A witness to the accident that killed four young women and seriously injured four others on Long Island told police he saw the limousine the women were riding in attempt to make a U-turn “right in front” of the pickup truck that smashed into them, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.
The driver of the pickup truck, 55-year-old Steven Romeo, pleaded not guilty to driving while intoxicated during a hospital bedside arraignment, but no other charges have been filed against him. Romeo is likely to face upgraded charges when he appears in Southold Town Court on Friday, Assistant Suffolk County District Attorney Elizabeth Miller said Sunday, according to the New York Post. He's being held on $500,000 cash bail or $1 million bond.
Romeo suffered minor injuries in the crash, including a broken nose. His injuries were “nowhere near as serious as the injuries that the four surviving women sustained,” Spota said during a briefing Monday.
Spota said Romeo had no prior DWIs, but that Romeo admitted to cops he consumed “some beers” prior to the crash while working around his house. Authorities are awaiting the results of a blood test administered to Romeo to determine the level of alcohol in his system.
Spota said authorities did not yet know the speed of the truck or the limousine, which was carrying eight friends coming from a wine tasting. The four women who died were identified as Amy Grabina, 23; Stephanie Belli, 23; Lauren Baruch, 24; and Brittney Schulman, 23. The friends were initially believed to be attending a bachelorette party; however, Spota said he believed it was just a "gathering of friends." The limo driver also sustained injuries in the crash.
The U-turn made by the driver was “not prohibited in that location,” according to Spota. He said, however, that town cops had been recently issuing summonses to limo drivers for the manner in which they have been making U-turns.
The limo driver told police that he did not see any vehicle coming toward him as he attempted to make the turn into the westbound lane of Depot Ave. in Cutchogue, according to Spota. But a witness in the eastbound lane told cops that “he was able to see the red truck heading in a westbound direction,” Spota said. “He described to police that the limo was turning right in front of the truck when the crash occurred.”
"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time"
Spota said Romeo initially stayed at the scene for about 15 minutes, but was then seen walking away. He allegedly walked 1,000 feet, climbed over a 6-foot black fence and preceded down a steep embankment. Eventually a police officer caught up with Romeo, told him to stop and brought him back to the scene. Romeo’s attorney, Dan O’Brien, denies his client attempted to flee the scene.
"As a family, we're obviously devastated by the loss of my daughter," said Steven Baruch, his voice choking up at times as he spoke by phone about his daughter, Lauren Baruch.
He said the young women had been friends for years, as far back as high school, and they had taken this kind of winery tour before.
"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said of his daughter. "We loved her more than anything. Now I've got to bury my daughter."
Sunday’s tragedy was not the first fatal accident in which Romeo was allegedly involved.
A fellow worker died in 2014 when a bucket fell from machinery Romeo was operating without proper training, according to the Suffolk Times.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.