09/05/13 10:00am
09/05/2013 10:00 AM
COURTESY PHOTO | Ashley Johnson at a family friend's wedding in 2011. Police have not made any arrests in the June 6 hit-and-run crash that injured Ms. Johnson in Florida.

COURTESY PHOTO | Ashley Johnson at a family friend’s wedding in 2011. Police have not made any arrests in the June 6 hit-and-run crash that injured Ms. Johnson in Florida.

Ashley Johnson, the former Riverhead High School student who was critically injured during a hit-and-run accident in Florida in June, is back in New York after months of effort to bring her home for better rehabilitation.

Ms. Johnson, 23, was struck by a red pickup truck about 11:45 p.m. on June 6 while crossing a major highway in Tampa.

Police have yet to make an arrest in the case.

Ms. Johnson was flown by private jet Aug. 16 to New York University Langone Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation in Manhattan, where she is undergoing aggressive short-term rehabilitation and speech therapy, said her mother, Kimberley Mullen.

Ms. Johnson suffered a severe head injury in the crash and fractured her left arm in three places.

“She can move her right arm and leg up and down,” Ms. Mullen said. “The left side she is having a hard time with. They are trying to rehab her to get back to regular life.”

Dissatisfied with the care Ms. Johnson was receiving in Florida, the family had been trying move Ms. Johnson back to New York since soon after the crash.

“We’ve seen she is improving every day,” Ms. Mullen said. “You show her pictures and she knows her family. She just needed the experienced staff at NYU.”

Ms. Johnson has been using sign language to speak with her sister Ebony, said Shelby Block, Ms. Johnson’s stepmother. The two learned signs when they were about 12 years old, Ms. Block said.

Ms. Mullen, who was also living in Florida at the time of the crash, said she’s since resigned from her job as business office manager at Cross Gardens Care Center in Miami to help take care of her daughter full-time.

“You never think it’s going to be your family,” Ms. Mullen said. “It’s tough, but when you’re up against it, you really all come together.”

The family said they hope to eventually bring Ms. Johnson home to Riverhead after her stay at the NYU facility, which is a short-term care facility.

Relatives are confident Ms. Johnson will soon be able to live with family in Riverhead, with the help of at-home care.

“I don’t want her going from facility to facility,” Ms. Mullen said.

cmiller@timesreview.com

08/30/13 7:01am
08/30/2013 7:01 AM
PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO  |  Riverhead and state police investigate the scene of the hit-and-run that killed Kristina Tfelt on Route 58 near Woodcrest Avenue in July.

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Riverhead and state police investigate the scene of the hit-and-run that killed Kristina Tfelt on Route 58 near Woodcrest Avenue in July.

About two months ago, Brooke Wayte approached the podium in a Suffolk County courtroom and confronted the driver who struck and killed her father on East Main Street last December and drove off. Then, after making her statement, she sat down in the courtroom and watched as Joseph Plummer — a 49-year-old two-time felon — received his sentence: 2 to 6 years in prison.

For Ms. Wayte, the punishment was “a slap in the face.”

“Two to six years to somebody who has already committed two felonies is nothing,” she told the News-Review this week.

Scott Wayte of Brookhaven was out celebrating his 50th birthday with family on Dec. 28, when he was struck and killed by Mr. Plummer, who fled the scene and later attempted to cover up the crime, authorities said.

Seven months later, and a week after Mr. Plummer’s sentencing, Kristina Tfelt — a young Riverhead mother — was killed when she was hit by a Cadillac on Route 58 in an unrelated hit-and-run crash. The two men who ran from the car that July night have not been caught.

The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office along with local law enforcement, attorneys and victimized families have pushed for harsher punishments for those who leave the scene of serious car accidents, saying the legal system currently lets felons or drunken drivers who run from accidents get off easy. After Mr. Plummer’s arrest, District Attorney Thomas Spota held a press conference, pointing to that case as a prime example of why state lawmakers need to step up and change the law.

EDITORIAL: State must act to fix laws on hit-and-run crashes

Despite support from the New York State Senate, a bill to ramp up penalties for hit-and-run drivers statewide stalled in the Assembly and will have to be taken up again when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“They were hoping that my dad’s case would push this ahead, and push it into something more, and get [the law] changed so that no one else has to go through what we’re going through now,” Ms. Wayte said. “People are getting away with this every single day, so now if you don’t make the sentence higher, people are just going to keep doing it.“

Though county law enforcement officials could not immediately provide statistics on such incidents locally, Mr. Spota said his office has seen a spike in hit-and-runs in the past few years.

