NEW PORT RICHEY — A photo of Ray McWilliams was projected on a screen next to the witness chair. McWilliams was the only survivor in a horrific 2007 Christmas crash that claimed the lives of his wife, stepdaughter and son-in-law. He never fully recovered and died last year at age 68.
He gave a deposition before his death.
"Explain to me what you recall immediately before the impact," asked Maureen Deskins, an attorney representing the McWilliams estate in a civil case against the driver who hit them, David Belniak. Belniak is serving 12 years in prison for three counts of DUI manslaughter, but he has countersued in civil court, saying McWilliams was to blame. From his prison cell, Belniak wants to be paid for his pain, suffering and medical bills in a crash he pleaded guilty to causing.
Thursday was the fourth day of the civil trial.
"I looked in my rear and kind of seen this truck coming at us," McWilliams said in the deposition, which attorney Chris Knopik read aloud.
"This guy is going to hit us," McWilliams said he told his family. "Brace yourself. This guy is not stopping."
Crash reconstruction expert John Murdoch testified Wednesday that Belniak's Nissan Titan truck was going 86 mph when it slammed into McWilliams' Chevrolet Tahoe at U.S. 19 and Little Road in Hudson. The force was so great the Tahoe went from "zero to 40" mph, Murdoch said.
McWilliams said it happened so fast, there was nothing he could do.
"I'm sitting at a red light," he testified in the deposition. "I didn't have no alternative. I didn't have no place to go. I couldn't run the red light."
Belniak's lawsuit claims McWilliams changed lanes suddenly, giving Belniak no way to avoid a collision.
"You were at a complete stop at the light," Deskins asked.
"Yes," McWilliams stated in the deposition.
Eyewitnesses testified this week that Belniak weaved and swerved, driving on curbs, sidewalks and into oncoming traffic, for miles before reaching the fatal intersection. Authorities said Belniak had been partying the previous night and still had alcohol, Xanax and cocaine metabolites in his system.
McWilliams blacked out on impact.
He woke up smelling fumes.
"I realized I had my wife's head in my hand and I smelled gas," McWilliams said.
He remembered shouting, "I smell gas! Get us out of here! Get us out of here!"
He remembered trying to cradle his wife, who made gurgling sounds.
He remembered someone pronouncing his son-in-law, Gerard Bassi, 51, dead in the backseat.
He remembered seeing his stepdaughter, Denise Bassi, 50, move.
"I thought I seen my daughter trying to reach through and touch her mother one time," McWilliams said.
Denise Bassi was flown first to the hospital. She died later that day.
His wife of 23 years, Linda McWilliams, had to be pried out of the car. Her brain was severely bruised, swollen and bleeding. She was taken off life support Jan. 2, 2008, and died within 10 minutes.
Because Belniak pleaded guilty last August and avoided a criminal trial, many of the details told in this week's civil trial are the first time the public is getting a glimpse of what happened in the Christmas 2007 crash.
Georgette DeFranco lost her mother, sister and brother-in-law. Denise and Gerard Bassi were visiting from Connecticut and were at DeFranco's Brooksville house that Christmas morning. Ray McWilliams came by and took them to see manatees. Then he drove them to his Hudson home to pick up Linda, who was finishing cooking the Christmas ham she planned to bring to DeFranco's house.
DeFranco grew worried when her relatives never returned. Then she got a call from Bayfront Medical Center saying her family was there. She found out on her frantic drive to the hospital that her brother-in-law, Gerard Bassi, died at the scene. When DeFranco and her husband got to the hospital, they were whisked into a small, quiet room, where they were told her sister had died in surgery.
DeFranco found the McWilliamses. They were on beds next to each other in the trauma unit. Her stepfather was awake.
Ray McWilliams, who considered Linda's children as his own, kept asking about his wife.
"How is Mommy?" he asked DeFranco. "Where is Denise? How is Mommy?"
While Linda and Ray McWilliams were being treated in intensive care, DeFranco said Belniak was also there. He suffered minor injuries and was released the day after the accident.
"Did you hear David Belniak say anything?" asked Deskins, the attorney for the McWilliams estate.
"Yes," DeFranco testified.
"What did you hear?" Deskins asked.
"Him laughing," DeFranco said. "With two girls."
Two of Gerard and Denise Bassi's three daughters testified Thursday. The women were very close to their parents. Now, at midnight on every Christmas Eve, they go to their parents' graves and decorate a Christmas tree.
Melanie Bassi, 34, is a high school math teacher in Connecticut. She said she often wakes up crying. It's hard for her to meet new people, because eventually she will have to tell them about her parents and she doesn't want to talk about it. She doesn't see herself getting married.
"I don't think I want to have a wedding because there are too many missing pieces," Melanie Bassi said, crying. "I won't get to have that father-daughter dance. My dad won't be there to give me away. My mom won't be there to help shop for a wedding dress."
She goes to the cemetery several times a month. She will bring her work there. She is a volunteer with MADD and speaks to DUI offenders and high school students.
"I want people to know how we've been affected," she said, her voice breaking, looking toward Belniak. He did not show emotion.
"My parents were amazing. And he took that from us," she said. "And I want him to see what he did to us."
The trial continues today.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.