The father of a woman who burned to death with her fiance in an Inwood crash said Wednesday after the arraignment of two motorists that he hoped those behind “this never-ending heartbreak” will be held accountable.
He and other relatives of victims Elisheva Kaplan, 20, of Far Rockaway, and Yisroel Levin, 21, of Brooklyn, stood with Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas after the arraignment as she called on BMW to cooperate with her probe by providing answers about one of the cars involved in the April 4 Nassau Expressway wreck.
“They were destined for a beautiful life together as husband and wife . . . The world shook when they were so abruptly taken from us, so tragically and with such violent force,” said Joel Kaplan, Elisheva Kaplan’s father. “ . . . We hope and pray that these proceedings will bring a level of accountability to those whose behavior caused this never-ending heartbreak.”
Zakiyyah Steward, 25, and Rahmel Watkins, 35, both of Brooklyn, pleaded not guilty to multiple charges Wednesday in connection with the crash.
Steward faces charges that include aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Watkins faces charges that include manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment.
Prosecutors say Watkins was driving a 2010 BMW 550i GT “dangerously fast” and potentially racing at least one other vehicle before his car crossed the centerline and hit a 2017 Nissan Altima head-on with the newly engaged couple inside. The Altima exploded and was propelled more than 200 feet back, with the couple trapped as it burned, according to authorities.
The BMW then hit an Infiniti, leaving the male driver with a broken spine, according to authorities. Steward was speeding next to Watkins in a 2016 Hyundai Genesis while drunk and impaired by marijuana when the vehicle also hit the Altima, prosecutors say.
Levin, the Altima’s driver, and his fiancee were driving home from a Passover gathering, and Watkins and Steward were heading to a Queens casino, according to prosecutors.
A Legal Aid Society attorney declined to comment on behalf of Steward.
Dennis O’Brien, Watkins’ Mineola attorney, extended condolences to the victims’ families but called the crash “a tragic accident, not a crime.”
In a May letter to BMW, Singas wrote that the speed of Watkins’ car is “an essential component” of the probe and traditional collision reconstruction methods were “hampered by the involvement of multiple vehicles and multiple impacts.”
Singas said Wednesday BMW has refused to tell her office if Watkins’ car would have recorded information about speed, velocity and braking, or assist prosecutors in retrieving that data if it is available.
“They have repeatedly and inexplicably refused to assist us,” she said.
Singas said her office can’t download any potentially available information from the car because prosecutors “don’t have the software and the systems that allow us to do it.”
A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandate became law in 2012 — covering cars made from 2013 to present — that requires manufacturers who store information in event data recorders to make it available, according to prosecutors.
Oleg Satanovsky, a BMW spokesman, said Wednesday the company responded to all subpoena requests from Singas’ office, but information prosecutors were seeking didn’t exist.
“The 2010 BMW 5 Series involved in the accident is not equipped with an Event Data Recorder. . . . It would therefore not be possible to provide any data stored in such a device. The DA’s office was notified of this,” Satanovsky said.
Miriam Sholder, a spokeswoman for Singas, said the district attorney’s office disgreed with Satanovsky’s assertion.
“BMW has not been forthcoming or helpful throughout this investigation,” Sholder said in a statement Wednesday night. “Regrettably, BMW’s claim to Newsday that there is no ‘event data recorder’ still does not answer the question as to whether the vehicle has any system that could offer crash-related data or information.”