“I don’t know what it is or why it is. Now it’s just — bam! — off to the races,” he said in an interview last week. “Nobody is stopping anymore, it seems, and what’s happening is they’re getting the benefit.”

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Relatives and friends of Kristina Tfelt gathered for funeral services in Center Moriches.

Another pedestrian was struck and killed early Friday in a hit-and-run accident in Setauket. The driver in that incident remains at large.

As of now, according to the New York State Penal Code, leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death is a class D felony that carries a maximum sentence of 2 to 7 years in prison. Prosecutors say fleeing the scene makes it harder for authorities to bring a driver up on harsher charges.

RELATED: Two days, three arrests for leaving crash scenes

“Take Plummer for an example,” Mr. Spota said. “We know from people at [his] work that he was drinking from the morning until he left work. More than likely he was intoxicated but by the time we got him, two days later, he was sober.”

Mr. Plummer also dodged harsher charges for killing Mr. Wayte because of the section of law the “leaving the scene” felony falls under.

COURTESY PHOTO | Scott Wayte, who was killed in a hit-and-run crash on East Main Street in December while celebrating his 50th birthday with family.

“By leaving the scene, we couldn’t get him for the manslaughter, we couldn’t prove the intoxication and, under vehicle and traffic law, there is no such thing as a prior felony offender,” Mr. Spota said.

Even though Mr. Plummer attempted to cover up his crime by concealing the damaged car under a tarp, prosecutors could charge him only with the Class D felony for leaving the scene. Under the changes proposed in Albany, establishing a C felony for leaving a fatal crash scene, Mr. Plummer would have faced 7 to 15 years in prison.

In response to the rash of fatal car accidents, Suffolk County police established a Vehicular Crime Unit, and Mr. Spota’s office set up a task force of prosecutors who go to hit-and-run incidents and immediately begin working with police.

But Mr. Spota said that until the law is changed, there is little incentive for people to remain at accident scenes if they have something to hide. At Mr. Plummer’s sentencing, Mr. Spota held another press conference, this time with Mr. Wayte’s family, urging the Assembly to pass the bill.

Mr. Spota said he hopes whoever is elected to the now-open North Fork Assembly seat will take up the cause.

“I’ve implored them every single time we’ve had one of these [hit-and-runs] and at the sentencing,” Mr. Spota said. “I just can’t get through.”

Riverhead Town police have said hit-and-runs, both serious and minor, are up across town. Riverhead Lt. David Lessard believes the trend is due to the town’s rising population and drunk or unlicensed drivers who are trying to avoid more serious charges.

“They feel that if they flee the scene at that point they won’t be charged with a charge that could be much more severe,” Lt. Lessard said. “They might feel it’s to their advantage.”

Lt. Lessard said the department supports the DA’s proposal, though he’s not sure how much of a deterrent higher penalties might be.

Hit-and-runs also put a strain on civil cases, said attorney Michael Sabolinski, a former Nassau County prosecutor now working for Schwartzapfel Lawyers of Jericho.

“We have a ton of cases that are hit-and-run related, whether its pedestrians or cars hitting cars,” he said, adding that “the punishment is just not there.”

Mr. Sabolinski said he understands that sometimes accidents are just accidents, but he said fleeing the scene of a fatality should never be incentivized.

“It’s gotta be on par with the most serious vehicular offense,” he said. “It’s gotta be your top of the line. That’s vehicular homicide because that’s a conscious decision.”

But Robert Schalk — a defense lawyer with the Mineola law firm Collins, McDonald & Gann and also a former Nassau County prosecutor — said increased punishments might lead to over-prosecution.

“You have to careful of the people you’re lumping together,” he said.

Mr. Schalk said that while the DA here may have the manpower to review each case to ensure proper punishments, that may not be the case in other parts of the state.

Outreach efforts would play a large role in spreading awareness of the need to remain at accident scenes, he said, noting prior efforts in Nassau County to compel hit-and-run drivers, through plea deals, to speak to students at local high schools about the dangers of driving.

“I think that type of proactive prosecution … is a good way of getting the message out there,” he said.

Yet Mr. Schalk agreed that leaving the scene of a fatal accident should have a higher maximum penalty.

Brooke Wayte said she thinks the bill to increase the penalties stalled because legislators were concerned about harsh punishments for “mistakes.” But Mr. Plummer’s lack of remorse, she said, proves hit-and-runs aren’t mistakes.

“If you make a mistake, you stay, you try to do something,” she said. “If this guy knew he made a mistake, he would have turned himself in. And I firmly believe he would have never turned himself in had he never been caught. No one would have ever known it was him.

