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Long IslandCrime

Texting driver sentenced in Sagtikos crash that injured trooper

Trooper Joseph Gallagher is shown in a photo

Trooper Joseph Gallagher is shown in a photo provided by the New York State Police. Credit: NYS Police

State Trooper Joseph Gallagher was a helper, his family says.

The youngest of four children, Gallagher would be the one to help care for his older siblings. In the Coast Guard, he flew a search-and-rescue helicopter.

And on Dec. 18, 2017, he was helping a disabled motorist on a Sagtikos Parkway overpass in Commack when he was struck by a car driven by Jesse Cohen, who was distracted by three separate texting conversations, prosecutors said.

The father of two suffered a traumatic brain injury, losing the ability to walk, talk or eat without help.

On Friday, Cohen, 24, of West Islip, was sentenced to 30 days time served, three years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service in a Central Islip court packed with state troopers. He had pleaded guilty in July to third-degree assault with criminal negligence, a misdemeanor.

Gallagher, a Buffalo native, had joined the State Police three years before the crash. His sister, Jaime Hitz, urged Cohen to follow her brother's altruistic legacy.

"Make sure some good comes out of this tragic accident," Hitz said in a victim's impact statement. "Be a helper. Go out into the this world and do some good."

Laura Gallagher said her 6-year-old son, William, and 3-year-old daughter, Catherine, will have few memories of their father, now 38, who lives at a center for patients with traumatic brain injuries.

"They don't understand why he's not getting better and coming home," she said.

State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho urged Cohen, who had no previous criminal record, to spend his community service educating others about distracted driving.

"Tell your story at the top of your lungs," he said. "People will listen."

A tearful Cohen took responsibility for his role in the crash and expressed remorse to the Gallagher family.

"There is not a day, an hour or minute that goes by when I don't feel responsible for causing this tragedy, which was caused by my poor judgment," he said. "I am so sorry."

On the day of the collision, Gallagher parked his patrol car, with its lights flashing, behind a stopped car, prosecutors said. He closed one of the two lanes on the overpass and placed flares around the disabled vehicle, officials added.

Cohen was on his way home from the Walt Whitman Shops mall — where he was getting his phone repaired — when he crashed into Gallagher. Prosecutors say Cohen sent and received dozens of text messages, and had several social media apps open, in the 20 minutes leading up to the crash.

Mary Beth Gallagher, the victim's mother, said her son can never hug his family again because of Cohen's "thoughtless" actions.

"Because you couldn’t stop the car to make a phone call, his family will never again hear Joe’s laugh or be able to give him a hug," she said. "You took all those hugs away from his family."

Defense attorney Lois Rowman said Cohen will dedicate his life to warning people about the dangers of driving while texting.

"We hope that will give the [Gallagher] family some measure of comfort and have some kind of impact in the future," she said.

Julia Cornachio, bureau chief of the vehicular crime unit for the Westchester district attorney's office, served as a special prosecutor in the case after Suffolk DA Timothy Sini recused himself because of an unspecific conflict of interest. She said her office was limited by outdated sentencing laws that "have not stayed up with the perils of distracted driving."

State Police Capt. Jose Febo said distracted driving doesn't just kill people on the road but destroys countless families whose futures are forever altered.

"Please put down the phone," Febo said. "It can wait."

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