A man accused of driving drunk consumed beer at home before crashing into a limousine that a witness said had pulled into his pickup truck's path on a Cutchogue road, killing four young women, officials said Monday.
The driver, Steven Romeo, remained at the scene for about 15 minutes, then walked away before being found by a Suffolk County police officer, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said at a news conference Monday.
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On Monday, Spota said he was not sure if the charges against Romeo would be upgraded, a claim made Sunday by one of his prosecutors.
"I really can't say right now," Spota said Monday. "We'll make that determination a little later on. . . . It is not as clear as one might think."
The crash Saturday afternoon near the Vineyard 48 winery, which also injured six, happened at an intersection long identified as troublesome.
Vineyard 48, the winery the eight women had just visited, is on the south side of county Route 48, a 4-lane divided road. To head west back to Smithtown, where the women's day began, limo driver Carlos Pino, 58, of Bethpage, had to go east a short distance to Depot Lane, where there is an intersection with a flashing yellow light, and make a U-turn.
Although it is legal for a limo to make that turn, Southold town police and neighbors said many drivers struggle to do it safely. Some swing wide, blocking the westbound lanes, and others have to reverse in the middle of the intersection to complete the turn, said town Police Chief Martin Flatley.
"We've had issues with limousines making difficult turns at that intersection," he said. His officers issue 10 to 12 tickets a month there for improper turns, he said.
Pino made the turn legally, officials said.
Donna Carnebale, a neighbor, said the intersection needs a full traffic light. "It's dangerous," she said. She dropped off a bouquet of flowers in the median there Monday, and felt endangered by traffic speeding by in both directions.
For an eastbound driver, Route 48 gently bends left after the intersection, but there is an unobstructed view of all lanes of traffic. The speed limit is 55 mph there.
Didn't see traffic
Pino told police he saw no oncoming traffic when he made the turn, but Spota said an eastbound driver saw the pickup truck before the limo started turning. "He said the limo was turning right in front of the truck," Spota said.
Police say Romeo hit the brakes, but not soon enough to avoid the crash.
Spota said he didn't believe the limo had a dashboard camera, which would have provided video of the crash. In the 2005 murder case against drunken driver Martin Heidgen, Nassau prosecutors relied on a dashboard video from the limo Heidgen hit while driving the wrong way on the Meadowbrook Parkway. That crash killed 7-year-old Katie Flynn of Long Beach and the limo driver, Stanley Rabinowitz, 59, of Farmingdale.
On Saturday, the impact killed Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown; Brittney M. Schulman, 23, of Smithtown; and Amy R. Grabina, 23, of Commack.
Seriously injured were four of their friends in the limo -- Joelle M. Dimonte, 25, of Elwood; Alicia Arundel, 24, of Setauket; Olga Lipets, 24, of Brooklyn; and Melissa Angela Crai, 23, of Scarsdale.
Dimonte was discharged yesterday from Peconic Bay Medical Center, according to Mary Thomas, the manager of marketing and communications at the hospital.
Crai was in serious condition yesterday at Stony Brook University Medical Center. Lipets was in fair condition and Arundel was in good condition at Stony Brook.
Olga Lipets' grandmother, Lyubov Drurer, said her granddaughter came to the United States from Kiev when she was 2 years old. She was a ballroom dancer for 10 years and attended Midwood High School. Lipets earned a bachelor's degree from Pace University and is working on her master's in speech pathology at Lehman College.
"She is very lucky," Drurer said. "It's very sad."
Investigators have not spoken yet with any of the women who survived, Spota said.
Pino and Romeo were less seriously injured. Spota said Romeo had a broken nose and other minor injuries.
Spota emphasized that much is not yet known about what caused the crash.
"I must caution you that we are in the very preliminary stages of this investigation," he said.
Two key pieces of information were not yet known, he said: One was Romeo's speed before the crash. The other was the level of his intoxication.
Spota said Romeo told police he had worked at Romeo Dimon Marine Service in Southold from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday, then went home and did some work around the house. Afterward he had some beer, but Spota declined to say how much he drank.
He also declined to say whether Romeo expressed remorse for his role in the crash, but said all of his actions and statements will be considered when his office decides how to proceed with the case.
Spota said investigators were waiting Monday for the results of a blood test to see how intoxicated he was.
Romeo's attorney, Daniel O'Brien of Nesconset, did not respond to numerous phone calls Monday.
Praise for victims
Spota praised the victims for acting responsibly and hiring a limo when they knew they would be drinking. He said the limo picked them up at Baruch's house and took them to LIV, a vodka maker in Baiting Hollow. Then they went to Vineyard 48 and stayed until about 5:15 p.m., he said.
After the crash, Spota said Romeo remained at the scene for about 15 minutes and spoke to police. Then he walked about 1,000 feet away, climbed over a 6-foot fence next to a transfer station and went down an embankment before a Southold police officer found him and brought him back to the scene, where he was given a field sobriety test.
Spota said it was unclear whether Romeo committed the crime of leaving the scene of an accident, as he stayed initially and spoke with police as the law requires.
Romeo was taken to Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport. He pleaded not guilty to DWI, a misdemeanor, and was held on bail of $500,000 cash or $1 million bond.
Pino, who works for Ultimate Class Limousine in Hicksville, has not been charged with any crime. Madeline Farley, commissioner of Nassau County Consumer Affairs, said there were no complaints lodged against Pino or Ultimate Class Limousine.
Matthew Silver, president of Ultimate Class Limousine and a member of the Nassau Taxi & Limousine Commission, referred questions to his public relations representative, Bill Corbett Jr.
Corbett said there are 24 full-time and part-time drivers who work for Ultimate Class Limousine. It has a fleet of 18 vehicles.