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 [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.