Suffolk prosecutors have charged a Sound Beach man with second-degree murder, accusing him of driving drunk and on drugs the wrong way on Sunrise Highway for miles before killing a man on his way to work two days before Christmas.
Christopher O’Brien, 54, pleaded not guilty Monday to a 20-count indictment that also charges him with seven counts of reckless endangerment for the people he is accused of running off the road during his 7-mile drive before dawn on Dec. 23. If convicted, O’Brien faces a maximum of 41 1⁄3 years to life in prison on those charges.
State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho ordered him held without bail.
Murder charges are rare in fatal drunken driving cases, and it is even rarer for them to be prosecuted successfully. Last year, in fact, after Michael Grasing was acquitted of murder but convicted of a lesser charge for killing Brittney Walsh while driving drunk in Lindenhurst, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said he was unsure that his office could convince a jury that such a case was murder.
But on Monday, Spota said O’Brien’s behavior was so extreme — and so similar to the 2005 case of Martin Heidgen in Nassau — that it was worth seeking a murder charge.
“This is the strongest case we’ve had,” Spota said.
O’Brien’s drive began at a friend’s house in Mount Sinai, where O’Brien went seeking money for what he said was his sick mother, Assistant District Attorney Marc Lindemann said. But the friend realized that O’Brien, who has prior convictions for driving while intoxicated and drug possession, probably just wanted to buy drugs and told him to leave, Lindemann said.
By 5:10 a.m., Lindemann said, witnesses saw O’Brien headed south on Mill Road and Sills Road in Yaphank, often driving on the wrong side of those roads in dense fog. One driver followed him for a while, trying to get his attention while O’Brien forced others off the road, Lindemann said.
At some point, O’Brien made his way east in the westbound lanes of Sunrise Highway, again running other drivers off the road. Another motorist going east tried to keep pace with O’Brien’s Audi on the other side of the highway, but lost him in the fog at 65 mph, Lindemann said.
“He’s like parting the Red Sea,” Lindemann said. At 5:36 a.m., he crashed head-on into a car driven by Thomas D’Eletto, 57, killing him instantly, Lindemann said. O’Brien had a blood-alcohol level of 0.21 percent — more than double the legal standard of 0.08 percent — and also had cocaine in his blood, Lindemann said.
D’Eletto, a project engineer, was driving from his home in Aquebogue to work in Nassau County.
Lindemann said O’Brien told police he was going to Port Jefferson Station, where he lived at the time. “He ended up on the wrong shore of Long Island, going the wrong way,” Lindemann said.
“This is undoubtedly a significant tragedy,” said defense attorney Scott Gross of Garden City. “However, the extent of the criminal liability is still in question.”
Gross said the three-month delay before charging his client is a sign of problems “with the provability of the case.”
Spota and John Scott Prudenti, chief of Spota’s vehicular crimes unit, said the delay was rather a sign of a thorough, solid investigation that found numerous witnesses.
Spota said this case had many elements similar to the case of Heidgen, who was convicted of murder in Nassau County. He drove drunk on the wrong side of the Meadowbrook Parkway and hit a limousine returning from a wedding head-on, killing driver Stanley Rabinowitz, 59, of Farmingdale, and flower girl Katie Flynn, 7.
As in this case, numerous drivers tried to warn Heidgen he was heading the wrong way. Motorists in both cases said the defendants seemed to “track” them, trying to hit them. And both Heidgen and O’Brien had fights with their girlfriends beforehand, Spota said.
Heidgen is serving 19 years to life in prison.