By MICHAEL HILL Associated Press
SCHOHARIE, N.Y. (AP) — The operator of a limousine company was spared prison time Thursday in a 2018 crash that killed 20 people when catastrophic brake failure sent a stretch limo full of birthday revelers hurtling down a hill in upstate New York.
Loved ones of the dead excoriated Nauman Hussain, 31, as he sat quietly at the defense table during a hearing that was held in a high school gymnasium to provide for social distancing among the many relatives, friends and media members attending.
Hussain, the former operator of Prestige Limousine, had originally been charged with 20 counts each of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter in what was the deadliest U.S. transportation disaster in a decade.
But under an agreement for Hussain to plead guilty only to the homicide counts and spare families the uncertainties and emotional toll of a trial, he is being sentenced to five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service. His case had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
As Judge George Bartlett III prepared to sentence Hussain, loved ones of the victims took turns talking of lives cut short, the holes left in their own and their frustration that the operator would avoid time behind bars.
“Every day I try to wrap my head around this impossible situation,” said Sheila McGarvey, whose 30-year-old son Shane McGowan and his wife, Erin, were passengers.
She wished, she said, that a fraction of any money Hussain spent on lawyers would have been spent to fix the limo’s brakes.
Hussain was accused of putting the victims in a death trap.
“My son, my baby boy, was killed in a limo while trying to be safe,” said Beth Muldoon, the mother of Adam Jackson, 34, who was killed along with his wife, Abigail King Jackson.
The couple, who with the others had rented the limo to avoid drinking and driving, had two small children. Muldoon lamented the holidays and life milestones the parents will miss.
One spectator left the hearing, cursing and shouting, “He killed 20 people,” before apologizing to the judge on her way out.
The judge noted that Hussain’s guilty plea could be used to buoy any lawsuits.
On Oct. 6, 2018, Axel Steenburg of Amsterdam, 30 miles west of Albany, rented the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine for the 30th birthday of his new wife, Amy. The party group, ranging in age from 24 to 34, included Axel’s brother, Amy’s three sisters and two of their husbands, and close friends.
En route to Brewery Ommegang, south of Cooperstown, the limo’s brakes failed on a downhill stretch of state Route 30 in Schoharie, west of Albany. The vehicle blew through a stop sign at a T-intersection at over 100 mph (160 kph) and crashed into a small ravine near a popular country store.
Seventeen family members and friends were killed, along with the driver and two bystanders outside the store.
Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery’s office has said Hussain allowed passengers to ride in the limo despite having received “multiple notices of violations” from the state and having been told repairs were inadequate. State police said the vehicle should have been taken out of service because of brake problems identified in an inspection a month before the crash.
But complications were highlighted in the plea agreement.
In a separate report last fall, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that while the crash was likely caused by Prestige Limousine’s “egregious disregard for safety” that resulted in brake failure, ineffective state oversight contributed.
Prosecutors and Hussain’s lawyers said the plea agreement assured a resolution in a case that would have faced an uncertain outcome if presented to a jury.
Lee Kindlon, an attorney for Hussain, has said his client tried to maintain the limousine and relied on what he was told by state officials and a repair shop that inspected it.
According to the plea agreement, Hussain had the 2001 vehicle serviced at a Mavis Discount Tire store multiple times in the two years before the crash, including twice for brake repairs. The same shop also inspected the limousine, rather than the state Department of Transportation as required, the document said.
A telephone message left with Mavis Discount Tires’ corporate headquarters in Millwood, New York, was not immediately returned.
Prestige repeatedly changed the listed number of seats and took other steps to skirt safety regulations, according to documents released by the NTSB.
The safety board said last fall that the state Department of Transportation knew of Prestige’s out-of-service violations and lack of operating authority and that the state Department of Motor Vehicles failed to properly register the limousine, allowing Prestige to circumvent safety regulations and inspection requirements.
In February 2020, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed limousine safety bills inspired by the upstate crash and one in 2015 on Long Island that killed four women.
One law requires safety belts, and another requires drivers of limos carrying nine or more passengers to have a passenger-endorsed commercial driver’s license.