Drunken Driver Kills Two In Astoria Crash
Family and friends of two women killed last weekend in a horrific DWI crash in Astoria are trying to cope with their loss as they vent anger over a system that freed a murder suspect to kill again.
Effie Delimarkos Fletcher held back tears as she described her friend, Panaviota Demetriou, 30, as a "bouncing bubble of love", whose life was just beginning when she was killed by a drunken Long Island man with a violent past.
Demetriou and livery driver Bessie Velasquez, 41, were killed when Daryush Omar, driving westbound along 31st Avenue in his white, 2004 Range Rover, blew through a red light at 34th Street at about 3 a.m. on November 16, slamming into the side of the livery cab and crushing the two women inside.
The impact of the crash tossed the livery cab halfway down the block. The cab came to a halt about 85 feet from the crash site, stopping midway between 34th and 33rd Streets, police said.
Local resident Carlo Bagglia, who witnessed the crash, said the women "never stood a chance" of surviving. "The SUV came tearing through the intersection like hellbusters," Bagglia said. "It was like an explosion. Those women never knew what hit them."
Other eyewitnesses said the livery cab was eerily silent after it came to a halt. "You could see long hair, all tangled up inside the car," area resident Elise Hoffman said. "There was no movement or noise from inside the cab. You couldn't see how many people were in there, but you knew they were dead or dying."
The two women were pronounced dead a short while later at Mount Sinai Hospital of Queens.
Police said Omar initially refused to take a Breathalyzer test at the scene. After agreeing to take the test moments later, Omar blew a 0.17—well over the legal alcohol limit of 0.08, police said. Police sources said Omar later confessed to having at least two drinks at an Astoria nightclub before he stepped behind the wheel of the Range Rover.
Omar, 24, was charged with first- and second-degree vehicular manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, reckless driving, operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, red traffic signal light and speed restrictions. He was held without bail at his arraignment at Queens Criminal Court and is scheduled to return to court on December 1.
Eyewitnesses told police a second Range Rover stopped at the scene moments after the crash, just as Omar emerged, dazed, from his vehicle.
The eyewitnesses said the second driver stomped angrily out of his Range Rover, shouting at Omar, "What did you do? What happened? Oh, my God, I can't believe you did this!" The man stepped back into his vehicle and left the scene before police arrived, eyewitnesses said.
Law enforcement sources said that in July 2006, Omar and five other men allegedly attacked financial analyst Thomas Whitney, Jr., kicking him and beating him to death with a pipe outside the Spy Club in Lower Manhattan. The men attacked Whitney after he approached them for directions. Witnesses failed to come forward to give police their account of the incident, but investigators got a break in the case when surveillance tapes showing the men on a shopping spree using Whitney's credit cards helped identify the suspects. Omar and two other men were subsequently charged with murder, while the rest faced stolen property charges.
Omar, a resident alien from Pakistan, has not been indicted in the case and was set free at a subsequent court hearing, pending another hearing scheduled for December 12, a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office said. An investigation is continuing in the case.
Speaking to reporters outside Demetriou's apartment building in Astoria, Fletcher said Demetriou moved to Astoria from Cyprus about seven years ago.
Fletcher, 28, said Demetriou, who was known to her friends as "Penny," was "always busy", working as a child psychologist at Brookdale University Hospital while studying for a graduate degree in child psychology at Pace University.
Fletcher said Demetriou had not gone out much in recent months, but put her books aside to attend a friend's party on Saturday night. Demetriou was having such a good time at the party that she convinced her best friend and the woman's boyfriend to stay a while longer, Fletcher said. "Penny suggested they take a cab home, just to be safe," she said.
Police said Velasquez dropped the couple off a few blocks away and was headed southbound on 34th Street, toward Demetriou's apartment building, given by police as 31-23 34th St., when Omar blew the red light.
Velasquez, a single mother of two teenage girls, worked two full-time jobs to support the family, said a spokesperson for Myrtle Car Service.
Velasquez started working for Myrtle
eight years ago, the spokesperson said. She leftMyrtle three years ago to drive for another company, but returned just three weeks ago because she was able to earn more with Myrtle. The Brooklyn mom also worked full-time as a cleaner for JetBlue Airways at La Guardia Airport.
Demetriou was waked at the Angerame Funeral Home in Astoria on November 18, where mourners embraced in tears, remembering the young woman who "could find good in anyone."
"She was so full of promise," said one young woman. Breaking into tears, the woman continued, " This is just so sad, so unfair."
Demetriou's body was returned to Cyprus for burial following the Astoria service. The Cyprus Federation of America announced donations to assist the family would be accepted. Checks can be made payable to CFA Philanthropic Committee and mailed to Treasurer Chris Nicolaou, 47- 60 197th St., Flushing 11358.
"Like so many other New Yorkers, my prayers are with the families of the victims of this horrible crime," Assemblymember Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), among the state's leading advocates against drunk driving, said on Monday. "Among the many questions that must be answered in the coming days, the most important seems to be why someone with a history of violence and drunk driving was allowed to get behind the wheel of a car at all. Our law enforcement authorities must be able to use all the tools at their disposal to prevent tragedies like this from happening. We must make it easier to use new technologies like alcohol-sensitive ankle bracelets to keep those with a history of driving drunk off the streets."
Moments after the crash, a local resident, Evangelos Fotiou, 42, who lives near Demetriou, at 31-18 34th St., was spotted rummaging through the splintered remains of the livery cab, where he grabbed the wallets of the two victims, police said.
Police sources said Fotiou took cash from the wallet of one victim, although it was unclear where he found the wallet and how much money he took.
Fotiou, who told police he was planning to return the money, was charged with petit larceny and second-degree obstructing governmental administration.