HUDSON — Ray McWilliams had been waiting more than three years for justice after losing his wife, her daughter and the daughter's husband in a Christmas Day crash on U.S. 19. McWilliams, who was driving, was the only survivor in his SUV.
David Belniak, the other driver, who authorities say was intoxicated, is set to face trial later this year.
But McWilliams won't be there to see it or to testify about what happened. His liver began failing about a month ago, his family said, and on Wednesday (March 16, 2011) he died at a friend's home in Hudson. He was 68.
"We're really upset because we feel he didn't get to have closure," said Vicky Gringas, who is married to McWilliams' stepson, Kenny.
The whole family —some in Connecticut and some in the Tampa Bay area — has struggled to move on since the crash in 2007.
Denise and Gerard Bassi were here from Connecticut visiting Denise's mother, Linda McWilliams, and Ray. They were all heading to gather with other family members, the car packed with presents and the Christmas ham, when Belniak slammed into them while they were stopped at a red light. He was driving between 75 and 98 mph when his pickup hit McWilliams' Chevrolet Tahoe, troopers said. Belniak's blood-alcohol level was 0.045 percent, below the 0.08 percent at which Florida law presumes that someone is unable to drive safely. But troopers said Belniak, 37, also had Xanax and cocaine metabolites in his system.
Belniak is the son of a Hernando County developer and has a history of speeding tickets and DUI arrests. He served 17 months in prison for trafficking in GHB, a chemical that produces a quick high and is also known as a date rape drug.
Denise Bassi, 50, died during surgery following the crash. Gerard, 51, was dead at the scene.
They left behind three grown daughters — Melanie, Jennifer and Michelle — in Connecticut, as well as numerous other relatives.
Linda McWilliams, 66, slipped into a coma and was taken off life support a week after the crash. She and Ray had been married for 23 years. He was a carpenter, and friends and family said he jumped at the chance to help people and loved spending time with his grandchildren — even buying a four-wheeler so that he could go riding with them.
"A teddy bear," Melanie Bassi called him.
After the crash, he was a different person. His injuries were painful and required several surgeries. He lost a lot of weight.
"We all say he never got better," said Georgette DeFranco, a daughter of Linda's who lives in Brooksville.
Eva Vergos, the assistant state attorney who is prosecuting Belniak, said McWilliams had a good memory of the crash, and she had wanted to put him on the witness stand.
Now, she said, "His testimony will never be presented to the jury. The only person left is the defendant. He's the only survivor."
Still, she said, she can proceed.
"This isn't the end of our case. It's just the end of another life, and that's sad," Vergos said. "This is another life that he (Belniak) has taken, even though it's years later."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.