NEW PORT RICHEY — From the mangled skeleton of the Chevrolet Tahoe, something emerged intact: a black box that recorded the last seconds before impact.
Those final moments — before a black Nissan Titan truck crashed into the Tahoe on Christmas afternoon 2007, killing three people — are key in a lawsuit being tried this week in the New Port Richey courthouse.
Relatives of the three people who died have sued the truck driver, David Belniak, who is serving 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of DUI manslaughter. In a move that made headlines around the world, Belniak countersued, claiming the now-deceased driver of the Tahoe was to blame. He alleged the Tahoe driver, Ray McWilliams, abruptly changed lanes, making it "impossible" for Belniak to avoid the crash. From his prison cell, Belniak wanted damages for his pain, mental anguish and medical bills. Both civil cases are now in court.
In the moments before the crash, eyewitnesses said, the Tahoe was stopped, waiting at a red light on U.S. 19 at Little Road in Hudson, in western Pasco County. On Wednesday, jurors heard about the black box and what it recorded.
The Tahoe's brake lights were on for at least eight seconds before the truck hit, crash reconstruction expert John Murdoch testified.
"Is it your analysis that the Chevy Tahoe was stopped at the light before the collision?" asked Chris Knopik, who is representing the McWilliams estate.
"Yes," Murdoch testified.
The impact of the crash was so great, Murdoch said, that in less than a second after impact, the Tahoe's speed "went from zero to 40" mph.
Murdoch said Belniak was going 86 mph when he hit the Tahoe.
Witnesses said Belniak never braked or swerved.
"He just plowed right through the back of them and pushed them through the intersection," witness Sherri Courter said in a taped deposition shown to jurors Wednesday.
Belniak's attorney is his sister, Debra Tuomey, who will likely present their side of the case next week.
Witnesses testified this week that Belniak drove erratically for miles before reaching that fatal intersection — nearly hitting several cars, driving on curbs, sidewalks. Multiple people called 911. A witness testified Tuesday that Belniak crossed the median on State Road 52 and drove into oncoming traffic. Authorities said Belniak, of Spring Hill, had been partying the night before and he was on his way home after dropping off a girlfriend in Tampa. He had prescribed levels of Xanax in his system, authorities said, as well as alcohol and cocaine metabolites.
Belniak is on the witness list and could testify this week.
His current prison term is not his first. In 2003, New Port Richey police found a gallon of the intoxicant GHB, commonly known as the "date rape drug," in Belniak's Ford Mustang. He served 17 months in prison after pleading no contest to trafficking GHB.
In 1994, he struck a pedestrian on U.S. 19 near Fivay Road, which is 3 miles south of the Dec. 25, 2007 crash. The woman later died. He was not charged with a crime.
Belniak had minor injuries in the 2007 crash. Witnesses said he was shirtless and resisted being taken out of his truck, which had caught fire. His tinted windows had to be broken to try to drag him out. Witness Joshua Crawford said in a videotaped deposition that once Belniak was outside the truck, he showed no emotion for those in the Tahoe.
"He showed more concern for his broken window and the state of his truck," testified Crawford, who was at the intersection that day and raced over to help the victims. "He was very mean."
Gerard Bassi, 51, died inside the Tahoe. His wife, Denise Bassi, 50, bled to death later that day in surgery. They were high school sweethearts and left behind three daughters. The women, who are now 34, 32 and 28, are expected to testify today. The eldest, Melanie Bassi, is the representative for her parents' estate and has been in court all week. She stepped out once, when a witness Tuesday described seeing Gerard and Denise Bassi in the crumpled Tahoe. They died in pain.
Denise Bassi's mother, Linda McWilliams, 66, had no brain activity and was taken off life support days after the crash. Linda's husband, Ray McWilliams, was severely injured but survived. The force of impact was so great that his biceps and tendons were ripped from the bone on his left arm, attorney Maureen Deskins said. Ray McWilliams, a retired carpenter who loved working with his hands, never recovered, relatives said. He died from unrelated causes last year at age 68.
Ray and Linda McWilliams had been married for 23 years. He told people that he fell in love with her immediately and knew she was it for him. After she was gone, he did not know how to go on.
"Ray was the kind of person, he was always joking, laughing, having a good time. After the accident, his whole demeanor changed," son-in-law Sal DeFranco testified Wednesday. "He was quiet. Distant. Lost."
The trial is expected to finish next week.