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DA: Man arrested after fatal Cutchogue limo crash drank beer, climbed fence — may not be charged with leaving scene

A Peconic man charged with driving while intoxicated after a fatal crash involving a limousine that killed four young women Saturday admitted to having beer — but may not be charged with leaving the scene, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said today.

At a press conference held at the Southold Town recreation center, Spota, joined by Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Miller, New York State Police and members of the Suffolk County vehicular crimes unit, outlined what facts are known about the deadly accident so far.

Spota began by stating that in the past week, Suffolk County has been left reeling by a loss of life due to driving while intoxicated, including an accident that killed a father and two children.

Six days later, Spota said, tragedy unfolded on Route 48 in Cutchogue, after an accident that took place just after 5:15 p.m. Saturday, when the limo, carrying eight friends, was T-boned by a car driven by Steve Romeo, 55. Three girls died at the scene, he said; one died later at Peconic Bay Medical Center.

Investigation still in preliminary stages

Spota cautioned that the investigation was in its “preliminary stages,” with accident reconstruction and interviewing of witnesses still ongoing. The results of bloodwork to determine Romeo’s level of intoxication has not yet come back, he added. The speed at which the vehicle was traveling has also not yet been determined.

Describing Saturday’s events, Spota said, “This was a gathering of young women” who’d decided to spend a day at wineries on the North Fork. They’d left from the Smithtown home of Warren Baruch, the father of one of Lauren  Baruch, who died in the crash.

Next, the group traveled to LIV, or Long Island Spirits, on Sound Avenue in Baiting Hollow, where they spent an hour. They then traveled to Vineyard 48 on Route 48 in Cutchogue,  where they spent the remainder of the afternoon.

At 5:15, they all got back into the limo and the driver attempted to make a U turn to head west back to Smithtown.

U turns on Route 48

While it is legal to make that turn, Flatley has said that oftentimes, limos are too large to make the turn safely, taking up two lanes. Spota said in past years, Southold Police have issued summonses to limo drivers taking that turn unsafely. The turn is necessary to head back west as there is no direct cut outside of Vineyard 48 for motorists who want to head westbound,  Flatley said.

Spota commended Flatley and the Southold police department for all they have done to educate motorists about the dangers of turns on Route 48.

Flatley said during the busy summer season, his department issues about 10 to 12 summonses a month for unsafe turns.

The limo driver was not issued a summons, Spota said; the driver told police he “did not see” the red pickup truck driven by Romeo.

A witness at the scene, Spota said, told police “the limo was turning right in front of the truck.”

The limo driver agreed to chemical alcohol and drug testing and was found to have no alcohol or drugs in his system, Spota said.

When asked whether DWIs in Southold Town were up or down, Flatley said in the summer months they were “up slightly.” He added that the Stop DWI campaigns have been successful in raising awareness, and when saturation points were set up near wineries, few DWI arrests are made because most groups hired limos.

Driver walked away from scene, Spota said

Romeo, he said, stayed at the scene of the accident, then, after about 15 minutes, walked 1,000 feet, where he climbed a six foot fence at the transfer station, located on the north side of Route 48, then walked down an embankment.

Police, Spota said, ordered him to stop, “but he continued to walk.” Romeo, Spota said, did eventually stop; police then administered field sobriety tests.

He was taken to Eastern Long Island Hospital with “minor injuries,” including a broken nose, Spota said. He was arraigned bedside yesterday with Miller in attendance and held on $500,000 cash bail and $1 million bond.

Whether or not charges will be upgraded depend upon the results of the investigation, Spota said. “We can’t say right now.”

The district attorney added that still needs to be determined whether or not Romeo will be charged with leaving the scene of the accident since he did initially speak with police, he did give them information — and what was said during the time when he walked back to the scene was relevant. Whether or not he had planned to walk back to the scene on his own has not been determined, Spota said, adding that there are many “variables” that need to be considered.

He added that it needed to be determined whether Romeo’s actions fit the definition of “leaving the scene” as outlined in penal and vehicle and traffic law.

“It’s not as clear as one might think,” he said. The investigation, he said again, is in its preliminary stages.

Romeo’s attorney Dan O’Brien said outside ELIH yesterday that his client pleaded not guilty; he said Romeo did not try to run from police, as some have reported.

“He did not leave the scene,” he said

Once he is released from the hospital, Romeo, who has no prior DWIs and is in the custody of a sheriff at ELIH, Flatley said he will be brought to Southold Town police headquarters for processing, including a mug shot and fingerprints.

The surviving women, Spota said, were hospitalized. Two were airlifted to Stony Brook Hospital; with two taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center. One of the women was later taken by ambulance from PBMC to Stony Brook. One of the four, Spota said, is almost well enough for release.

Romeo, Spota said, said he’d worked that morning from 8 a.m. to noon, then returned home and drank beer while he did work around the house and waited for his girlfriend and her daughter to return from New York.

Spota declined to say how many beers Romeo may have had.

“That’s all I think we should be talking about at this point,” Spota said, noting that the investigation is active, with Romeo’s blood results still not back and the accident scene reconstruction ongoing.

Spota urges press to give families privacy

Spota urged the press to give the families their privacy. “Let’s be reasonable,” he said. “Four young women died in a very tragic accident. And four survived the “horrible, horrible” experience, he said, not only with physical but also, emotional, trauma.

And yet, Spota said, reporters were found “sneaking in” to the hospital.  Spota asked the media to think about what they were doing and wait for reports from his office.

The young women who lost their lives in the accident were identified as Brittany M. Schulman, 23, of Smithtown, Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown, Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park, and Amy R. Grabina, 23, of Commack.

Also injured in the accident were the driver of the limousine, Carlos Pino, 58, of Bethpage, Joelle M. Dimonte, 25, of Ellwood, Melissa Angela Crai, 23, of Scarsdale, Alicia Arundel, 24, of Setauket, and Olga Lipets, 24, of Brooklyn.

Miller confirmed that the young women in the limo included a bride and her friend who were “celebrating” but did not specify if they attended a bachelorette party. The bride survived, she said.

Spota said today the group was a “gathering of friends” who’d gathered to go to wineries, and while he had not spoken to the survivors he “didn’t believe” they were at a bachelorette party.

Romeo is no stranger to tragedy: In 2014, he was involved in an industrial accident that killed a worker, according to multiple reports. Spota said that event had no bearing on the current proceedings and there was “no criminal” history related to that accident.

“This is what we’ve always been afraid of,” Police Chief Martin Flatley said

In recent years, Vineyard 48 neighbors have cried out about limo operators, carrying patrons to the winery, driving dangerously on area roads and parking outside their homes.

Of the accident, Flatley said, “It was a dangerous move. This is what we’ve always been afraid of.”  Limos making such turns take up two to three lanes and pose a  danger on area roads, Flatley said, one reason why the town has been cautioning against potential tragedy on Route 48 for years.

Asked to describe the accident scene Saturday, Flatley said it was “chaotic”, with police unused to accidents with eight passengers; fire departments and emergency rescue, Suffolk County aviation, state and county police, as well as local officers, all were called to the scene, he said, with victims needed extrication from the vehicle.

Albie de Kerillis, a Greenport firefighter, said local emergency responders are left impacted by the tragedy. “We’ve never had that many victims at a single time,” he said. “It’s numbing.”