A judge Wednesday sentenced an Oakdale man to up to 12 years in prison for driving drunk and setting off a series of Long Island Expressway crashes that led to the death of a Nassau County police officer who came to the scene to help.
While James Ryan, 29, wasn’t behind the wheel of the vehicle that struck Officer Joseph Olivieri Jr. on Oct. 18, 2012, jurors last month found the defendant guilty of causing the death of the highway patrol veteran.
Ryan, the son of a now-retired Port Authority police sergeant, stood and turned to face Olivieri’s family before hearing his sentence. While choking back tears, he said: “Words can’t express how deeply sorry I am for your loss. Officer Olivieri was a great man.”
But Michael Olivieri, a brother of the fallen officer, said in a statement that a prosecutor read in court that it was “very difficult to forgive someone who does not seek forgiveness,” and that he didn’t see signs of Ryan being remorseful during the trial.
The officer’s family yesterday remembered Olivieri, 43, as a “true public servant” and someone who “was loved by everybody he came in contact with.”
Prosecutors had told jurors that Ryan turned the LIE “into his own drunken speedway” after a night of drinking in Manhattan.
They said Ryan’s Toyota Camry struck a car on the LIE near exit 35 in North Hills, before he drove away, then slammed on his brakes. That caused an off-duty NYPD detective to rear-end Ryan’s car, according to authorities.
Olivieri responded to the scene and a Cadillac Escalade hit the officer, after he had crossed lanes on foot to check on Ryan, whose car was disabled in the HOV lane, prosecutors said.
During the trial, defense attorneys argued that the driver who struck Olivieri, Francis Belizaire, 50, of Bay Shore, was solely to blame for the officer’s death.
In 2013, a Nassau judge had dismissed the top charges against Ryan, finding Belizaire solely responsible for the officer’s death. But an appellate court later restored the full indictment.
Belizaire, who wasn’t criminally charged, told Newsday after testifying at the trial that he felt partly responsible for Olivieri’s death. But the district attorney’s office decided Belizaire’s actions weren’t criminal and he got immunity from prosecution after testifying before the grand jury that indicted Ryan.
In February, a jury found Ryan guilty of charges including aggravated criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter and drunken driving, and he had faced up to 20 years in prison.
Nassau County Judge Philip Grella called the case a tragedy yesterday before announcing Ryan’s sentence. “I’m cognizant of the impact the sentence will have on a lot of people,” he said.
The judge gave Ryan 4 to 12 years in prison for his manslaughter conviction and 5 years for aggravated criminally negligent homicide. Officials said that means Ryan will have to serve a minimum of about 5 years in prison, and is likely to serve a maximum of 8 years.
Defense attorney Marc Gann said he would file an immediate appeal. Gann told the judge his client “accepts moral responsibility in some way,” but “not criminal responsibility,” and also told the officer’s family in court that Ryan and his family felt “the utmost sympathy and empathy” for them.
But the Mineola attorney also described what he said were multiple grounds for the appeal, including jurors not hearing about Belizaire’s driving record.
Gann also said instructions the judge gave the jury on the law didn’t give the panel a way to consider whether an “intervening cause” broke the chain of events that led to the officer’s death, and that multiple jurors told him “they had no alternative but to convict.”
Michael Olivieri’s statement described his family as being devastated by his brother’s death, and said: “I am not sure if anything could make the pain and sorrow easier to deal with.”
He said his mother was diagnosed with cancer months after his brother’s line of duty death, and then “died shortly thereafter with a broken heart.”
Nassau police union president James Carver said he didn’t think Ryan’s words in court meant anything to Olivieri’s family.
“There seems to be a pattern of not accepting responsibility,” Carver said.
District Attorney Madeline Singas called Olivieri a hero who “walked into the face of danger” and said she hoped the sentence gave “solace and comfort” to his family.
“Drunk drivers kill and they will be held accountable...we are thankful that justice was served today,” she said.
Olivieri had lived in Middle Island, was the father of two, and had been with the Nassau police force for 13 years after five years with the NYPD. An LIE overpass is now named for him.