PECONIC, N.Y. (AP) — Investigators are weighing whether to upgrade charges against the driver of a pickup truck that slammed into a limousine in Long Island wine country over the weekend, leaving four women dead and four others with serious injuries, a prosecutor said Monday.
"This is a very, very ongoing investigation," Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota told reporters two days after the accident on a four-lane highway on eastern Long Island's North Fork, which is dotted with vineyards and wineries about 75 to 100 miles east of New York City. Spota's comments came shortly after visiting the crash scene, where he spoke with investigators.
Nearby, a makeshift memorial of flowers was growing larger to honor the eight friends who were leaving a winery when the accident occurred. Early reports suggested the women were part of a bachelorette party, but Spota and a spokesman for the limousine company both said that information was inaccurate.
Police said the limousine was attempting to make a U-turn at an intersection along Route 48 in Cutchogue when a pickup truck driven by Steven Romeo broadsided the car full of women. Romeo, a 55-year-old businessman from Southold, was arraigned Sunday on a misdemeanor DWI charge at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport. Bail was set at $500,000.
His lawyer, Dan O'Brien, offered condolences after the arraignment. "It's a tough situation," O'Brien said.
Spota said Romeo remained at the scene for about 15 minutes and spoke with police before walking away. He went about 1,000 feet, then jumped a fence and was walking down an embankment when an officer spotted him and brought him back to the scene, Spota said.
The prosecutor said it was unclear if Romeo's actions would be defined legally as leaving the scene. "There's a lot of variables to that," Spota said. "Whether he fits within the absolute definition of leaving the scene, at this point it is unclear."
Southold town Police Chief Martin Flatley identified the dead as Brittany M. Schulman, 23, of Smithtown, on Long Island's North Shore; Lauren Baruch, 24, also of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of nearby Kings Park; and Amy R. Grabina, 23, of Commack, also on the North Shore.
Four other women and the limo driver were hospitalized. The prosecutor said he had no information on their conditions Monday.
He said tests showed the driver of the limousine, Carlos Pino, 58, was not under the influence of alcohol. A spokesman for Ultimate Class Limousine said the company has operated in the region for more than 27 years and has a strong safety record.
"We are in direct contact with all authorities and we are providing all information that they have requested for their investigation," spokesman Patrick Corbett said.
It was the second Long Island crash with multiple fatalities in a week.
On July 12, a man and his two children, ages 8 and 4, were killed when their car was rear-ended and burst into flames on the Southern State Parkway in Bay Shore. His wife, the children's mother, escaped without physical injury. The other motorist was charged with driving while intoxicated and one of his friends is facing charges for allegedly assisting him in leaving the crash scene.
"In the last week, we have surely experienced some of the most tragic losses of life due to apparently intoxicated drivers that we've ever seen or encountered," Spota said.