“This guy ran off and left my dad there,” she said. “He didn’t care … Now it’s like it didn’t even matter. Like what he did is okay.”

psquire@timesreview.com

08/30/13 7:00am

GOOGLE MAPS | Three unrelated hit-and-run crashes involving alleged drunken drivers happened this past weekend in the Riverhead area, though no serious injuries were reported. The crashes, denoted above, occurred in Aquebogue, Northampton and Flanders.

In just one weekend, three men found themselves facing drunken driving charges after allegedly fleeing the scenes of unrelated car accidents in the Riverhead area.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota has been pushing for stronger penalties for drivers who flee the scenes of serious accidents, saying that when drivers aren’t caught until much later, investigators are often unable to prove they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time.

But even drunken drivers who leave the scenes of crashes that don’t involve injuries can avoid a more serious DWI charge by eluding police. This creates an incentive for offenders to flee but creates more problems for those who may be left footing repair bills.

“It’s easy to get away, especially if you did a number on the person you’re hitting,” said Michael Sabolinski, a civil attorney with Schwartzapfel Partners of Jericho and a former Nassau County assistant district attorney.

Mr. Spota says he has seen an increase in hit-and-run accidents over the last few years.

The first of the crashes this weekend occurred Saturday night in Aquebogue, where a seafood delivery truck driver smashed into the back of a car he was tailgating before driving away, authorities said. The driver, Brian Pressler of Southold, was arrested minutes later, at about 8 p.m., on Main Road in Laurel, where he was arrested for driving while intoxicated, Southold police said.

He was later issued a citation from Riverhead police for leaving the scene of an accident with property damage, a traffic infraction. Riverhead police said Mr. Pressler had his high beams on and was tailgating a brown Honda at the intersection of Main Road and Edgar Avenue when he rear-ended the vehicle. He was released without bail.

Less than three hours after the Laurel crash, a Riverhead man was arrested after leaving the scene of an accident on Wildwood Trail in Northampton, in which he and another person were injured, Southampton Town police said.

Gregory Lee, 43, was involved in a two-car crash shortly after 11 p.m., officials said. He drove off from the scene, but responding cops canvassed the area and found him intoxicated a short distance from the crash, police said. Both Mr. Lee and the driver of the other car were taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries. Mr. Lee was charged with DWI and leaving the scene of an accident with injuries, a misdemeanor, police said.

He was taken from the hospital to police headquarters and has since been released on $750 cash bail.

Then on Sunday night, a Riverhead man who fled the scene of a single-car accident in Riverside was arrested on a DWI charge after cops caught up with him at his Ludlam Avenue house soon after, Southampton police said.

Paul Ciochetto, 44, drove from the 11 p.m. crash scene near Flanders Road in a 2008 Toyota Yaris, police said.

After police found him at his home, Mr. Ciochetto admitted to driving his car, but claimed not to have realized he’d been involved in an accident, cops said.

Police determined Mr. Ciochetto was drunk and arrested him at his home, officials said. He was charged with DWI, leaving the scene of an accident with property damage and traffic violations, police said. He was released without bail, police said.

psquire@timesreview.com

08/30/13 7:00am

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Friends set up a memorial on Route 58 for hit-and-run victim Kristina Tfelt a few days after her death.

It should go without saying that tough drunk driving laws have prevented countless deaths here and across the United States. But there are also the laws of unintended consequences.

Local and state law enforcement officers and prosecutors have come to notice a loophole in state penal law when it comes to prosecuting drivers in fatal hit-and-run accidents. It’s a hole that lets real criminals off on lighter sentences, creating another set of victims in the form of surviving family members left to cope not only with the loss of a loved one but also with the feeling that justice had never been served.

As things stand, there’s actually an incentive for drivers who may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol to flee serious accidents rather than stay on scene and, say, call 911 for immediate help. That’s because standing by could lead to much harsher charges. Heading home — or hiding out — gives a driver time to sober up. And self-preservation can be a powerful emotion in an emergency.

The state Senate has supported legislation that would impose harsher penalties for leaving the scene of a fatal crash. These penalties can be just as harsh as the same vehicular manslaughter laws someone could face if he or she were found to have been driving drunk during such a crash. But the bill stalled in the state Assembly in the last legislative session.

It’s being said that Albany lawmakers are concerned that some people, who may or may not be drunk, could end up being punished too severely for panicking and fleeing the scene of an accident. And safeguards to prevent decent people from serving long prison sentences should be addressed in any changes to the law. But such concerns are no excuse to do nothing.

Certainly, lawmakers could agree that rewarding drunken people for fleeing crash scenes — even in non-serious accidents, which can be quite pricey for victims — is a problem that must be dealt with. While stiffer penalties may not deter such incidents, there are real issues of justice at hand.

