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Five years after crash, closure escapes families of Cutchogue limo victims

Steven and Felicia Baruch were returning home from visiting friends in Orient Sunday when they drove through Cutchogue.

Mr. Baruch recognizes that taking Route 48 is the quickest way out of town. But the Baruchs were in no rush.

Instead they made their way through Greenport Village to the Main Road, passing through Southold, Peconic and eventually Cutchogue on the long way back home to Smithtown.

“We’re still not comfortable driving past there,” Mr. Baruch said of the intersection at Route 48 and Depot Lane. 

Five years ago this week, on July 18, 2015, the couple’s only daughter, Lauren, was among a group of eight friends in a limousine that attempted to make a U-turn there. Only four of the women survived the ensuing crash, which received national media attention. Lauren, who was just 24 years old, was not one of them.

In the five years since the crash, life has had to carry on for the survivors, the oldest of whom is now 30, and the families of all eight women who visited the North Fork for a quiet afternoon at a distillery and later a winery. It has not been easy.

They went on and did what they wanted to do, but it’s something that won’t go away.

Nancy DiMonte

Aside from the obvious physical and emotional pain, there have been two criminal cases, neither of which ended with one of the drivers in jail. The district attorney whose office handled the cases resigned under a cloud of controversy and is now facing time in federal prison himself. A complicated, combined civil suit against the drivers and the town and county, which maintain the intersection, continues to drag on in court. Closure, the families say, has eluded them.

“We don’t understand what took place at the time of the tragedy,” said Nancy DiMonte, whose daughter Joelle watched in horror as the front bumper of an oncoming pickup truck pierced the side of the limo and crashed down on her legs, but spared her the fate suffered by four of her friends. “We’re lacking answers as to why nobody was held accountable for that accident.”

On Tuesday evening, most of the families met in Smithtown at LABS Lane, a road renamed in memory of the four young women killed in the crash: Ms. Baruch, Amy Grabina, Brittney Schulman and Stephanie Belli. It was a private gathering and the first time many of the survivors — Ms. DiMonte, Alicia Arundel, Olga Lipets and Melissa Crai — and the families involved have seen each other in person since COVID-19 hit Long Island in March. A press event is being planned for later this week to mark the anniversary and bring further attention to limo safety issues.

The four young women who lost their lives in the July 18, 2015 crash: (from left: Amy Grabina, Lauren Baruch, Stephanie Belli and Brittney Schulman)

The surviving women have all mostly maintained their privacy — none has ever spoken with the media — though it has required some effort.

Nancy DiMonte, who has served in recent years as a spokesperson for the families, can still recall a reporter trying to enter her daughter’s hospital room at Peconic Bay Medical Center and the flowers piling up outside her East Northport house days later — bouquets sent by strangers from all over the country and even England and Israel — that her daughter declined to bring into the home in an effort to avoid the media outside. When she attended her friend Amy’s funeral in a wheelchair, a patch covering her right eye, the photos made the tabloids.

The instant attention eventually died down, though, and they’ve gone on to live their lives with a hard-won and much-needed level of privacy. Two of the survivors have since married, another had a child.

“They went on and did what they wanted to do, but it’s something that won’t go away,” Ms. DiMonte said.

Criminally negligent homicide charges brought against limo driver Carlos Pino, who attempted the ill-fated turn, were dismissed after his attorney argued the charges should be invalidated because prosecutors improperly presented evidence to the grand jury. In October 2017, Suffolk County Judge Fernando Camacho agreed, dismissing the charges. The grand jury, which was empaneled for an extended time to study limo safety and make recommendations, ultimately determined that Mr. Pino was criminally at fault for the crash and that the blinking light at the intersection was inadequate.

The driver of the pickup truck, Steven Romeo of Peconic, who had initially been accused of driving while intoxicated, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, served a license suspension and paid a $500 fine.

Mr. Baruch knows the old cliché that the criminal justice system was never going to bring his daughter back, but the way it failed his family has not helped heal the pain he, his wife and their son, Michael, still feel.

Mr. Baruch, who wears his daughter’s ashes in a pendant around his neck, starts each day the same way — by wishing her a good morning through prayer. He wishes her a good night, too.

“I tell her I love and I miss her,” he said before looking up at the photo of her he keeps on the visor of his vehicle.

Anniversaries, like the one coming up Saturday, aren’t too different from all the other challenging days. “It’s no worse than a Father’s Day or a Mother’s Day without her,” he remarks.

Asked if it’s difficult to see his daughter’s friends live their lives, he said it’s a “fair question” and he took his time to answer carefully, not wanting to suggest he isn’t proud of how the survivors have persevered.

“Is it bittersweet? Yes,” he said. “Lauren’s two closest friends were Joelle and Alicia. They’re wonderful kids. On one hand, it’s joyous. I’m happy to see them recover and move on with their lives. But I am, I guess the word would be, envious, a little bit. That would be natural, right?”

(L-R) Survivors Alicia Arundel, Melissa Crai, Joelle Dimonte and Olga Lipets at around the time of the crash. (Credit: Facebook)

The crash has brought most of the families that were involved closer together, in particular Mr. Baruch, Ms. DiMonte and Paul Schulman.

“[Some of us] knew each other, but after the crash, it was a different kind of union,” Ms. DiMonte said. “You don’t want to meet people this way, but there’s a deep bond.”

She said they’ve also realized that the media attention has helped lead to some positives, including more recent efforts to get the word out about the need for stricter limo regulations and fundraising efforts for a charity in memory of the four deceased friends.

Mr. Baruch noted that even though this year’s Running 4 Our Angels Run/Walk had to be canceled due to the coronavirus, they still raised enough money to provide scholarships for local students.

“We try to put our energy forward in a positive way, somehow, some way, to make sure this type of thing doesn’t happen again,” he said of the many efforts.

Family members and their supporters gathered at LABS Lane in Smithtown to film a video that was sent to state lawmakers, asking them to consider stricter limousine regulations last year. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Soon after an October 2018 limo crash that killed 20 people in upstate Schoharie County, Ms. DiMonte reached out to lawmakers about improving limo safety.

“I called the governor’s office and said, ‘Can I have an appointment? We need to talk,’ ” she said in an interview last year.

Since that time, and with the support of the Schoharie families as well, New York has passed what she described as the “toughest limo laws in the nation,” including seat belt requirements that will go into effect next year, the impoundment of defective limousines, increased penalties for illegal U-turns and GPS requirements.

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved similar regulations at the federal level. Ms. DiMonte is hopeful the U.S. Senate will follow suit.

“We call it the grand slam,” she said of the possibility of getting the regulations approved by both houses of the state and federal governments. “We’re more than halfway there.”

On the wall of her den is a framed copy of the limo bill signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which his office sent to each of the families soon after he signed the regulations into law last year. It’s among her most prized possessions.

“I look at that and say, ‘Of all the things I’ve ever done in my life …’ ”