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Case against pickup driver in deadly limo crash may depend on other evidence, experts say

Steven Romeo, co-owner of Southold-based Romeo Dimon Marine

Steven Romeo, co-owner of Southold-based Romeo Dimon Marine Services, pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor driving while intoxicated charge related to driving the pickup truck that crashed into a limousine in Cutchogue on July 18, 2015, killing four women. Photo Credit: Romeo Dimon Marine Service; Randee Daddona

The case against the pickup driver who crashed into a limousine that turned in front of him could end with vastly different results, depending on what other evidence authorities find, attorneys said Friday.

For now, Steven Romeo, 55, of Southold, is charged with driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor, as a result of the crash last Saturday in Cutchogue that killed four young women. At his arraignment the next day, prosecutors suggested he could face more serious charges. But Friday, when his blood-alcohol level was found to be under the legal threshold for DWI, prosecutors refused to commit to either increased or lesser charges until the investigation is complete.

"When you have a tragic accident like this, where four innocent lives are lost, you're always looking for someone to blame," said defense attorney Michael Brown of Central Islip, a former prosecutor. "But you have to be careful not to rush to judgment."

Christopher Gioe of Central Islip, another former prosecutor, said almost any outcome is possible, depending on how the investigation develops. "It's an interesting set of factors," he said.

Romeo's blood-alcohol level was .066 percent an hour and 40 minutes after the crash, less than the .08 percent threshold for DWI. District Attorney Thomas Spota said it's possible Romeo's blood-alcohol level was above that threshold at the time of the crash. But defense attorney Daniel O'Brien of Nesconset said his client did not drive while intoxicated and did not cause the crash.

Depending on when Romeo drank, Brown said it's just as possible his blood-alcohol level was even lower at the time of the crash. It can take more than an hour for alcohol to show up in the bloodstream, Brown said.

To sustain higher charges, such as vehicular manslaughter, aggravated vehicular homicide or manslaughter, Gioe said prosecutors will need evidence of recklessness by Romeo or evidence that his driving caused the deaths. Courts have ruled that merely drinking and driving is not such evidence.

Such factors could include excessive speed, erratic driving or being distracted by a cellphone, Brown said. Prosecutors will also have to consider the limo driver's actions. At least one witness said the limo turned just in front of Romeo's pickup.

Brown said the search for evidence of recklessness should be thorough.

"You want to leave no stone unturned, but you can't create something out of nothing," he said. "Not everything rises to the level of a crime, even if the results are horrible."

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