Julio Aceituno-Perez sat with his wife, Gladys, on the morning of Sept. 13 in their Flanders home. They had celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary in July and were planning an October vacation to Las Vegas. They were also hoping to buy a second home in Florida one day soon.
Mr. Aceituno rarely drank coffee — he’d always been a healthy eater — but on this particular morning he asked his wife if they could share a cup. As they sat at the breakfast table, Mr. Aceituno, a deeply religious and spiritual man, began a frank conversation.
He told his wife that he hoped never to be a burden to the family, to his three daughters, for whom he’d sacrificed so much to provide a better life. He never wanted to be wheelchair-bound, he said. When the end came, that would be it.
They were sentiments he had also expressed openly to his daughters.
“He would say he didn’t want to be a burden for us. He wanted to go first,” said Jasmin Aceituno, 27.
Mr. Aceituno, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala in 1988, left for work that morning to begin another workday at Genesis Landscaping, the company he founded in 2000. A few hours later, while riding a lawnmower at the corner of Route 25 and Pleasant View Road in Ridge, a Cadillac driven by a 24-year-old Wading River woman crashed into him, according to Suffolk County police. The driver, Brianna Hassett, was under the influence of drugs, police said.
Mr. Aceituno was rushed to Peconic Bay Medical Center and soon transferred to Stony Brook University Hospital in critical condition. On Thursday, Sept. 15, with his wife and three daughters at his bedside, Mr. Aceituno died. He was 52.
Mr. Aceituno’s story begins like so many, with a pursuit of the American dream. He studied to be an accountant in Guatemala, but even that career provided little opportunity for him to adequately support his family.
With a young daughter, Jennifer, and another, Jasmin, on the way, Mr. Aceituno left Guatemala for the United States and settled in New Jersey. He spoke little English and started to work by cleaning bathrooms for meager earnings.
“He came here not knowing absolutely anything and started from the bottom,” Jasmin said.
Eighteen months after Mr. Aceituno arrived in America, his wife and daughters were able to join him. Jennifer was 3 and Jasmin was 1.
As the years went by, he improved his English and learned as many manual labor trades as he could — from construction to landscaping. The family lived in New Jersey for eight years before moving to Long Island. He eventually started his own landscaping company. He would fold his lawn mower into the trunk of a 1996 Toyota Corolla sedan and drive to fancy homes in Westhampton and other areas. He named the company after his third daughter, Genesis, who is now 20.
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In 2001, he purchased a brand-new home in Flanders where he and Gladys would raise their children, all of whom graduated from Riverhead High School. As the house was being built, they would often drive by it, sit on the foundation and dream about the future.
“He always aspired to make the American dream come true,” Jennifer said.
As dedicated as he was to his job, Mr. Aceituno never put his work above family, his daughters said. He would drive his wife to the beauty salon or his daughters to Tanger to go shopping and would pass the time reading the Bible. He was old-fashioned in many ways. He preferred maps over GPS when traveling and only recently learned to text.
On the Sunday before the crash, he talked about possibly selling his company and pursuing another career as an electrician.
“He was that kind of guy who would persevere,” said Jennifer, who’s 29. “He wouldn’t be scared about trying new things or trades.”
Jasmin graduated from Stony Brook University after pursuing a degree in nuclear medicine technology. She then changed course, became a registered nurse and now works in training as a trauma nurse in the hospital’s ER. Jennifer also graduated from Stony Brook after studying health sciences and works for the university. Genesis is studying to become a licensed practical nurse.
After learning of her father’s extensive injuries, Jasmin knew the outlook was bleak. Becoming a nurse was her dream job, she said, and when she got her position in December, she thought about a question she expected to face: What would be her biggest fear as a registered nurse?
“And my answer in my mind was I never want to see one of my loved ones or family member on a trauma table,” she said. “And that actually did happen to me. Having my dad in my workplace in the trauma room that I’ve walked past every day, seeing my own doctors and my own colleagues trying to save my dad’s life.”
As news of the accident spread in media reports, the family received calls from friends and clients hoping that the man named was not who they thought it was. Initial reports listed Mr. Aceituno’s first name as Anibal. His family said Anibal was his birth name but he legally changed it to Julio, which was his middle name. Everyone knew him as Julio. Genesis picked up his cell phone from his truck and listened to messages from people calling asking if he was OK.
“To have to call back all these people, that was hard,” she said.
At the hospital, the family spent their final moments together praying and singing until Mr. Aceituno’s heart stopped.
“He was always willing to give his life for us,” Gladys said in Spanish, as Jennifer translated. “He was the backbone of this family. I’m thankful to God because I had the best husband and the best father for my daughters.”
The driver who hit Mr. Aceituno, Ms. Hassett, failed sobriety tests at the scene and “told police in sum and substance” that she had taken numerous drugs before driving, according to a Suffolk County District Attorney spokesperson.
She allegedly admitted to snorting half a bag of “dope,” injecting the other half and snorting a line of cocaine at 3 a.m. the day of the crash.
She also admitted to consuming Xanax the night before and the morning of the crash, officials said.
Ms. Hassett had no prior criminal history; blood and urine samples are currently being tested at the crime lab, the DA’s office said.
Ms. Hassett was initially charged with misdemeanor driving while ability impaired by drugs and pleaded not guilty Sept. 14, according to online court records. She will likely face upgraded charges, the DA’s spokesperson said.
She was held at Suffolk County jail on $50,000 cash bail or $100,000 bond.
As a nurse, Jasmin said she frequently sees the dark side of drug abuse, especially the growing opioid epidemic. She hopes to use the tragedy to become an advocate for the dangers of drug abuse.
“It’s an addiction,” she said. “Sometimes they have nowhere to go and don’t have people to help them.”
The family members spoke with a sense of forgiveness Saturday morning, while acknowledging their anger. They said they hoped Ms. Hassett would repent for what happened.
“I bless the person that did this and that God saves her and calls her to repent and to be saved,” Gladys said in Spanish.
The family held a wake Saturday night and a funeral service on Sunday morning. A procession started at their home and continued to Church Lane, where Mr. Aceituno was buried at Sound Avenue Cemetery.
As they prepared Saturday morning, leaning against the living room wall was a large poster board covered with family pictures: graduations, Jennifer’s wedding and many pictures of Mr. Aceituno with his grandson, Esteban.
He never had a son and, in many ways, Esteban, now 2, filled that role.
“My dad was his favorite grandparent,” Jennifer said.
Esteban walked toward the poster board that morning with a wide smile stretched across his face. He pointed to a photo of his grandfather.
“Julio!” he said.
WITH PAUL SQUIRE