Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Civil trial begins in 2007 Christmas crash that killed three people in Pasco County

David Belniak, who was convicted of DUI manslaughter for killing three, in court with attorney and sister Debra Tuomey.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

David Belniak, who was convicted of DUI manslaughter for killing three, in court with attorney and sister Debra Tuomey.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Martin Monaghan headed north on U.S. 19. It was a sunny Christmas Day. As he approached the intersection with Little Road, he noticed the red light. He looked at the three lanes of traffic, trying to pick the least crowded. Two cars waited in the right and center lanes. In the left sat a lone beige Chevrolet Tahoe. For a moment, Monaghan considered stopping behind the Tahoe, but then he checked his mirrors. He said he saw a big, black truck in the left lane speeding toward the traffic signal.

"Is he going to be able to stop?" Monaghan testified Tuesday at the civil trial of David Belniak, a 38-year-old Spring Hill man who was behind the wheel of that black Nissan Titan truck.

Anticipating an accident, Monaghan slowed. The truck passed him so fast, he said, his Pontiac Bonneville shook.

"I kept waiting for the brake lights," Monaghan testified. "They never came on. He just rode through the back of the vehicle. That was it. I kept waiting for a swerve or turn or even a brake light. Nothing."

So began the trial for Belniak, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison plus 10 years of probation for causing the 2007 crash that killed three people and injured a fourth. But what Belniak did next, after pleading guilty to three counts of DUI manslaughter, grabbed international headlines.

After being sued by the families of the victims, Belniak countersued. Represented by his attorney sister, Deborah Tuomey, he blamed the crash on the now-deceased driver.

Belniak's lawsuit asks for the relatives of Ray and Linda McWilliams and Gerard and Denise Bassi to pay Belniak for his "pain and suffering … mental anguish … loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life" and the medical bills he got as a result of a crash he admitted causing. Tuomey said her brother felt pressured to take the plea deal because, at trial, he could have faced life in prison.

"Mr. Belniak is simply seeking to disclose the truth," Tuomey said.

The lawsuits were combined into this one trial, which began Monday with jury selection. Tuesday, jurors heard opening statements from attorneys and testimony from eyewitnesses.

"This guy is going to kill somebody," Matthew Willover testified Tuesday, recalling his thoughts as he saw Belniak driving that Dec. 25. Willover and his wife, Kathy, were riding their Harley-Davidson motorcycle when they said Belniak came up behind them on State Road 52. They said Belniak was driving off the road, and they had to pull over underneath the Suncoast Parkway overpass to try to "hide" and get out of his way. After Belniak passed them, Matthew Willover told his wife to call 911. They got back on their Harley and tried to follow the black truck, which drove onto a sidewalk and then nearly hit several cars as it veered across the median into oncoming traffic, Willover said.

"It was amazing," Willover told the jury. "I thought I was going to see somebody die that day."

They got close enough to give the truck's license number to 911, but they lost the truck at the intersection of Little Road.

"Did you ever see that truck again?" asked Chris Knopik, an attorney also representing the McWilliams estate.

"That night on the news," Willover said.

"What did you see?" Knopik asked.

"A horrific crash," Willover said.

In a deposition, Belniak said he headed north on Little Road, west on Fivay Road and north on U.S. 19 that day. He was headed to his house in Spring Hill after dropping a girlfriend off at her apartment in Tampa. The crash happened at U.S. 19 and Little Road in Hudson. The Tahoe held four people: McWilliams, his wife, Linda, and her daughter and son-in-law, Denise and Gerard Bassi, who were visiting from Connecticut. The McWilliamses lived in Hudson and had been married for 23 years. They were all headed to Linda's other daughter's house to eat dinner and open gifts. They had a ham in the car.

Authorities say Belniak had drugs in his system and never braked when his Nissan pickup rear-ended the Tahoe.

Maureen Deskins, who is representing the McWilliams estate, said Belniak was going so fast, the speed of the Tahoe went from "zero miles per hour to 40. That's how hard Mr. Belniak hit them."

She said there was so much energy left over from the crash that the Tahoe "skidded 113 feet — nearly all the way across the intersection."

Gerard Bassi, 51, died at the scene. Denise Bassi, 50, died later that day in surgery. They were high school sweethearts and left behind three daughters. Linda McWilliams, 66, was taken off life support days later. Ray McWilliams was injured but survived.

The Tahoe was "struck with such extraordinary force that the tendons in his shoulder were ripped off the bone," Deskins told jurors. "His bicep was ripped off the bone."

Relatives said McWilliams never recovered. He died last year at 68 from unrelated medical causes. "He was tormented until his last day," Deskins said.

Family members of the victims are expected to testify this week, as well as Belniak himself. In opening statements, Tuomey and Jeff Adams, the other attorney representing Belniak, did not elaborate on their defense strategy or evidence that benefits Belniak. Tuomey's address to the jurors was brief:

"I ask that you wait, wait until the end, wait until you have all the evidence, all the facts, before you judge," she said.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

Civil trial begins in 2007 Christmas crash that killed three people in Pasco County 06/05/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 5, 2012 9:27pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. 10th resident from sweltering Hollywood nursing home dies

    Public Safety

    A 10th person from the Hollywood nursing home that turned into a deadly hothouse after the facility lost power following Hurricane Irma has died, Hollywood police said.

    The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills, 1200 N. 35th Ave. [EMILHY MICHOT | Miami Herald]
  2. Feeling mental fatigue after Hurricane Irma and other disasters? It's real.

    Consumer

    TAMPA — Blackness. Eyes closed or open, the same.

    A Tampa Bay Times reporter in a sensory deprivation tank used for floating therapy at Sacred Floats & Gems Co. located at 6719 N Nebraska Avenue, in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, September 19, 2017. Floating therapy relaxes people because they experience a sense of zero gravity when they are inside the tank, which contains 150 gallons of water and 1000 pounds of medical grade Epsom salt. ALESSANDRA DA PRA  |   Times
  3. Trump vows more sanctions on North Korea

    World

    President Donald Trump vowed Thursday to impose more sanctions on North Korea as he prepared to meet with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea to seek a common strategy in confronting the isolated nuclear-armed state.

    U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 19, 2017. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 in New York described as "the sound of a dog barking" Trump's threat to destroy his country. [Associated Press]
  4. Tampa chamber of commerce votes against tax increase on business property

    Retail

    TAMPA — The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce on Thursday voted against supporting a city of Tampa plan to raise taxes on commercial properties in the city for 2018. The property tax, included in the city's proposed $974 million budget, would boost taxes from $5.73 to $6.33 for every $1,000 in property value.

    The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce voted against supporting a city tax hike on commercial property. Pictured is Bob Rohrlack, CEO of the chamber. | [Times file photo]
  5. How should St. Pete make up for dumping all that sewage? How about a street sweeper?

    Blogs

    Every crisis has a silver lining.

    In the case of St. Petersburg’s sewage crisis, which spawned state and federal investigations and delivered a state consent decree ordering the city to fix a dilapidated sewer system, the upside is figuring out how to satisfy the $810,000 civil penalty levied by the Florida …

    City Council chairwoman Darden Rice said it was important to chose carefully because residents will be paying attention.