DA: Man pleads guilty in fatal boat crash

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A New Jersey man charged in a July Fourth 2010 holiday weekend drunken boating accident in New York Harbor that killed the fiance of a New Hyde Park woman has accepted a plea deal to three felony counts, authorities said Tuesday.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance said Richard Aquilone, 43, of Jersey City, has pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular manslaughter, second-degree vehicular assault and to criminally negligent homicide for his role in the July 2, 2010, accident.

He will be sentenced Nov. 12 to 5 years' probation and 250 hours of community service, authorities said. He could have faced up to 7 years in prison if convicted.

The crash killed Jijo Puthuvamkunnath, 30, of Bergenfield, N.J., and injured two of his friends. Puthuvamkunnath was planning for his upcoming marriage to Sissy Chacko when he was killed in the crash.

Authorities said Aquilone was drunk when his 30-foot Pro-Line powerboat, with five passengers including his wife, two sons and a daughter aboard, crashed into the anchored 17-foot boat occupied by Puthuvamkunnath and his friends off Liberty Island about 6:20 p.m. A tourist boat operated by Circle Line Downtown reported the accident to police.

After the crash, Puthuvam-kunnath was brought to Jersey City Medical Center where he was pronounced dead from head injuries. His friends sustained minor injuries.

Immediately after the crash, the lawyer for Aquilone said his client had swerved to avoid the tour boat and claimed that boat's wake made it difficult for Aquilone to see the anchored 17-foot boat with Puthuvam-kunnath and his friends aboard.

But Aquilone admitted in his guilty plea and documents filed in court that despite "clear conditions and calm water," he "drove his boat directly toward another powerboat for about one mile before colliding with it, killing one passenger aboard the other boat and injuring two others," Vance said in a news release Tuesday.

"Power boats, like cars, are potentially deadly weapons when piloted without proper caution," Vance said in his statement. He added: "This individual was not only under the influence of alcohol, but also failed to follow several rules of nautical navigation and to maintain a proper watch, resulting in tragedy. Far too many people take the wheel after a few drinks without realizing they are over the legal limit, putting the lives of everyone in their path at risk."

Chacko and Puthuvamkunnath were to marry on Aug. 28, 2010, at the Assyrian Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in Paramus, N.J.

At the time of his death, Puthuvamkunnath's Facebook page profile photo proudly displayed a snapshot of his marriage proposal, reading: "SISSY CHACKO WILL YOU MARRY ME" -- posted on the marquee of the Merrick Cinemas.

A friend of Puthuvamkunnath who worked as a projectionist at the cinemas said in 2010 that the theater staff posted the proposal on the marquee during a private screening of "The Notebook" -- and that Puthuvamkunnath showed it to Chacko when the couple exited the theater after the movie.

The account ran in the Bergen Record in 2010. "She looked back and just froze," the friend told the Record then. "He got down on one knee."

With Keith Herbert,

Ted Phillips and AP

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