“It appears to be a first for where the driver of a vehicle that has been hit by a drunk driver — an alleged drunk driver; an allegedly speeding drunk driver — has then been criminally charged following that accident,” said Pino’s defense attorney, Brendan Ahern.
Until now, Romeo, a marine mechanic, had been the only person charged in the crash. Prosecutors said he had admitted to drinking a few beers.
The tragedy was painstakingly reconstructed following new witness testimony.
Spota said the grand jury did not indict Romeo on charges of vehicular manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide because by law, “there must be a link between Romeo’s intoxication and the cause of the crash, because in this instance, the crash was unavoidable, either sober or drunk. There is no such link, and the grand jury failed; did not indict him for vehicular manslaughter.”
CBS2’s McLogan asked Romeo’s defense attorney, Steve O’Brien, whether he had a message for the victims’ families.
“We’ve said from the beginning this is a tragic case. There is no happiness for us,” O’Brien said. “We still have charges to contend with; two theories of driving while intoxicated.”
O’Brien said Romeo’s blood alcohol was below the legal threshold for driving drunk.
CBS2 also spoke with some friends, relatives and attorneys for the victims.
“They’re still extremely devastated on the loss of their daughter, and they’re just looking for justice in this case,” said Frank Laine, an attorney for victim Grabina.
Attorneys and relatives expressed surprise at the developments Wednesday, but pleased that both drivers were charged.
Since the crash, a traffic light has been installed at the intersection.