SCHOHARIE, N.Y. (AP) — Nearly five years after a stretch limousine packed with birthday revelers careened down a hill and off a road in rural upstate New York, killing 20 people, the operator of the company that rented out the vehicle is going on trial.
Nauman Hussain, who ran Prestige Limousine, is charged with criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter in connection with the Oct. 6, 2018 crash – one of the deadliest U.S. road wrecks of the past two decades – in Schoharie, a village west of Albany.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in Schoharie County Court.
Seventeen people using the limo for a birthday celebration were killed, along with the driver and two bystanders outside a country store where the vehicle crashed.
The victims’ relatives have been on an emotional rollercoaster ever since. After pandemic-related delays in the criminal case, they were exasperated by a 2021 announcement of a plea deal that would have spared Hussain prison time. A surprise twist came last fall when a judge rejected the deal, setting up the trial this week a few miles down the road from the accident site.
“All we can do is move on and hope that we can get justice,” said Tom King, the father of four sisters killed in the crash. “It’s not going to be closure for families that lost their kids. I mean, we lost four daughters and three sons-in- law in one shot. There’s no way we’ll ever make that up, no matter how many trials they have.”
Victim Axel Steenburg had hired the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine for an outing to celebrate the 30th birthday of his wife, Amy, who was King’s daughter.
The group was headed to a brewery outside Cooperstown, New York. The passengers ranged in age from 24 to 34 and included Axel Steenburg’s brother, Amy Steenburg’s three sisters and two of their husbands and close friends.
The National Transportation Safety Board found evidence of brake failure occurring on a long downhill stretch of road on the way to the brewery. The vehicle is believed to have reached speeds of more than 100 mph (160 kph) when it blew through a stop sign at a T-intersection and hit a parked SUV and several trees before coming to rest in a streambed.
Prosecutors say Hussain failed to properly maintain the limo and is to blame for the deaths. Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery did not return a call seeking comment.
The National Transportation Safety Board found Prestige showed an ” egregious disregard for safety ” and took pains to avoid more stringent inspection rules intended to ensure the stretch vehicle had the braking capacity and other requirements for carrying a load heavier than it was initially built for.
The vehicle had been ordered out of service by state transportation officials a month before the crash after an inspection that was part of an investigation of Prestige for operating without proper certification. Prosecutors have argued Hussain removed an out-of-service sticker from the limo’s windshield.
But the criminal case is complicated. The NTSB also said ineffective state oversight allowed Prestige to circumvent safety regulations and inspection requirements.
There also were issues with the shop Hussain used for repair work. State investigators say a Mavis Discount Tire store falsified billing invoices to make it appear there was brake work done on the limo that was not performed.
Hussain’s lawyers contend he tried to maintain the limousine and relied on what he was told by state officials and the repair shop.
”Every day we talk about Nauman, the real perpetrators escape blame. We’re going to trial not just to defend an innocent man but to spur real accountability for those who could have prevented this tragedy,” Lee Kindlon, an attorney for Hussain, said in an email.
In an email, a Mavis spokesperson expressed sympathy for the victims and their families, called its billing policies “honest, fair and sound,” and said the company “bears no legal responsibility for this tragedy.”
The plea deal announced in 2021 called for Hussain to plead guilty only to the criminally negligent homicide counts. Under the deal, he was to be placed on probation for five years and perform 1,000 hours of community service, but serve no jail time.
“We were absolutely devastated by that,” said Kevin Cushing, who lost his son, Patrick Cushing, in the wreck.
An unexpected reversal came a year later when a judge rejected the deal as “fundamentally flawed.” Justice Peter Lynch, who was not presiding over the case when the deal was reached, reasoned that Hussain’s actions before the crash showed he knew the risk of putting the limousine on the road and pleading guilty only to the criminally negligent homicide charges did not reflect that.
Hussain then withdrew his plea, paving the way for a trial that is expected to last about six weeks.
Cushing is among the relatives who plan to show up for the trial and is set to testify. He feels he owes it to his son Patrick, his son’s girlfriend Amanda Halse and the other people in the limousine on that fall day.
“It won’t be easy,” Cushing said. “A lot of things in life aren’t easy, but there’s some things you need to do.”
Prestige was owned at the time of the crash by Hussain’s father, Shahed Hussain, a former paid FBI informant known for his role in a series of controversial domestic terrorism investigations before he returned to his native Pakistan. He has not been charged.
–Hill contributed from Albany, New York.
Top photo: A body is draped under a blanket at the scene of a fatal crash in Schoharie, N.Y., Oct. 6, 2018. Nearly five years after catastrophic brake failure sent a stretch limousine packed with birthday revelers careening down a hill and into a shallow ravine in rural New York, killing 20 people, the operator of the company that rented out the vehicle is going on trial. Jury selection was scheduled to begin Monday, May 1, 2023, in Schoharie County Court. (Tom Heffernan Sr. via AP, File)
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