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Cutchogue

Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota outlines the investigation on Wednesday. Photo by Alex Petroski
A makeshift memorial is erected at the scene of the fatal Cutchogue crash. Photo by Phil Corso
A makeshift memorial is erected at the scene of the fatal Cutchogue crash. Photo by Phil Corso

By Phil Corso & Alex Petroski

Story last updated 3.17.16, 8:15 a.m.

A fatal crash was the result of a limousine’s dangerous U-turn at a busy intersection in Cutchogue, and on Wednesday, a special grand jury placed the blame on the driver.

Carlos F. Pino, 58, of Old Bethpage, surrendered to police Wednesday and was arraigned on four charges of criminally negligent homicide, four counts of assault, failure to yield the right of way, reckless driving and other traffic violations, Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota said. Pino was attempting a U-turn near the intersection of Depot Lane and County Route 48 on July 18 when Steven Romeo, 55, of Peconic, T-boned the limo, killing four and injuring six.

The crash killed Smithtown’s Brittney Schulman, 23, and Lauren Baruch, 24, as well as Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park, and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack, who were all riding in a limousine in the middle of a weekend wine tour on the eastern part of the Island. The collision also injured passengers Joelle Dimonte, 25, of Elwood, Melissa Angela Crai, 23, of Scarsdale, Alicia Arundel, 24, of Setauket, and Olga Lipets, 24, of Brooklyn. Romeo, the DA said, was operating the truck under the influence of alcohol and was charged with driving while intoxicated the day of the crash.

Pino pleaded not guilty to the charges on Wednesday and was given a cash bail $50,000 and bond of $100,000. His next court date was scheduled for April 19. Romeo also pleaded not guilty to two counts of driving while intoxicated and one charge of driving while ability impaired by alcohol on Wednesday and was released with his next court date set for April 26.

“I think they may have been somewhat surprised,” Spota said when family members of the victims were notified that Pino, and not Romeo, would be indicted as a result of the crash. “They either expected that it would be the other way around, that Romeo would be the party who would be completely at fault, or perhaps it was just a totally unavoidable accident. Indeed, what the grand jury has found out is that it was totally unavoidable, only as to Romeo, but not as to Pino.”

At the scene, Pino had told police he did not see any oncoming traffic, Spota said. But the subsequent investigation revealed why.

The county had been investigating the crash over recent months, and on Wednesday, the DA announced that while Romeo may have been driving while impaired, the risky U-turn still made it nearly impossible for the collision to be avoided. The grand jury conducted a five-hour investigation of the crash and found that Pino had “limited sight lines looking into westbound traffic” because a Jeep Liberty was positioned in the intersection waiting to turn left onto Depot Lane, Spota said in a statement.

Spota said the Jeep Liberty “completely blocked the limo driver’s view of the oncoming traffic in the main travel lanes.” And despite the fact that the main westbound travel lanes were not visible, the DA said Pino failed to take any precaution to make sure he could safely enter the westbound travel lanes and he continued to make the U-turn.

“A perfectly sober Steven Romeo could not avoid this crash. An intoxicated Steven Romeo could not avoid this crash. It was simply unavoidable from Romeo’s perspective,” Spota said. “Romeo can be held criminally responsible for driving while intoxicated but he cannot be held criminally responsible for the crash.”

Related: Vineyard visit ends in tragedy for Commack, Smithtown West grads

Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said during the press conference that unfortunately many limo drivers exiting Vineyard 48 in Cutchogue try to make the dangerous left U-turn that ended up being fatal, because it is the fastest route to head back west.

“There are other ways to head back west, but that’s the easiest way for them to do it,” Flatley said.

There is now a traffic light at that intersection, Flatley said.

Spota said Romeo was heading west at about 55 miles per hour when the crash occurred. He did not see the limo enter the intersection until he was about 200 feet away, the district attorney said.

“Mr. Romeo had only 200 feet to react to the hazard he saw, and stop his vehicle,” Spota said. “Traveling at 55 mph, it would have taken 1.6 seconds to perceive the limo in his path, to realize he must apply his brakes, and then to begin braking.  This would leave Romeo with even less distance, 129 feet, to avoid a crash — impossible for him to do. In fact our experts tell us that at 55 mph it would have taken anyone 263 feet to stop and avoid the crash.”

