The driver of the limousine in which four young women on a North Fork winery tour were killed last summer was charged Wednesday with criminally negligent homicide after a grand jury decided he was solely responsible for the crash.
Carlos Pino, 59, of Old Bethpage, pleaded not guilty to the indictment, which also charged him with misdemeanor assault and various traffic infractions.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said Pino did not look for oncoming traffic or stop before attempting to make a U-turn July 18 at the intersection of County Route 48 and Depot Lane in Cutchogue.
If Pino had looked, Spota said, a Jeep Liberty would have blocked his view of oncoming westbound traffic, which included a pickup truck driven by Steven Romeo, 55, of Southold.
The pickup broadsided the limo, killing Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Lauren Baruch, 24, and Brittney Schulman, 23, both of Smithtown. Four others in the vehicle — all women in their 20s — were injured.
Romeo remains charged with misdemeanor driving while intoxicated, but Spota and the grand jury held him blameless for the crash.
“A perfectly sober Steven Romeo could not have avoided this crash,” Spota said. “The person who is criminally responsible for this crash is Carlos Pino, and Carlos Pino alone.”
If convicted, Pino faces a maximum of 1 1/3 to 4 years in prison. State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho set bail at $100,000 bond, which Pino posted Wednesday.
Pino’s attorney, Brendan Ahern of Hauppauge — a former Nassau vehicular crimes prosecutor — said the case doesn’t meet the legal standard for criminally negligent homicide.
He noted that the state Court of Appeals has thrown out such charges in cases similar to this one. In one, limo driver James McGrantham in 2006 drove the wrong way onto the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn and was hit by a motorcyclist while making a three-point turn across all lanes of traffic. The appeals court said McGrantham’s decision to turn around was “was not wise, but it does not rise to the level of moral blameworthiness required to sustain a charge of criminally negligent homicide.”
Ahern noted that his client, a police detective and captain in his native Chile, was sober and not using a phone at the time of the Cutchogue crash.
“Criminal liability is not always measured by the depth of human tragedy,” the attorney said. “The lines between civil liability and criminal liability have been blurred in this case.”
Spota said the crash investigation isn’t done. He said the grand jury is now looking at limousine construction and road safety. He did not say if further indictments would result.
Until now, the only person to be charged in the crash was Romeo, co-owner of a marine services company, who was released with no bail.
“He feels gratified and relieved,” said Romeo’s attorney, Stephen O’Brien of Nesconset. “We were confident that we would get this result.”
At his news conference, Spota described a re-enactment of the crash using identical vehicles, filmed from inside the vehicles, a helicopter and the roadside.
“This is probably one of the most detailed investigations, in all the years I’ve been associated with the DA’s office, that we’ve ever conducted,” he said.
Because of the westbound Jeep about to turn left onto Depot Lane, Spota said Romeo and Pino could not have seen each other until the last second, or less than 250 feet away. At 55 mph, an average person would not have had time to hit the brakes until about 70 feet from impact.
Spota said Romeo’s truck left more than 40 feet of skid marks.
The district attorney said Pino should have done what the Jeep driver did — stop until he could see the road was clear to make the turn. Instead, Spota said Pino just kept going.
Relatives for the victims could not be reached for comment, but Spota said they were informed of the charges and were appreciative of them.
Frank Laine of Plainview, an attorney representing the Grabina family in a lawsuit, said his clients are pleased.
“They have complete confidence in the Suffolk district attorney’s ability to hold the defendants responsible,” Laine said.
With Darran Simon