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Suffolk DA: Despite BAC under legal standard, DWI charge against pickup driver charged in fatal Cutchogue limo crash holds

On July 24, 2015, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota clarifies the blood-alcohol content of pickup truck driver Steven Romeo, adding that reconstruction and forensic analytics of the fatal Cutchogue crash are in the early stages and therefore charges against Romeo will be in flux till more is known about the circumstances. (Credit: News 12 Long Island)

Suffolk County prosecutors aren't dropping a driving while intoxicated charge against the pickup-truck driver arrested after last weekend's fatal limousine crash in Cutchogue -- even though his blood-alcohol level was under the legal limit.

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota cautioned at a news conference Friday that much is still not known about the case.

"This is an emerging picture, not a complete picture," Spota said, less than a week after his prosecutors indicated upgraded charges were likely.

He called it premature to consider upgraded or reduced charges for Steven Romeo, 55, of Southold, who is charged with misdemeanor DWI. He remained hospitalized Friday.

The crash killed Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown; and Brittney Schulman, 23, of Smithtown. Four other passengers were seriously injured.

Spota said Romeo's blood-alcohol level was 0.066 percent, according to a blood sample drawn one hour and 40 minutes after the crash last Saturday.

The legal threshold for DWI is 0.08 percent, so Romeo's blood-alcohol level on its own isn't enough to support the DWI charge.

Romeo could be prosecuted for driving while ability impaired, a traffic infraction. But Spota said other factors may still allow the defendant to be prosecuted for DWI, including when he ate and when he drank beer, which could allow medical experts to estimate his blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash.

"The important factor is what the defendant's blood-alcohol content was at the time the accident occurred," Spota said.

Spota previously said Romeo admitted to drinking some beer at home before the crash, but further details haven't been released.

Romeo's pickup broadsided the limo as it attempted a U-turn on county Route 48 at Depot Lane. The women had been on an outing in the North Fork wine country and had just left Vineyard 48.

Another driver who saw the accident told investigators that the limo turned directly in front of Romeo's pickup, which was clearly visible on the four-lane divided road. Limo driver Carlos Pino, 58, of Bethpage, said he saw no oncoming traffic, prosecutors said.

On Friday, Spota again declined to say if more serious charges were possible in the case. He would not say if investigators had found any evidence that Romeo drove recklessly or caused the victims' deaths -- necessary elements of manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter or aggravated vehicular homicide. Intoxication alone is not evidence of recklessness, courts have ruled.

Romeo's attorney, Daniel O'Brien of Nesconset, said his client was not responsible for the crash.

"We maintain that Steven Romeo was not driving while intoxicated at the time of the accident, nor did he cause the accident," O'Brien said. He noted that the defense is entitled to see the entire written report supporting the blood-alcohol content result.

O'Brien said his client grieves for the women killed or injured in the crash.

"We are mindful that four precious young lives were lost in this accident," he said. "Steven Romeo is devastated by the loss of those lives and the injuries sustained, and our thoughts and prayers are with these families."

There are still key factors that investigators do not yet know about the crash, Spota said, including how fast Romeo's pickup was going and when he hit the brakes.

That information will have to wait until State Police finish an accident reconstruction, and that will be delayed because the investigators must first do a reconstruction of the crash the previous weekend that killed three family members on the Southern State Parkway in Bay Shore.

Police also are doing a forensic examination of Romeo's cellphone and Pino's two cellphones, Spota said. That will determine if either driver may have been distracted by a phone call or text message immediately before the crash.

Spota said investigators still have not spoken to any of the four women who survived.

The details on Romeo's blood-alcohol content came a day after a Southold Town justice reduced the bail for Romeo to $100,000 bond or $50,000 cash, down from $1 million bond or $500,000 cash. Prosecutors consented to O'Brien's request for lower bail.

Spota has said Romeo told police he worked at Romeo Dimon Marine Service in Southold until noon that day and then did some work around his house and drank some beer.

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