Former FDNY firefighter Joseph Norris pleaded guilty Tuesday to driving drunk in the wrong direction on the Sunken Meadow Parkway in 2020 before crashing into a car driven by Anthony Mariano, a Queens teacher, killing him instantly.  Credit: Newsday/James Carbone; Randee Daddona

A former New York City firefighter from Babylon admitted driving drunk for 3½ miles in the wrong direction on the Sunken Meadow Parkway in 2020 before crashing into a car driven by a Queens teacher, killing him instantly, at an emotionally charged plea hearing in Riverhead Tuesday.

Joseph Norris, 40, who lost both legs in the crash, pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide, second-degree manslaughter and aggravated driving while intoxicated in the crash that killed Anthony Mariano, 44, a social studies teacher at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Bayside.

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Stephen Braslow is expected to sentence him to 5 to 15 years in prison at his next court appearance, on July 19.

“This tragic event claimed the life of a beloved Suffolk County schoolteacher," Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said in a statement. "We realize and are saddened by the fact that no sentence here can return Mr. Mariano to his family and students.” 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Ex-FDNY firefighter Joseph Norris pleaded guilty Tuesday to aggravated vehicular homicide, second-degree manslaughter and aggravated driving while intoxicated in the crash that killed Anthony Mariano, a Queens teacher from Kings Park.
  • Prosecutors said Norris drove 3.5 miles in the wrong direction on the Sunken Meadow Parkway Nov. 20, 2020 before striking Mariano's vehicle. His blood alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit.
  • Norris, who retired from the FDNY in May 2022, is expected to be sentenced in July to 5 to 15 years in prison.

Norris, who was supported by family members and more than a dozen FDNY firefighters, entered a tense courthouse, with friends and family of Mariano holding signs outside showing the face of the man he killed in the wrong-way crash.

“You’re a murderer; you killed him,” one woman shouted as she jumped in front of Norris' wheelchair as he made his way down a hallway.

Court officers had to keep both sides separated before, during and after the proceeding and warned that any outbursts in the courtroom would result in arrest. A row of seating was kept empty as a buffer between the two sides.

“If he was going to plead guilty, he should have just been a man and did it when he came out of the hospital instead of putting his parents, family and friends through this,” said Mariano’s fiancee and partner of 10 years, Christie Azzolini.

She said 5 to 15 years in prison isn’t enough for causing a death.

“The penalties for drunken driving need to be increased,” Azzolini said. “And the climate on Long Island, you wake up every day to a drunk-driving accident.”

Norris’ attorney, Anthony La Pinta, previously said that his client, who had been assigned to Ladder 107 in Brooklyn, was honored for his heroic actions during the 2007 Deutsche Bank fire that killed two firefighters and injured 114. His wife was seven months pregnant at the time of the crash.

“This is a horrible tragedy … two grieving families that are heartbroken and in pieces,” La Pinta said following Tuesday’s hearing. “Hopefully this is the first step in the healing process.”

La Pinta called the anticipated sentence fair and said his client has “taken full responsibility for his actions.”

“He will literally suffer the consequences of his bad acts every day of his life,” La Pinta said.

Norris admitted in court Tuesday to drinking between 2 and 7 p.m. at Blush, an adult entertainment club in Commack, on the day of the crash. His blood alcohol content was 0.29%, more than three times the legal limit of 0.08%, prosecutors said.

“[Did] Anthony Mariano die as a result of his injuries in the crash you caused?” asked Assistant Suffolk County District Attorney Raymond Varuolo.

“Yes,” Norris responded.

Christie Azzolini, the fiancee of Anthony Mariano, at the Riverhead court...

Christie Azzolini, the fiancee of Anthony Mariano, at the Riverhead court Tuesday where Norris pleaded guilty to the wrong-way crash that killed Mariano. Credit: Randee Daddona

The crash occurred at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20, 2020, when, after driving 3½ miles in the wrong direction, Norris collided at 62 mph with the 2007 Mazda CX-7 SUV driven by Mariano, who was picking up dinner for his family, prosecutors said at the time. Other drivers had to "take evasive action to avoid" Norris' truck, Varuolo said in court Tuesday.

Beer cans and a bottle of whiskey were found in Norris' 2008 Chevrolet Colorado after the crash, prosecutors had said.

An FDNY firefighter since 2006, Norris was suspended with pay following his 2020 arrest. He retired in May 2022, an FDNY spokesperson said. 

Norris will remain free on bail until his July 19 sentencing.

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