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

08/20/13 2:30pm
08/20/2013 2:30 PM
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO |

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Riverhead Police Department’s newest ATV was unveiled today. On hand were: (from left) Town Councilman John Dunleavy, DA Thomas Spota, Police Chief David Hegermiller, PBA President Dixon Palmer, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, Police Officer John Morris, Councilman George Gabrielsen, PBA Vice President Christopher Parkin, Councilman Jim Wooten and Supervisor Sean Walter.

The Riverhead Police Department’s latest addition started at a fundraiser for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota two years ago.

Riverhead police officer Charles Cichanowicz was in charge of patrolling Iron Pier Beach, but was frustrated by having to drive back to police headquarters to pick up the department’s all-terrain vehicle when it was needed. He pitched an idea to Mr. Spota: use money seized from criminals in police raids to help the police department buy new ATVs and sheds to store them.

This summer, the county delivered. Riverhead police have been using the new ATV — worth about $6,000 — since June and it has already had a noticeable impact on how well the police can patrol the beaches and assist those in need, said Supervisor Sean Walter.

“We do beach patrols during the summertime so we’re really happy the DA provided us the money for the two sheds,” Mr. Walter said in an interview last week. ”It’s very helpful because it increases the protection on the beach. We used to get a lot of complaints.”

Police officer and Police Benevolent Association vice president Christopher Parkin said the shed and new ATV allows police officers to respond to emergencies on the beach faster. It used to take police about 20 minutes to return to base, pick up the ATVs using a trailer and return to the scene on the beach, town officials said. Now, police can respond in minutes.

“These are live-saving instruments,” Mr. Parkin said. “That time can be the difference between life and death.”

The two new sheds purchased using the asset forfeiture funds have been installed at Wading River and Iron Pier beaches.

Mr. Spota, who was at Iron Pier beach Tuesday with the Town Board and police officials, said he would expedite a request to get Riverhead police a second, new ATV. The police plan to then donate one of their older vehicles to the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

psquire@timesreview.com

08/10/12 12:00pm
08/10/2012 12:00 PM

COURTESY PHOTO | A mug shot of Albert Carini from his arrest in July.

A Flanders man accused of sexually abusing two young children posted bail soon after being indicted by a Suffolk County grand jury last week, court officials said this week.

Albert Carini, 53, was held on $500,000 bond or $150,000 cash bail after his indictment on multiple sexual abuse charges on Aug. 3, according to online court records.

He pleaded not guilty and posted bail the next day, court officials said.

Mr. Carini was arrested on July 20 and has been accused of two felonies ­— first-degree course of sexual conduct against a child and second-degree course of sexual conduct against a child — and three misdemeanors — second-degree sexual abuse and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, said Suffolk District Attorney spokesman Robert Clifford.

The Flanders man is also accused of abusing a child less than 14 years old in November 2009, the indictment states.

Mr. Carini is listed as co-owner of a more than 3,500-square-foot, two-story home on Pleasure Drive, according to Southampton Town tax records. The home was built in 2005 on a 2-acre property, town officials said, and is listed as a single family residence with an accessory apartment.

A woman who answered the door at the home declined to comment on the charges against Mr. Carini Tuesday.

Neighbors near the Pleasure Drive home said they did not know the man well, adding that people in the neighborhood of large houses and spacious properties keep mostly to themselves.

Mr. Carini is due back in court on Aug. 23, according to court records.

According to the indictment, Mr. Carini “engaged in two or more acts of sexual conduct” between mid-2011 and the end of May 2012 with a child younger than 11 years old, including at least one act of sexual intercourse, oral sexual conduct, anal sexual conduct or aggravated sexual contact.

psquire@timesreview.com