A retired NYPD officer poured out his regrets Wednesday to the mother of a 13-year-old special-needs girl moments after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of the Levittown crash that killed the teen.
"I certainly am sorry," said Michael Elardo, 48, of Syosset.
Then the grandmother of Bryanna Soplin, who had Down syndrome, held up a photo album in the Mineola courtroom and showed the former officer picture after picture of the girl as both women cried.
"Every day I pray," said Elardo, a divorced father with custody of his four children. "She's beautiful. I'm so sorry."
Bryanna was struck shortly after midnight on June 15 as she tried to cross Hempstead Turnpike at Gardiners Avenue and died hours later in a hospital.
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Jerald Carter said he planned to sentence Elardo to 11/3 to 4 years in prison in October for leaving the scene of a fatal accident, the only charge he faced. Prosecutors had asked for 21/3 to 7 years, the maximum.
Carter said he met with Bryanna's mother, Jennifer Curuchaga, to explain his thoughts before announcing his decision in court. But Curuchaga, 33, of Levittown, said later she wished the penalty was tougher.
"It's not justice, because she's gone and someday down the road he'll be able to come out and have his life back," she said of Elardo. "Justice will be in God's hands when the time comes."
Curuchaga also said she felt Elardo's apology didn't come from his heart.
"It did make me feel a little better. But my baby's not coming back," she said.
Bryanna's family believes she may have wandered away from home to try to visit her grandfather in Hicksville. Her mother has said she woke with a bad feeling and called police after finding Bryanna gone and the back door of their home unlocked.
Elardo said after his apology that he wanted to tell Curuchaga he knew "there's nothing I can do to reverse what happened."
"I just couldn't imagine losing a child of my own. I hope that, and I pray that they could find some closure today with me coming in and admitting I'm guilty," he said. "It's been very hard for me and my family, but it doesn't compare to the suffering that I'm sure she's going through, losing her daughter. . . . I just hope my children can learn to take responsibility for their actions by watching what happened."
Prosecutors previously said they had "credible information" that Elardo had been drinking at two places before the crash.
Elardo's attorney, Michael DerGarabedian of Rockville Centre, had said his client wasn't intoxicated at the time of the crash and believed he'd hit a construction barrel with the minivan he was driving.
He told the judge Wednesday that Elardo contacted police within seven hours and turned in the minivan within 10 hours of the crash after hearing news reports about it.
The attorney has said Elardo went to Bethpage High School and Briarcliffe College before becoming a decorated officer who retired on a disability pension after 13 years with the NYPD. He said Elardo coaches youth sports teams along with other volunteer work.
"It's been laboring his heart for a long time to go up and say how he felt to the mother," said DerGarabedian, who called the case closed because of his client's acceptance of responsibility.
But Maureen McCormick, chief of Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice's Vehicular Crimes Bureau, said the probe into the collision would stay open because Elardo's plea didn't cover the crash itself -- only that he left the scene.
"We never close our eyes to any evidence that comes forward," she said, adding that Rice wants to see a legislative change that would increase hit-and-run penalties.
"The fact of the matter is that we will never know what Mr. Elardo's blood-alcohol level may have been," McCormick said. "By him leaving, we'll never know, and the person should not get the benefit of a lesser charge, a lesser sentence because you leave."