A Nassau police officer walked into a Mineola court Wednesday with the help of a cane for the arraignment of an alleged drunken driver he said "changed my life" after a New Year's crash while he worked a DWI patrol.
“This was the first time I ever saw him,” Officer Willard Gomes, 37, said outside Nassau County Court after defendant Keith Dillon’s not-guilty plea to a 14-count indictment.
The 13-year Nassau police veteran also spoke of injuries he’ll have to deal with for the rest of his life as he continues physical therapy and prepares for more surgeries.
“It’s gonna be a reminder every single day when I wake up that on Jan. 1, 2018, somebody decided to drink and drive and changed my life around,” Gomes said.
Dillon, 29, of New Hyde Park, faces offenses that include felony charges of aggravated vehicular assault, vehicular assault and assault. He only spoke publicly Wednesday to enter his plea in court.
The boat mechanic and U.S. Coast Guard veteran also is charged with several misdemeanor offenses, such as criminally possessing a controlled substance, drunken driving, driving under the influence of alcohol and a drug, and reckless endangerment.
Gomes suffered bleeding on his brain, a broken vertebra in his neck, a shattered elbow, a broken leg, an orbital bone fracture and the loss of several teeth in the crash, according to authorities.
Shortly before 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 1, Dillon was speeding south on Glen Cove Road in Greenvale when his 2014 Dodge Ram truck drove onto the center median before striking Gomes’ unmarked patrol car head-on, according to authorities.
Prosecutors said the impact pushed the patrol car back about 50 feet and propelled it into a Mercedes sport utility vehicle, whose occupants weren’t hurt. But authorities said Gomes became trapped in his car and it took fellow officers about 40 minutes to free him.
Prosecutor Stefanie Palma said in court Wednesday that Dillon’s blood alcohol content was 0.27 percent after the crash, more than three times the legal limit, and he could get 5 to 15 years in prison if convicted of the top charge.
Authorities said Dillon told police that he had six to eight glasses of wine and whiskey shots, and also had used medical marijuana and Xanax before the crash.
In the Dodge pickup, police found Xanax and two bags that appeared to have cocaine residue, records show.
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Patricia Harrington kept Dillon’s bail at $100,000 at Wednesday’s arraignment, telling Gomes the bond amount “has nothing to do with what happened to you,” but was to make sure the defendant came back to court.
Dillon, who has been free on the same bond, served in the Coast Guard from 2007 to 2013 and retired as a second-class petty officer, getting merit awards during his service, according to the attorney who represented him at his initial arraignment in a hospital in January.
Defense attorney Marc Gann told the judge Wednesday his client was “incredibly remorseful” and had been undergoing substance abuse counseling since his arrest, but they were “not going to try the case today.”
After court, Gann said he expected the case to be resolved without a trial “because I can tell you that the guilt and the remorse that Keith feels supports that position.”
Supporters surrounded Gomes outside the courthouse after the proceeding.
“It’s Will in his recovery that will stand up against this,” Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said, referring to drunken driving.
Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas called Gomes’ injuries “the human toll of what happens on our roadways” when motorists drive drunk.
“We will not tolerate it,” she added, promising her office would hold Dillon “accountable.”
Gomes said he didn’t doubt Dillon’s remorse, and agreed it was ironic he was hurt while trying to prevent other people from being injured in drunken driving crashes.
“I’m sure he was out having a good time. But there’s no excuse for drinking and driving,” he said. “Unfortunately I have to deal with my injuries for the rest of my life, so hopefully it will be a message for everybody else that goes out. Having a good time is fine, but putting somebody else’s life in danger is not a good thing.”