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Ronkonkoma man pleads guilty in crash that killed childhood friend

Joseph Keleher, 25, of Ronkonkoma, who had almost

Joseph Keleher, 25, of Ronkonkoma, who had almost three times the legal limit of alcohol in his system when he crashed a car and killed his friend Kevin Smith last year, walks from the courtroom after his trial in Central Islip on Friday, June 19, 2015. Credit: Steve Pfost

A Ronkonkoma man admitted in court Friday that he was drunk when he lost control of his Jeep and killed his childhood friend after a night of drinking together.

Joseph Keleher, 25, pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide and other charges in the death of Kevin Smith, 25, of Oakdale. Smith was thrown from the Jeep when it flipped on Edwards Street in Patchogue just after midnight on Aug. 28.

In return for the plea in Central Islip, state Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho agreed to sentence Keleher to 2 2/3 to 8 years in prison on Sept. 10. The maximum sentence for the crime is 8 1/3 to 25 years.

"It's very difficult in a case like this to come up with a fair and just plea offer," Camacho said, explaining how he did so.

He noted that Keleher seemed remorseful and that both men had comparable -- and high -- blood-alcohol levels, well over twice the legal standard of 0.08 percent.

The crash came after a year of sobriety for Smith, who had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, family members said.

"This is a tragedy," Assistant District Attorney John Scott Prudenti said. "The victim was turning his life around and had so much to offer."

Smith's parents said he had inspired others in rehabilitation to succeed. He volunteered in a sober house and at a day camp, said his father, Bill Smith.

His mother, Anne Smith, said her son was a key speaker at groups for people addicted to heroin, other narcotics and alcohol. "He would help anybody," she said.

"Kevin made another bad decision and it cost him his life," Bill Smith said, referring to the outing with Keleher.

Camacho said the fact that Smith wasn't wearing a seat belt could lessen the chance of conviction at trial. Keleher did wear one and walked away uninjured.

"Had Mr. Smith been wearing a seat belt, would he be alive?" Camacho said. "Perhaps."

Anne Smith said her son's failure to wear a seat belt shouldn't be a factor in Keleher's sentence. She said the sentence "is not fair. My son was torn apart at the scene."

Bill Smith said he doesn't think Keleher ever felt remorse, but he hoped Keleher's time in prison leads to some.

Defense attorney Michael Brown of Central Islip said, "I think the judge was very measured in his evaluation of the case."

Prudenti disagreed with the judge about the importance of Smith wearing a seat belt, but said that fact and Smith's own intoxication could have made it difficult to win an aggravated vehicular homicide conviction.

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