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Cutchogue intersection where four friends died previously tapped for a stoplight this fall

A car enters a turning lane to make

A car enters a turning lane to make a legal U-turn on Route 48 and Depot Lane to head westbound in Cutchogue on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. The road has flashing yellow lights and a speed limit of 55 mph. Credit: Randee Daddona

The Cutchogue intersection where four Smithtown friends were killed Saturday had previously been targeted for a stoplight that could be installed this fall, a Suffolk official said Tuesday.

The intersection contains a flashing yellow light on Route 48 and a flashing red light on Depot Lane. A traffic study last year concluded the stoplight was needed due to a spike in motorists visiting wineries and other North Fork sites and a forecast of more drivers over the next five years, said Gilbert Anderson, Suffolk County commissioner for public works.

"The volume of traffic is getting to be such that it's impacting the ability for vehicles to enter the street and get onto the highway," Anderson said.

Residents have long asked for the stoplight, which Anderson said won't have a signal for a designated-turning lane. He said the stoplight won't automatically prevent crashes like the one Saturday.

"There's no way to engineer around [driver error]," Anderson said.

Installing the stoplight is contingent on PSEG first doing work on the site when energy usage drops at summer's end.

Suffolk Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), said he is aware of traffic concerns and has been in touch with constituents and county officials to discuss the addition of the stoplight. Just as important, Krupski said, drivers need to pay attention.

"It would help everyone and make the roads a lot safer if we all drove like our life depended on it," he said.

The crash occurred after a pickup truck driven by a Southold man, who prosecutors said was drunk, broadsided the limousine Saturday afternoon as its driver attempted a U-turn at the intersection.

Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack and Brittney M. Schulman, 23, of Smithtown, were killed. The driver of the pickup, Steven Romeo, 55, was injured. He was charged with DWI, a misdemeanor, but held on $500,000 cash bail or $1 million bond.

Prosecutors waited Tuesday for tests to determine Romeo's blood-alcohol content. Four other women in the limo, rented for an outing in North Fork wine country, were seriously injured. Limousine driver Carlos Pino, 58, of Bethpage, was also injured.

As the investigation continued, the first of four funerals was held Tuesday.

Friends and family of Grabina exchanged hugs outside Gutterman's Funeral Home in Woodbury, where the Commack High School graduate's funeral was held.

A funeral service for Baruch, a graduate of Smithtown West High School, will take place at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Kings Park.

The funeral for Schulman, also a graduate of Smithtown West, is set for 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the church. A wake for Belli, another Smithtown West graduate, is set for Wednesday night from 7 to 9 and Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m. at St. James Funeral Home in St. James. Belli's funeral is 11:30 a.m. Friday at St. Joseph's in Kings Park.

Investigators are searching for witnesses to the crash. The eight friends had just left Vineyard 48, a winery on Route 48. The only witness to the collision told investigators the limo "turned right in front of the truck," Spota said.

Pino, who works for Ultimate Class Limousine in Hicksville, told police he saw no oncoming traffic before making the U-turn. The limo had passed a state inspection on April 30, said company spokesman Bill Corbett Jr.

Legal experts said charges against Pino were unlikely because of a 2009 state Court of Appeals ruling after a Brooklyn limo driver mistakenly went the wrong way down an exit ramp onto the Belt Parkway and attempted a U-turn. A motorcyclist was killed after hitting the limo, which was blocking all lanes of traffic.

The court ruled the driver's U-turn across traffic to "extricate himself from a precarious situation was not wise, but it does not rise to the level of moral blameworthiness required to sustain a charge of criminally negligent homicide."

Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said a winery site plan at one point included an exit just for limos through a neighboring property on Depot Lane. Calls to officials with Vineyard 48 were not returned.


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