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Suspect in fatal Ridge crash out on bail

Randi Baumgartner, middle, the mother of victim Ryan

Randi Baumgartner, middle, the mother of victim Ryan Baumgartner, 17, and other family members arrive at Central Islip Criminal Court for arraignment of Thomas Smith. (April 15, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

The driver of a truck that crashed into a tree in Ridge, killing two teenagers, was released Sunday after being arraigned in Central Islip.

Thomas Smith, 20, of Ridge, was charged with a misdemeanor, operating a motor vehicle while ability impaired by drugs. He was released from the Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead Sunday evening, jail officials said.

His attorney, John Juliano of Commack, had asked Judge Stephen L. Ukeiley to release Smith on his own recognizance, but the judge set $75,000 bail instead.

Prosecutor Michael Ross said in court that Smith had admitted to police that, before the accident, he had smoked marijuana and taken two muscle relaxers. He said Smith, who went to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in East Patchogue after the crash, consented to urine and blood tests. Results have not come in yet, he said.

According to court documents, police said Smith appeared lethargic, his eyes were bloodshot, he had a "slow, thick speech" and was delayed in his responses when interviewed by police.

The arrest is based on his oral and written admissions to taking marijuana and the muscle relaxers, which were prescribed, before driving the vehicle, the document said.

As soon as the bail was set, about a dozen members of the family of Ryan Baumgartner, 17, of Rocky Point, who died in the crash, abruptly left the courtroom, appearing upset.

His mother, Randi Baumgartner, fell to her knees in the courtroom hallway, yelling, "He killed my son. . . . I can't believe he killed my son and he got bail."

Smith's family was also in the courtroom, but declined to comment afterward.

Juliano said despite Smith's supposed admissions to police regarding drugs, "I don't know if that's really true." He said his client is "devastated by this. . . . He's in a terrible state now."

Smith owns a home and works as a cashier at a CVS pharmacy, Juliano said. He has applied to college, Juliano said, and has no criminal history.

"The entire family is devastated. Not only for him, but for the other people that were killed in this accident. This a terrible, terrible tragedy," he said. But, he added, "This is still a misdemeanor. I don't know what the toxicology reports will show."

When asked whether he or Smith's family had anything to say to relatives of the teens killed, he replied: "They are all still in shock. Nobody knows what to say or do."

Results of Smith's toxicology tests are expected to be back Tuesday when Juliano is due back in court for a conference on the misdemeanor charge.

The accident took place early Saturday during a trip home from an amusement park in New Jersey.

Smith told police he fell asleep at the wheel of the gray 2011 Honda Ridgeline, "and woke up to passengers screaming," said Det. Sgt. Daniel Molloy of the Seventh Squad.

Smith's girlfriend, Jacqueline Salvador, 19, of Ridge, and Baumgartner died in the 1:24 a.m. wreck. Both were sitting on the passenger side -- Salvador in the front, Baumgartner in the backseat of the crew-cab truck -- and were ejected from the vehicle by the impact, Molloy said.

The wreck was "horrific," he said. "The damage was unbelievable."

Johnny Salvador, 17, of Coram, Jacqueline Salvador's younger brother, broke an arm and leg. He underwent surgery at Stony Brook University Medical Center and was listed in fair condition Sunday.

Smith was not injured.

Another passenger, Taylor Lynch, 16, of Shirley, suffered minor injuries. Her mother, Joy Lynch, said she had been sleeping in the backseat on the driver's side when the crash occurred. The Longwood High student suffered bruising to her face and head, her mother said.

"It still hasn't completely hit her yet," said Lynch, 41, of Shirley. "One second she's OK and then, she'll kind of lose it, but come right back."

Taylor Lynch told her mother she didn't notice anything unusual about Smith while he was driving, Joy Lynch said.

As Taylor Lynch tended to her injuries, including a swollen eye, Joy Lynch was still grappling with how close her daughter came to death.

"I don't think the full impact has really hit me either," she said. "Every once in a while I start to think, 'It could have been my daughter.' "

Smith was driving north on William Floyd Parkway just north of Longwood Road -- less than 2 miles from his home on Sally Lane in Ridge -- when the truck's passenger side slammed into the tree, Molloy said.

"If it really was an accident, it was an accident. I'm not here to crucify the kid," Robert Baumgartner said in a telephone interview. "But if he really was under the influence, I wish he would get the worst penalty," he said, his voice shaking with emotion.

He said the Smith family did not speak to him or his family at Smith's arraignment Sunday.

"They kept looking at us, didn't say a word to us or anything," Robert Baumgartner said.

He said his son was close friends with the passengers in the car. Ryan and Jacqueline Salvador had dated several years ago, and stayed close friends, he said, while his son had more recently met Smith.

"I just want justice to be served, whatever it is," Robert Baumgartner said.

Funeral arrangements for Ryan Baumgartner were incomplete Sunday afternoon.

Rocky Point school district officials said they will have grief counselors available starting Monday to help students cope with the death of Ryan Baumgartner, who a was junior at Rocky Point Senior High School.

Kathleen Heggers, a Rocky Point school board member, said district Superintendent Michael Ring informed the board about the accident in a Sunday morning email. Baumgartner's sister attends middle school in the district, she said.

"The superintendent is in communication with the family," Heggers said. "My heart goes out to the families and to the kids, and I just hope everybody's going to be OK."

At the accident site Sunday, flowers were in vases and on stands by the tree that had been hit. There were also notes written on the tree where the bark had been sheared off.

One note was addressed to "Ryan aka Punkin" and said: "I'm so not ready to let my baby brother go. You mean the world to me, and I can't believe I have to spend the rest of my life without you. I can't do this keep me strong please. I love you more than anything can explain. Please visit me. I love you baby."

Saturday, his sister Melissa Baumgartner, 20, said the teen was close friends with Jacqueline Salvador from their time as students in the Longwood school district in Middle Island. Fighting back tears, she said Salvador, who had been dating Smith for about a week, was her best friend and was "always there when you needed her, no matter what she was going through."

Melissa was invited on the trip to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., but declined because she had to work.

Until recently, Salvador had lived with her parents and brother, Johnny, in Coram.

There will be a viewing for Salvador from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at the Marinello Funeral Home in Coram. There will also be viewings there Tuesday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. There will be a private cremation.

Salvador's family could not be reached for comment, but a neighbor said the siblings were typical teenagers.

"They are both very good kids," said Lydia Cole, who lives near the family's home on Marla Drive. "Always very outgoing and smiling."

The five youngsters had traveled the 135 miles to Six Flags on Friday and were returning home when the crash occurred, Molloy said.

Police don't believe that Smith drove the entire way home from the amusement park. Another person, who police did not identify but described as a friend of the group, drove the Ridgeline to Long Island and was dropped off at Exit 60 of the Long Island Expressway, near Ronkonkoma.

With Keith Herbert, Paul LaRocco, Nicholas Spangler, Patrick Whittle, Kery Murakami and Robert Brodsky

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