After investigating the crash, Spota said the incident was “unavoidable,” thus keeping a grand jury from indicting Romeo for vehicular manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.

From left, Amy Grabina, Brittany Schulman, Lauren Baruch and Stephanie Belli. Photos from Facebook
From left, Amy Grabina, Brittany Schulman, Lauren Baruch and Stephanie Belli. Photos from Facebook

Belli, Baruch and Schulman were all decorated members of the national and language honor societies by the time they graduated from Smithtown High School West. Over the summer, schools Superintendent James Grossane said Belli, a 2010 graduate, had an infectious smile and was an enthusiastic student and member of the district’s championship kick line team. Baruch, a 2009 graduate, was best known for her booming laugh and unforgettable smile, Grossane said. Schulman, he said, was another 2010 graduate and had a profound love for her family.

Grabina graduated in 2010 from Commack High School and went on to pursue accounting at Florida State University, ultimately landing a job at Ernst & Young in Tallahassee, Fla.

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In 1982, Bob and Joyce Pellegrini had a vision. They wanted to own a quality winery with gorgeous views and a tasting room fit for their superior products. Bob Pellegrini passed away in early 2015, but his vision lives on with his wife and their professional and talented staff who are committed to the vision that the couple had over three decades ago.

Despite growth in the Long Island wine industry and booming demand for “party bus tours” and events built around entertainment first and great wine second, Pellegrini Vineyards has managed to stay true to who they are. Tasting room manager John Larsen and winemaker Zander Hargrave both stressed that desire to remain aligned with the Pellegrini’s mission.

Pellegrini is for serious wine drinkers. That was the overwhelming message from Larsen and Hargrave when I visited the vineyard on the first whisper of a spring day last week. That is not to say that those lacking a substantial base of knowledge in anything winemaking or drinking related should be intimidated by the experience at the Cutchogue vineyard. All that you need to bring through the door is a desire for knowledge and an appreciation for the delicate art that is winemaking.

“If you were looking for a party with your friends, this might be your perfect first stop,” Larsen said in Pellegrini’s Vintner’s Room, a second-floor sitting area with a massive window overlooking rows upon rows of vines growing the business’s cash crop. “Come and hang out, see what we’re all about, then go see music somewhere else later in the afternoon if you want the full experience of the North Fork,” Larsen added.

The team at Pellegrini Vineyards would prefer for their outstanding wine, customer service and breathtaking views to speak for themselves. Neither Larsen nor Hargrave seemed to begrudge any of the many vineyards that choose to be “event centers” as Larsen referred to them. However, neither has any desire to jump on that train. At least not right now.

“This is a true winery,” Larsen said. “We focus on the wine, and the customer service that goes along with it.”

Pellegrini Vineyards offers a wine club, which gets members exclusive wine releases, access to special dinners, luncheons, self-guided winery tours and other events. Both Hargrave and Larsen suggested that membership in the club is the ideal way to enjoy everything that Pellegrini has to offer.

Winemaking is in Hargrave’s blood. He has been at Pellegrini since the fall of 2014, though his roots in the Long Island wine industry date back to the very beginning. His parents, Louisa and Alex Hargrave, were the brave entrepreneurs who first decided that the North Fork of Long Island was being wasted by only growing potatoes.

Zander grew up at Hargrave Vineyards. He has essentially spent a lifetime in the wine community along the North Fork, save for a few hiatuses to pursue a teaching career, managing a vegetable farm and selling advertisements for a newspaper.

“I grew up with it,” Hargrave said about his youth around winemaking, which clearly has shaped the way that he hopes people enjoying his wine use it to craft memorable experiences. “It’s about the people. It was always about the people. The wine is sort of a conduit to relationships with people. When I look back on my life growing up in the vineyard, it was ‘who’s coming by?’ It was the excitement of the harvest, guests at our home, having dinner with really interesting people. That, to me, stands out more than anything. And of course as I got into the work and got older I gained an appreciation for wine itself. That’s not what I really think about growing up. It was all about the people.”

Hargrave raved about the state-of-the-art equipment that he has at his disposal, which makes the vineyard’s old world mentality of fine winemaking much easier to pull off. “I would say probably the most unique feature of the Pellegrini winery is we have six, ten-ton open fermenters that we do most of our reds in,” he said. The giant fermenters feature a pneumatic punch-down system that, without getting too technical, serves the same purpose as the old method of grape stomping. The tanks have a long arm that gently stirs the contents to submerge the flavor-packed grape skins that tend to rise to the top.

