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Stephanie Belli

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.

From left to right, Stephanie Belli’s sister Diana and mother Carol receive their copy of the book with Rabbi Cohen of Chabad at Stony Brook. Photo from Chabad at Stony Brook

Four hundred acts of kindness turned out to be an underestimate.

It has been one month since a horrific Cutchogue car crash killed four North Shore women, and Chabad at Stony Brook set out to assemble a book of kind acts to show how good could come out of tragedy. But by the time that book was finished last week, it had grown into a much bigger list.

Smithtown’s Brittney Schulman, 23, and Lauren Baruch, 24, as well as Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park, and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack were riding in a limousine in the middle of a weekend wine tour on the eastern part of the Island when Steven Romeo, 55, T-boned their vehicle as it made a risky U-turn, killing the girls and injuring five others.

After the crash, Romeo was arraigned at Eastern Long Island Hospital and charged with driving while intoxicated. He was initially ordered held in lieu of $500,000 cash bail, or $1 million bond, but that bail was reduced to $50,000 cash or $100,000 bond. Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota said Romeo had recorded a blood alcohol content of .066 percent — below the legal limit of .08 — when he was tested roughly one hour after the crash. The DWI charge, however, was not dropped, Spota said. No additional charges were filed against Romeo as the investigation continued.

Romeo’s court date, which was originally set for last week, was adjourned to Sept. 18.

The tragedy sent shockwaves through the greater North Shore community, and Chabad at Stony Brook called on everyone to help.

“People came out in big numbers to post all these heartfelt things they were going to do,” said Rabbi Shalom Ber Cohen of Chabad at Stony Brook, who helped launch the project in the wake of the tragic crash. “We’ve always encouraged to respond to darkness with light, and to evil with good.”

The group launched a Facebook group called “Goodness & Kindness x 400 for our girls,” and acquired thousands of page views in a matter of days, Cohen said. The goal, he said, was to remember the lives of those lost by compiling a book of names and acts of goodness committed in their honor, to show victims’ families that they were not alone in their darkest hour.

“We felt we were swarming in death,” Cohen said. “This was an act of goodness and kindness to bring more goodness to the world. While we can’t bring the girls back, when the community comes back and shows we are there, it does bring some kind of goodness.”

Good deeds included anything from committing to donate to worthy causes to something as simple as paying for succeeding cars in a Starbucks drive-thru.

Cohen, along with wife Chanie Cohen, a Chabad program coordinator, as well as Rabbi Chaim Grossbaum, Rabbi Motti Grossbaum and the rest of his staff, delivered those books to the victims’ families over the last week and said they helped everyone move forward in a time of great loss.

Diana Belli, sister of Stephanie Belli, took to the “Goodness & Kindness” Facebook page to express her gratitude.

“Thank you so much! With love, my entire family,” she wrote on the page. “This means a lot to us.”

Red ribbons are one way North Shore residents are remembering the fatal crash victims. Photo from Smithtown Historical Society

One week has passed, but no amount of time can ever truly heal the wounds endured by the greater North Shore community since four of its own were killed in a horrific limousine crash.

Anyone driving through the streets of Smithtown and its surrounding communities this week could notice the red ribbons wrapped around trees in memory of 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 four girls were killed when Steven Romeo, 55, T-boned their limousine with his pickup truck in Cutchogue last Saturday, injuring Romeo, along with limo 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.

After the crash, Romeo was arraigned at Eastern Long Island Hospital and charged with driving while intoxicated. He was initially ordered held in lieu of $500,000 cash bail, or $1 million bond, but that bail was reduced to $50,000 cash or $100,000 bond last Thursday, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota. At a press conference on Friday, Spota said Romeo had recorded a blood alcohol content of .066 percent when he was tested roughly one hour after the crash. The DWI charge, however, was not dropped despite his BAC coming in below the legal limit of .08, Spota said. No additional charges were filed against Romeo as the investigation continued.

Romeo’s court date, which was originally set for last week, was adjourned to Sept. 18.

The past week saw the funerals of all four of the victims, while those injured were released from hospital care by the middle of this week. The North Shore community planned to take one of its first steps toward closure on Wednesday night at Smithtown High School West, where residents, elected officials and members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving were scheduled to meet. The event was borne out of a Facebook page titled “Candlelight Vigil for Our Girls,” which was put into action in the days following the tragedy. By Wednesday, the page had collected more than 6,000 names to its roster and countless photos of mourning and support for the victims’ families.

Marianne Howard, executive director with the Smithtown Historical Society, was one of the several Smithtown residents to tie red ribbons around trees in front of the society’s property. She said various businesses throughout town, including Towers Flowers of Nesconset and James Cress Florist of Smithtown, helped donate the ribbons to the cause.

“We mourn the loss of four beautiful souls who were taken too early from our community,” she said. “We send our deepest condolences to their families and friends. May they rest in peace.”

Chabad at Stony Brook also signed onto the cause of finding good in a tragic situation, launching its own Facebook event page, “responding to dark, with light,” in memory of the four girls and challenging residents to commit 400 random acts of goodness and kindness in their honor.

Chaya Klein Grossbaum of Chabad at Stony Brook said once the goal was reached, the group would print a book detailing each singular act.

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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.