08/25/13 11:23am
08/25/2013 11:23 AM

A Riverhead man was arrested Saturday night after he left the scene of a crash on Wildwood Trail in Northampton, Southampton Town police said.

Gregory Lee, 43, was involved in the two-car crash shortly after 11 p.m. when he fled the scene. He was located a short distance from the crash and was found to be intoxicated, police said.

Both drivers were taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center for treatment of non-life threatening injuries.

Mr. Lee was charged with DWI and leaving the scene of an accident with injuries, police said. He was transported from the hospital to police headquarters and has since been released on $750 cash bail.

SouthamptonPD HQ2 - 500

08/25/13 9:55am

SoutholdPD Sign - Summer - 500

A seafood delivery truck driver from Southold was arrested on drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident charges after a two-car crash Saturday evening in Riverhead, authorities said.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Brian Pressler, 26, of Southold is walked into Southold Town Justice Court Sunday. He was charged with DWI in Southold and cited with leaving the scene of a crash in Riverhead.

Brian Pressler, 26, was driving east on Route 25 in Laurel about 8 p.m. in a delivery truck from Braun’s Seafood in Cutchogue when he was pulled over by Southold Town police, who were alerted to the accident by Riverhead Town police.

Riverhead police said Mr. Pressler had his high beams on and was tailgating a brown Honda at the intersection of Main Road and Edgar Avenue in Aquebogue about 7:50 p.m., when he rear-ended the vehicle.

After he was eventually located in Laurel, officers at the scene determined Mr. Pressler was intoxicated, police said.

He was charged with DWI and issued a citation from Riverhead police for leaving the scene of an accident with property damage, police said.

Southold Town Justice Rudolph Bruer said at an arraignment Sunday that this was not the first time Mr. Pressler, who was released on his own recognizance, has been before him for an alcohol-related offense.

07/17/13 11:44am
07/17/2013 11:44 AM
COURTESY PHOTO | Kristina Tfelt with her 1-year-old son, Joseph, in a photo dated August 2012.

COURTESY PHOTO | Kristina Tfelt with her 1-year-old son, Joseph, in a photo dated August 2012.

Two men were driving in a stolen Cadillac that struck and killed a 26-year-old Riverhead mother in a hit-and-run crash on Route 58 Tuesday night, Riverhead police said.

The men ditched the sedan after the crash and fled the scene on foot. They remained at large as of Wednesday afternoon, police said.

Kristina Tfelt of Northville Turnpike was killed near Woodcrest Avenue about 9:20 p.m., police said.

She had been at a friend’s barbecue earlier Tuesday night, her boyfriend of three years, Joseph Reiter, said in an interview.

Ms. Tfelt left to get groceries for the party and was walking across Route 58 when she was hit, he said.

“She didn’t do anything wrong,” Mr. Reiter said. “She just got hit by a car.”

Riverhead Town police said Ms. Tfelt was hit by a 2000 Cadillac Deville sedan that jumped the curb and crashed into a retaining wall after striking the woman.

The driver of the Cadillac and a passenger in the car ditched the car and both ran from the scene headed south on Woodcrest Avenue, according to a police statement.

Police found Ms. Tfelt lying unconscious in the eastbound lanes of Route 58. She was rushed to Peconic Bay Medical Center, but was pronounced dead, police said.

Police closed the road in both directions between Osborn and Harrison Avenues as Riverhead and state police K-9 teams and a Suffolk County police helicopter searched the area.

The Cadillac involved in the crash was reported stolen about half an hour after the accident, police said.

Investigators believe they know the names of the two men who fled the scene, and that it’s just a matter of time before they’re tracked down, police sources said.

Ms. Tfelt, a Selden native and Newfield High School graduate, met Mr. Reiter, originally of Cutchogue, as the were both trying to recover from drug addiction in 2010, and the couple had been together ever since, he said.

The couple had a child in December 2011 — a boy named Joseph Reiter III. After the baby was born, Mr. Reiter worked to support the family while Ms. Tfelt cared for the child.

“She took care of that baby every single day by herself,” he said. “She’s an amazing mother.”

Mr. Reiter said Ms. Tfelt had her share of struggles with addiction, but added that she had worked through rehab and was trying to recover.

“She’s a beautiful girl,” he said. “She was looking good … She started her life all over again.”

Mr. Reiter said the family hasn’t yet made funeral arrangements.

Anyone with information about the crash is asked to call Riverhead police at (631) 727-4500, ext. 326. All call will be kept confidential.

psquire@timesreview.com

with Carrie Miller