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Driver gets 12 years for Christmas Day crash

NEW PORT RICHEY

Michelle Bassi had one request of David Belniak before he went to prison for the Christmas Day crash that killed her parents and her grandmother almost four years ago.

"Write a journal," she told Belniak in court Tuesday, "and when remorse finally hits you, please mail it to me."

He stared at the floor, a tissue box nearby.

Authorities say Belniak had alcohol, Xanax and evidence of cocaine in his system when he crashed his pickup into the back of a Chevrolet Tahoe just after 2 p.m. on Dec. 25, 2007, on U.S. 19 in northwest Pasco County.

Ray McWilliams, at the wheel of the Tahoe, was stopped at a red light with his wife, Linda, and her daughter and son-in-law, Denise and Gerard Bassi, who were visiting from Connecticut. Presents and a holiday ham were in the back of the SUV as they headed to a family Christmas gathering.

Belniak, 37, was set to face trial this month in a case that could have sent him to prison for life if convicted. But in a deal struck with prosecutors in recent days, he pleaded guilty to three counts of DUI manslaughter and other charges in exchange for 12 years in prison, followed by 10 years of probation. He also must pay about $32,000 in restitution, and he loses his driver's license for life.

He has a history of driving infractions and has faced DUI charges twice before, records show. One of those times, in 2003, New Port Richey police searching his Ford Mustang found a gallon of the intoxicant GHB. Belniak served 17 months in prison after pleading no contest to trafficking the drug.

In a 1994 incident in which he was not charged with a crime, he struck a pedestrian on U.S. 19 near Fivay Road. The woman later died.

Belniak is the son of Alfred and Marlene Belniak, who owned a construction company in Hernando County. Records show that Belniak was an officer in his parents' company and that he, his parents and their entities own more than two dozen properties in west Hernando.

When he was arrested in January 2008, a judge set his bail at $330,000. He was out within hours.

It is not in dispute that Belniak was the driver in the Christmas Day crash, but the evidence against him left room for reasonable doubt about the charges he faced.

Investigators said his blood-alcohol level was 0.045 — well below the 0.08 limit at which the law presumes that a driver is impaired. He had cocaine metabolites in his body, prosecutors said, which indicated that he had used the drug. But it could have been difficult to prove he was still impaired by it. Because of that, his attorneys had filed a motion, which was still pending, to preclude any mention of cocaine use during the trial. And the Xanax in his body was at a therapeutic level.

Prosecutors said they discussed the strengths and the weaknesses of the case with the victims' family, who agreed to the plea deal.

"There was some disagreement between the experts (about) things that we thought cut right to the heart of the case," said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Chris Labruzzo.

Before the crash

Newly filed court records shed light on how Belniak came to be speeding up U.S. 19 that afternoon.

Kara Guggino, in a June deposition, told attorneys that she and Belniak had spent Christmas Eve shopping and visiting with her family. The two had been friends since meeting at the Ybor City bar Amphitheater, where she was a bartender, and they had one big thing in common: a drug habit.

Late on Christmas Eve, Guggino said, she and Belniak met a man at an empty gas station to buy cocaine and then snorted two lines apiece off a CD case in the parking lot. They stopped to buy wine, then headed north to Belniak's house in Spring Hill. They did more cocaine on the way, she said, with Guggino, 27, holding the CD case to Belniak's face as he drove.

On Christmas morning, they headed back to Hillsborough in his truck, but she was driving because he still seemed impaired, Guggino said. Then they parted ways.

Later that day on U.S. 19, prosecutors said, Belniak was going between 75 and 85 mph when he struck the Tahoe.

Gerard Bassi, 51, was dead at the scene. Denise, 50, died in surgery, and Linda McWilliams, 66, was taken off life support about a week later. Ray McWilliams was injured but survived. His health began failing this year, and he died in March at age 68.

"These people meant the world to me," Melanie Bassi, the oldest of the Bassis' three daughters, said at the hearing Tuesday. "They meant nothing to him."

After the sentencing

A faded billboard towers above U.S. 19 at Little Road, advertising rooms for $59.99 at the Microtel. A computer store and a place to buy above-ground pools are at the intersection.

A dozen family members drove there in a caravan after court Tuesday, and in the August heat they placed a wreath of yellow and white flowers in the grass and sand on the northeast corner.

Melanie Bassi stared at the hot blacktop.

"I look out there, and I can't help but think: My dad died right there," she said. "That shouldn't happen to anybody."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or on Twitter at @mmoorheadtimes.

Driver gets 12 years for Christmas Day crash 08/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 12:26am]
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