SCHOHARIE, NY — It was a staggering and seemingly incomprehensible tragedy: A Saturday afternoon limousine ride went horribly wrong, killing 20 people, including a large group of young friends and relatives on their way to a birthday party.
On Wednesday, the operator of the company that rented that vehicle — a 31-foot-long, five-ton 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limousine — was found guilty of 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter in the October 2018 accident.
The operator, Nauman Hussain, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on May 31.
The verdict, announced in an emotionally charged courtroom and after less than a day of deliberation by a jury in Schoharie County, west of Albany, closes a nearly five-year ordeal for the victims’ families, including all 17 passengers, the driver and two pedestrians outside a cafe and shop in Schoharie, NY
A 2020 report from the National Transportation Safety Board found that the limousine’s braking system failed on Route 30 outside Schoharie, causing the vehicle to descend a long hill into the valley below, eventually reaching over 100 mph and coming to an intersection flew into another busy road. rural side road.
The driver, Scott Lisinicchia, managed to avoid a car, but sped through the intersection and hit an SUV, which then struck and killed two pedestrians near the Apple Barrel Cafe, a popular local establishment. The limousine then charged into a shallow ravine near the cafe and finally came to rest on an embankment.
The crash was the country’s deadliest transportation accident in nearly a decade, and the investigation soon took a curious turn when it was revealed that the limousine company’s owner – Shahed Hussain – was a longtime FBI informant.
At the time of the accident, Mr. Hussain, then 62, who operated the Prestige Limousine and Chauffeur Service with his son from a low-cost motel in Saratoga County, Pakistan was suffering from health problems; he has not returned to the United States since.
But Mr Hussain’s son, Nauman, was soon arrested, with authorities citing a long history of safety violations for the vehicle involved in the accident, and the fact that Mr Lisinicchia, the driver involved in the accident died, was not licensed to drive. such a huge limousine.
Schoharie County District Attorney Susan J. Mallery had repeatedly tried to commit Nauman Hussain, 33, to careless and dishonest surveillance of his vehicles during the trial’s six days of testimony. That argument was echoed in a lengthy, often languorous closing statement on Tuesday by Frederick Rench, who served as special prosecutor in the trial.
“Mr. Hussain caused the deaths of the victims,” Mr. Rench said, outlining a number of lies the defendant had posted online about the limousine’s condition and citing Mr. Hussain’s “duty” to make sure making sure the vehicle was roadworthy.”There’s no question about what his duty was.”
Even before the tragedy, the occupants of the tattered limousine — including four daughters from one family — had worried something was wrong. They sent text messages — some joking, others more serious — saying the vehicle’s engine was deafening and they smelled burning brakes.
Initially, the younger Mr. Hussain had reached an agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to charges that would have saved him jail time, with five years’ probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
But that deal, which was disapproved by the victims’ families, was voided last year by state Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch, who called it “completely insincere and unacceptable.” Judge Lynch also oversaw the trial of Schoharie.
Lee Kindlon, Mr. Hussain’s attorney, called no witnesses. In a closing statement on Tuesday, he had argued that while his client was a poor businessman who had committed a series of vehicle offences, he was not responsible for the accident, noting that Mr Hussain had repeatedly tried to apply the brakes. repaired the ill-fated limousine.
Indeed, during testimony last week, it was revealed that Mr Hussain had been misled by a manager of a Mavis car workshop telling him that brake repair work had been carried out and that another employee had placed a Department of Motor Vehicles inspection sticker on the limousine — without doing the inspection.
“There is a big gap between breaking some rules and people dying,” Mr Kindlon said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Kindlon that he intended to appeal, even as Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen indicated she would investigate the Mavis associates. Mr Kindlon said he spoke briefly to the elder Mr Hussain and said he had sobbed at the verdict.
Relatives of the victims – many of whom were between the ages of 20 and 30 – had filled the courtroom during the trial, weeping as the names of the victims were read, and applauding as the jury departed after announcing its verdict.
Mary Ashton, whose son Michael Ukaj died on his 34th birthday, said she was relieved but also wanted others involved in the accident, including Mavis employees, to be held accountable.
“I’m happy for my son,” she said. He finally got justice. And that is exactly what I have been fighting for for four and a half years.”