The retired NYPD officer who struck and killed a 13-year-old special-needs girl in Levittown listened intently but exhibited little emotion as the dead child's family spoke Tuesday of their immense pain. Then, he was sentenced, handcuffed and led away to prison.
Michael Elardo, 48, of Syosset apologized in a Mineola courtroom to the family of Bryanna Soplin, 13, before he was sentenced to 11/3 to 4 years in prison and a $2,500 fine for the deadly hit-and-run. During the sentencing hearing, her family displayed a pair of poster boards with harsh words for Elardo and photos of the smiling face of the girl lovingly nicknamed "Bryannita," juxtaposed with a picture of a bright pink urn holding her ashes.
"I can't tell you the remorse I have," Elardo said in the courtroom, where he was joined by his four children and other family members. "I pray every day for Bryanna and her family. . . . I accept full responsibility for my actions."
Bryanna's mother, Jennifer Curuchaga, who is pushing for passage of a law that would more severely punish the drivers in fatal hit-and-run accidents, told the court Bryanna's death had been a "nightmare for the family."
Speaking directly to Elardo, Curuchaga said: "She left a big hole in our hearts, thanks to you, Mr. Elardo. No matter what happens, she's not coming back. . . . I know as a mom, as a person, I would have stopped. You left her there to die. I have a feeling you were drunk and I'm always going to think that till the day I die."
By Curuchaga's side were Bryanna's younger siblings -- Dayanara, 7, and Angelo, 11, who said: "I miss Bryanna. I loved her."
Bryanna's uncle, Carlos Curuchaga, an NYPD officer in Brooklyn's 69th Precinct, also addressed Elardo, a 13-year NYPD officer who retired on a disability pension: "As a police officer, we were taught one thing -- to help people in need no matter what. . . . I thought we die with that oath."
Elardo pleaded guilty in August to leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Prosecutors had sought 21/3 to 7 years.
Bryanna, who had Down syndrome, was struck shortly after midnight on June 15 as she tried to cross Hempstead Turnpike at Gardiners Avenue and died hours later at a hospital. Bryanna's family has said she may have wandered from home to visit her grandfather in Hicksville.
Prosecutors have previously said they had "credible information" Elardo had been drinking before the crash, but he was not charged with DWI.
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Jerald Carter said because Elardo was not charged with drunken driving, the allegations had no bearing on his sentence, but they raised questions.
"There's always going to be that question as to what your sobriety was," Carter told Elardo before handing down the sentence.
"There's always going to be a presumption in some people's minds that you were intoxicated," he said.
The judge told Elardo that his reasoning for leaving the scene is "only known between you and God."
Maureen McCormick, chief of Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice's Vehicular Crimes Bureau, said Rice is working on state legislation, to be called "Bryanna's Law," that would increase the penalties for those who leave the scene of accidents.
McCormick said the legislation has sponsors, who she declined to name, and will be submitted to the State Legislature in Albany next year.
Rice, in a statement, said she advocates upgrading the crime to a Class C felony with a maximum 5- to 15-year sentence.
"It's not enough for drivers to apologize after leaving the scene -- the law needs to change to discourage drivers from fleeing in the first place," Rice said in a statement. "A driver who flees the scene of a collision should not benefit from that flight. Right now a driver may face lower charges because he has prevented a full investigation and I support Bryanna's family's call to increase these penalties."
Elardo's attorney, Michael DerGarabedian of Rockville Centre, who has denied that his client was intoxicated at the time, said 26 people wrote letters to the judge praising Elardo's character.
"The only thing he wants out of this is forgiveness," DerGarabedian said.