I asked Hargrave what he would bring home if he were grilling steaks for dinner. “You got to go with the Encore,” he said immediately. “That’s our Bordeaux blend. It’s only released in the very best vintages. The current vintage is 2010, which was one of the best vintages ever on Long Island. I did make a ‘13 that will be released down the line once it gets some bottle age. You can’t go wrong.”

Hargrave suggested his sauvignon blanc if seafood is on the menu. He also beamed with pride when describing Pellegrini’s chardonnay, which he touted as special and unique. He also called their merlot “world class.”

Sticking to their guns has been challenging at times, but it is easy to see why Pellegrini has been able to keep their focus on quality wine above all else. The passion that all of their employees have for great wine and the great experience that is learning about new wine through tasting and conversation is the lasting memory of a couple of hours spent there.

The roughly 30 acres of rolling hills, a feature that Larsen said is unique to Pellegrini on a mostly flat North Fork, could make relaxing in their outdoor courtyard with a glass in hand feel like a European getaway. An hour by car might seem like a rigorous day trip, but it’s nothing compared to a six-hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean. The experience might not be the same, but at Pellegrini it would be just as enjoyable.

Pellegrini Vineyards is located at 23005 Main Road, Cutchogue. For more information call 631-734-4111 or visit www.pellegrinivineyards.com.

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A makeshift memorial is erected at the scene of the fatal Cutchogue crash. Photo by Phil Corso

Tragedy hit close to home over the weekend — countless lives were shattered when an alleged drunk driver slammed into a limousine carrying a group of eight young women, killing four who hailed from our own North Shore communities.

Saturday’s Cutchogue crash captivated communities near and far. Those who knew the women, and even those who didn’t, mourned, as the crash sent shock waves across the Island.

Brittney Schulman, Lauren Baruch, Stephanie Belli and Amy Grabina were friends, daughters, girlfriends, sisters and young women just starting their adult lives. Tragic doesn’t even begin to explain what happened on that Cutchogue road.

But the women weren’t alone, and the surviving four women, who remain hospitalized as of Monday, need our support.

At a press conference on Monday, Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota told a crowd of reporters, many of whom came from affiliate stations and out-of-town papers, to be reasonable, in light of a recent incident in which a member of the press entered the hospital in an attempt to see one of the survivors.

“We have four who survived, who certainly have suffered horrible, horrible trauma,” Spota said. “Not only bodily trauma, but certainly mentally. And we have people — reporters — who are trying to sneak in to talk to these young women. I just think that we really should — let’s all think about it and let’s be reasonable here.”

We find these actions disrespectful to the victims and survivors and their families and do not stand behind them. As journalists, we understand the responsibility news organizations have to inform the public about events such as this, but sneaking into a hospital room is excessive, and it is not right to serve a readership at a victim’s expense.

As a community newspaper, we are protective of the neighborhoods we cover because we live here. When we get word of car crashes, many of us have to wonder if a loved one was involved. What happened on Saturday could have happened to any one of us.

To the women recovering, the families affected and the communities trying to come to terms with these losses, we will still be here to listen if and whenever you are ready to speak. Our thoughts are with you.

From left, Amy Grabina, Brittany Schulman, Lauren Baruch and Stephanie Belli. Photos from Facebook

By Phil Corso

A risky U-turn in Cutchogue has left the greater Smithtown community directionless.

From left, Amy Grabina, Brittany Schulman, Lauren Baruch and Stephanie Belli. Photos from Facebook
From left, Amy Grabina, Brittney Schulman, Lauren Baruch and Stephanie Belli. Photos from Facebook

A limousine filled with friends doing the right thing fell victim to a driver who was doing the wrong thing when Steven Romeo, 55, was driving his red pickup truck in Cutchogue allegedly under the influence of alcohol and collided with the limousine as it attempted to make a U-turn near the intersection of Depot Lane and County Route 48, killing four and injuring six, including Romeo, Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota said.

Emergency responders reported four victims dead on arrival, including Smithtown’s Brittney Schulman, 23, and Lauren Baruch, 24, as well as Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park, and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack. The crash also injured driver Carlos Pino, 58, of Bethpage, Joelle Dimonte, 25, of Elwood, Melissa Angela Crai, 23, of Scarsdale, Alicia Arundel, 24, of Setauket, and Olga Lipets, 24, of Brooklyn, all of whom were still hospitalized on Monday, Spota said.

