This past Christmas, there were no lights, no tree, no joy, at Georgette DeFranco's home. • Since 2007, DeFranco said, "we don't do Christmas." • The Brooksville woman lost her mother, sister and brother-in-law in a fiery Dec. 25 collision three years ago in northwest Pasco County. Authorities say David Belniak was speeding and intoxicated when he slammed into the family's car at U.S. 19 and Little Road. The Spring Hill man was charged with three counts of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide, among other charges, but has remained free on bail with no trial date in sight. • "He's out, and we're the ones that are being punished," DeFranco said.
DeFranco hosted the Christmas Eve celebrations at her home in 2007. Her mother and stepfather drove up from their home in Hudson. Her sister and brother-in-law came down from Connecticut. They joined two dozen other friends and relatives for a traditional Italian dinner and then a gift exchange, the kind where each person can pick a gift from under the tree or steal someone else's.
"We just laughed. We had such a great time," said DeFranco, 47.
About 2 p.m. the next day, DeFranco's mother, sister and their spouses were headed back to her Brooksville home to continue the holiday celebrations when they were rear-ended by Belniak.
DeFranco's sister, Denise Bassi, 50, made it to the hospital but died during surgery.
Bassi's husband, Gerard, 51, was dead at the scene.
DeFranco's mother, Linda McWilliams, 66, slipped into a coma and was declared brain dead. Her family took her off life support a week later.
"I couldn't believe it," DeFranco said. "We just saw them."
Her stepfather, Ray McWilliams, was the driver and the lone survivor in his car. He suffered a shoulder injury.
The Florida Highway Patrol said Belniak was driving between 75 and 98 mph when his pickup truck hit McWilliams' Chevrolet Tahoe, which was stopped at a red light. Belniak's blood-alcohol content was 0.045, below the 0.08 level at which Florida law presumes that someone is unable to safely drive a motor vehicle. But FHP said Belniak also had Xanax and cocaine metabolites in his system.
Belniak has not spoken about the case, on his attorney's advice.
The 37-year-old son of a Hernando County developer, Belniak has a history of speeding tickets and DUI arrests. He served a 17-month prison stint for trafficking in GHB, the chemical intoxicant that gained notoriety as the "date rape drug," but is also taken by people looking for a cheap high.
In 1994, he struck a pedestrian on U.S. 19 near Fivay Road. The woman died, but Belniak wasn't charged.
He now awaits trial on three counts of DUI manslaughter, three counts of vehicular homicide, one count of DUI causing serious bodily injury and one count of reckless driving causing serious bodily injury.
He is out on $330,000 bail.
He could face life in prison if convicted.
• • •
In the three years since the violent crash, little has happened to give the survivors closure.
DeFranco, 47, takes time off from work every time Belniak has a court date. At every one, the lawyers say they need more time to prepare for trial.
The reasons for the delay?
Steve Romine, Belniak's attorney, did not get a copy of FHP's homicide report until six months after the crash. He couldn't get access to the vehicles for more than a year, and had to get a judge's order to see them.
Prosecutors have listed more than 70 witnesses — people who saw the crash, medical personnel, law enforcement officers, accident reconstruction experts — all of whom must be interviewed.
"Nobody's dragging their feet on this thing," Romine told Circuit Judge Michael Andrews in a hearing last week.
But Andrews said the case needs to be resolved. He set a trial date in June.
And for the first time, DeFranco felt a measure of relief.
Once the case goes to trial, she said, "I think our family can finally end it, we can finally move on. We can finally be at peace too."
Ray McWilliams, now 67, said his health has gone downhill since the crash. He has an auto negligence civil case pending against Belniak and his parents.
"It's been a long wait and a lot of sleepless nights. Once I have this behind me I'll be that much better off," he said.
Michael Burkoski, Linda McWilliams' brother, said he just wants the trial to happen before Christmas this year.
He wants to be able to celebrate it again.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.