Just before impact, David Belniak looked into the eyes of the man at the wheel.
"I could see through the vehicle and was looking at the direction of the driver. He was turned around, looking at me," Belniak testified Friday. Belniak's Nissan Titan pickup plowed into the back of a Chevrolet Tahoe on Christmas afternoon in 2007. Three people died. Ray McWilliams, the Tahoe driver who lost his wife, stepdaughter and son-in-law, was severely injured in the crash. He died last year at age 68.
Belniak pleaded guilty in August to three counts of DUI manslaughter and is serving 12 years in prison. The families of the victims filed a lawsuit against Belniak, who filed a countersuit arguing that McWilliams was to blame for the crash. From his prison cell, Belniak wants to be paid for his pain, suffering and medical bills in a crash he pleaded guilty to causing.
"I made eye contact with him," Belniak said.
He said he was so close, he could see Ray McWilliams' blushed cheeks. He thought maybe the man had a sunburn. He said McWilliams' left hand was on the steering wheel.
Belniak said he saw a woman in the back seat. Her hand was outstretched, holding the seat in front of her, bracing herself. She wore a white dress with thin straps.
"She had dark hair," he said.
That was Denise Bassi, a 50-year-old mother of three who died that day in surgery. Her husband, Gerard Bassi, 51, died at the scene. Linda McWilliams, Denise Bassi's mother — and Ray McWilliams' wife — suffered a traumatic brain injury and was taken off life support days after the crash.
Eyewitnesses said McWilliams' Tahoe was sitting at a red light on U.S. 19 at Little Road in Hudson when the pickup rear-ended it, never braking, swerving or slowing down. Authorities said Belniak had Xanax, alcohol and cocaine metabolites in his system. McWilliams said in a deposition that he and his family were just sitting at the light.
"I looked in my rear and kind of seen this truck coming at us," McWilliams said, according to his deposition, which was read aloud in court this week.
"This guy is going to hit us!" McWilliams said he told his family. "Brace yourself! This guy is not stopping!"
Belniak's lawsuit claims that McWilliams abruptly veered from the left turn lane into the left through lane, giving Belniak no time to avoid the crash. Frank Fore, a crash reconstruction expert hired by Belniak's attorneys, testified Friday that the Tahoe was stopped at a 5 degree angle — a slight tilt that his defense could use as evidence to back up Belniak's version of events. Fore and John Murdoch, the expert hired by the families' estates, both agreed that the Tahoe was at a standstill when it was hit and the brake lights had been on for 8 seconds. Fore said Belniak was going 53 mph when he hit the Tahoe. Murdoch said he was going 86 mph. Belniak testified he was going between 55 and 60 mph.
"You were impaired at the time of the accident, is that correct?" asked Maureen Deskins, an attorney representing the McWilliams estate.
"I can't deny that," Belniak said.
Belniak told jurors Friday that he was headed north on U.S. 19. The light at Little Road was green. He said he saw the Tahoe brake hard in the left through lane and veer over to the left turn lane. Belniak proceeded toward the light. He told jurors a car on his right caught his eye for a moment, and when he looked ahead again, the Tahoe had moved into the left through lane right in front of him.
"When you first observed the Tahoe coming from the left turn lane, how far was the distance between you and the Tahoe?" asked Jeff Adams, one of the attorneys representing Belniak.
"I would say 10 feet from the front of my hood to the distance of his vehicle," Belniak said. "It was a very short distance."
He said he had no time to do anything.
"I went to grab my wheel like this," he said, motioning on the stand that he tried to swerve. "I don't believe I hit the brake. My thought was to hit the brake. But I don't believe I did."
He said he watched his hood hit the taillight of the Tahoe. Both vehicles begin to crumple.
"I watched the vehicles start to depress before I got knocked unconscious," he said.
He said he remembers fuzzy snapshots after impact.
"I recall somebody trying to pull me out of my vehicle," he said. "I recall somebody pulling my shirt off and pulling it over my head. I recall laying on the ground."
He said he had a head injury. The next thing he remembered was being in a hospital getting stitches.
Belniak had never told his story publicly, as his criminal case didn't go to trial. At his sentencing in August, the daughters of Gerard and Denise Bassi begged Belniak to apologize or show some kind of remorse. He was blank and said nothing.
Jurors are allowed to ask witnesses questions. They write questions on pieces of paper, which are handed to the judge by a bailiff. The judge and attorneys debate which ones are allowed to be asked.
This was the first one read:
"Do you take or accept any blame for this accident?" Circuit Court Judge Lowell Bray asked.
Belniak paused. He said nothing. Seconds passed.
He opened his mouth.
His attorney stepped in.
"Your honor, may I approach?" Adams asked.
The lawyers again conferred in whispers with the judge.
They returned to their seats.
The question remained.
Bray asked it again.
"I have thought about that every day since this accident. I don't know what I could have done differently," Belniak testified. "But I was there. I had to have contributed in some way. I don't know what way that is, but I have thought about that every day. I don't know what I could have done differently. I really don't. "
As he spoke, he looked at the jurors.
"It was unavoidable," he said. "There was absolutely nothing I could have done to avoid it. Do I accept responsibility? I did accept responsibility — criminally.
"I still think of that question and probably will for the rest of my life."
The trial is expected to continue through next week.