DA: Driver in quadruple teen fatal was high, speeding

Joseph Beer is brought into the Nassau County Joseph Beer is brought into the Nassau County Courthouse in Mineola. (Nov. 16, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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A Queens teenager was high on marijuana and driving more than 110 mph when he crashed his car on the Southern State Parkway in October, killing four of his friends, a prosecutor said at the teen's arraignment on manslaughter charges Friday.

Joseph Beer, 17, of South Richmond Hill, hung his head low as he was led into Nassau County Judge David Ayres' Mineola courtroom in handcuffs.

As his mother wept in the gallery, he pleaded not guilty to aggravated vehicular manslaughter and other charges and was ordered held on $1 million bail, or $2 million bond. The bail set by Ayres was double what the district attorney had requested.

If convicted of the top charge against him, Beer will face up to 25 years in prison.

Patricia and Aaditia Beer, the teen's parents, were also charged with unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle after prosecutors said they knowingly allowed their son to drive without a license, only a learner's permit. They each face up to 15 days in jail and a $150 fine, prosecutors said. Neither parent spoke as they left the courtroom with their lawyer.

"The sheer magnitude of this tragedy is unthinkable, and it could have easily been avoided if this defendant had simply made the right decision to drive sober and drive safely," District Attorney Kathleen Rice said at a news conference.

Rice said there's an object lesson in the tragedy for parents as well.

"We need you to supervise your children -- to know where they're going and who they're with. And when they get their learner's permit, we need you to teach them to be careful," she said.

Beer's lawyer, Todd Greenberg of Forest Hills, Queens, called the highway deaths an unfortunate accident, not a crime.

"We intend to challenge every aspect of this case," he said, adding that he doesn't mean to minimize the magnitude of the tragedy. The young driver's parents are "as distraught for the families of these four young men as they are for their own son," Greenberg said.

The defense lawyer also criticized the high bail. He argued that Beer had voluntarily surrendered and has no ties outside New York.

Prosecutor Michael Bushwack said in court that Beer was high and speeding when he lost control of his 2-week-old 2012 Subaru Impreza at 3:35 a.m. on Oct. 8. The car slammed into trees off the parkway between exits 18 and 17.

The force of the impact split the sedan in two and the four passengers -- Darian Ramnarine, Christopher Khan and Peter Kanhai, all 18, and Neal Rajapa, 17, all from Queens -- were ejected from the vehicle. They were pronounced dead at the scene.

Maureen McCormick, who heads Rice's vehicular crimes unit, said some of the teens were wearing seat belts and others weren't, but that even seat belts and air bags most likely couldn't have saved them from such a horrific crash.

"There was no passenger side left to that vehicle whatsoever," she said. Asked how Beer, who also was thrown from the car, survived with only minor injuries, she replied, "Fate?"

Rice said prosecutors are still investigating where the teens were headed, and where and when they smoked the marijuana. The five were close friends from Richmond Hill High School, friends and relatives said.

The indictment against Beer was handed up by a grand jury Thursday and unsealed at the arraignment. In addition to aggravated vehicular manslaughter, Beer faces four counts of second-degree vehicular manslaughter, operating a motor vehicle while on drugs, reckless driving, reckless endangerment and operating a motor vehicle without a license.

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