Romeo was arraigned on Sunday at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport due to injuries sustained in the crash and pleaded not guilty to one count of driving while intoxicated. He was ordered held in lieu of $500,000 cash bail or $1 million bond, Spota said.

Spota provided more details on the accident at a press conference in Southold on Monday afternoon alongside Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley, who was on the scene soon after the collision.

“This was a gathering of young women who were behaving responsibly by hiring a limo for the day, enjoying the North Fork vineyards together,” Spota said. “They knew they would be consuming some alcohol, and because they wanted to act responsibly, they did not choose to drive.”

Spota said the limousine kicked off its Saturday afternoon bachelorette party trip at Baruch’s home in Smithtown, embarking on a vineyard tour on the eastern part of Long Island, stopping at the Long Island Vodka distillery in Baiting Hollow and then Vineyard 48 in Cutchogue. They were on their way back to Smithtown when the driver of the limousine, who Spota said was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, made the turn and the fatal accident occurred.

The news sent shockwaves through Smithtown and the entire North Shore, moving Smithtown Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R) to order all flags at town buildings to fly at half-mast.

DA Tom Spota speaks about an alleged DWI that killed four women at a bachelorette party. Photo by Phil Corso
DA Tom Spota speaks about an alleged DWI that killed four women at a bachelorette party. Photo by Phil Corso

“The entire Smithtown community is affected by such a tragic loss and mourns deeply,” Vecchio said in a statement. “The shock of the loss of four young and beautiful women in the prime of life is difficult to comprehend. We pray for the families and friends who are suffering so.”

Belli, Baruch and Schulman were all decorated members of the national and language honor societies by the time they graduated from Smithtown High School West and were remembered Monday as shining lights in their graduating classes. Schools Superintendent James Grossane said Belli, a 2010 graduate, had an infectious smile and was an enthusiastic student and member of the district’s championship kick line team. Baruch, a 2009 graduate, was best known for her booming laugh and unforgettable smile, Grossane said. Schulman, he said, was another 2010 graduate and had a profound love for her family.

“The Smithtown School District administration, Board of Education, staff and school community are truly saddened over the horrific tragedy involving the deaths of three former High School West graduates,” Grossane said. “Although these girls graduated from the district several years ago, their personalities and memories they left behind are still remembered by those who had the honor and pleasure of knowing them while in school.”

Grabina graduated in 2010 from Commack High School and went on to pursue accounting at Florida State University, ultimately landing a job at Ernst & Young in Tallahassee, Florida. Brenda Lentsch, a spokeswoman for Commack High School, said in a statement the loss was difficult to put into words.

“This terrible tragedy affects our entire community, and all who knew them,” she said. “We send our heartfelt sympathies to their parents, family and friends. The Commack community always rallies around those in need.”

She and her former classmate Arundel were in the limo on Saturday, but only the latter made it out alive.

Both the speed of Romeo’s vehicle and his blood alcohol content were still not known, pending results as per the investigation, the DA said. Spota did say, however, that the man had admitted to drinking beer that afternoon before the crash.

Flatley, who responded to the crash soon after it was dispatched around 5:15 p.m. on Saturday, said Romeo remained at the scene for about 15 minutes following the collision, but then took off on foot and jumped a fence before police were able to retrieve him for questioning. The police chief said a witness was able to help provide details regarding the limousine accident, which has become all too common for that area.

“Over the last two or three years, we’ve had issues with limousines making very difficult turns at that intersection and we have been writing summonses for failing to yield the right-of-way to vehicles that are in the westbound direction at that intersection,” he said. “I’m sure we write at least, especially during the busier months, at least 10 or 12 summonses a month.”

Spota said Romeo, who will be processed at the Southold Police Department upon his release from the hospital, had not acquired any DWI-related charges before Saturday’s crash. No information on the possibility of additional charges was provided.

The horrific tragedy occurred just six days after another accident allegedly linked to driving while intoxicated, Spota said. Last week, another fatal crash on the Southern State Parkway killed 37-year-old Ancio Ostane, his 8-year-old son, Andy, and his 4-year-old daughter, Sephora, in what police charged as another alcohol-related hit-and-run accident.