By Phil Corso
A risky U-turn in Cutchogue has left the greater Smithtown community directionless.
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.
“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.