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Driver guilty of Christmas DUI manslaughter sues victim

Linda and Raymond McWilliams of Hudson were victims of the crash. She was taken off life support a week later. He was injured but survived. He died last March at age 68.
Linda and Raymond McWilliams of Hudson were victims of the crash. She was taken off life support a week later. He was injured but survived. He died last March at age 68.
Published Jan. 14, 2012

David Belniak had drugs in his system and never braked when he slammed into the back of a family's car stopped at a red light on Christmas Day 2007. Three people died.

In August, Belniak pleaded guilty to three counts of DUI manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He never said a word in court, not even when the victims' children begged him for an apology.

But he is voicing his opinion now.

He's saying he's not responsible for the crash.

And he wants to be paid for his suffering.

Last month, Belniak's attorney filed a lawsuit against the now-deceased driver of the other car, alleging the crash was the victim's fault. Attorney Debra A. Tuomey, who is also Belniak's sister, said the Florida Highway Patrol's investigation of the case was a "government sanctioned assassination against one individual."

Belniak, of Spring Hill, 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.

"Mr. Belniak is simply seeking to disclose the truth," she said.

The suit asks for the victims' relatives to pay Belniak, 38, for his "pain and suffering … mental anguish … loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life" and the medical bills he got as a result of a crash he pleaded guilty to causing.

"This is ridiculous," said Georgette DeFranco, 48, a relative of the victims. "You caused it. You accepted guilt. How can I or anybody in this family be responsible for your injuries?"

DeFranco lost her mother, Linda McWilliams, 66; her sister, Denise Bassi, 50, and her brother-in-law, Gerard Bassi, 51, in the crash. DeFranco's stepfather, Ray McWilliams, was injured but survived. Family members said he never fully recovered and he died last March at age 68. The Bassi couple lived in Connecticut and were visiting Florida for the holidays. Their three daughters decorate their parents' graves each Christmas.

The crash happened about 2:20 p.m. Dec. 25, 2007. McWilliams, of Hudson, was the driver and was stopped at a red light on U.S. 19 at Little Road. The group was headed to DeFranco's house in Brooksville. They had Christmas presents and a holiday ham in the car.

Authorities said Belniak was driving between 75 and 85 mph when his pickup smashed into the back of McWilliams' Chevrolet Tahoe. The SUV crumpled. Gerard Bassi died at the scene. Denise Bassi died in surgery that day. Linda McWilliams was taken off life support a week later.

Authorities said Belniak had alcohol, Xanax and evidence of cocaine in his system.

Belniak had a history of driving infractions. He'd faced DUI charges twice before. One of those times, in 2003, New Port Richey police searching his Ford Mustang found a gallon of the intoxicant GHB, commonly known as the "date rape" drug. Belniak served 17 months in prison after pleading no contest to trafficking the drug.

In 1994, Belniak hit and killed a pedestrian on U.S. 19 near Fivay Road. The woman later died. Belniak was not charged.

Belniak's lawsuit against the estate of Ray McWilliams asks for more than $15,000 in damages. It claims McWilliams was in the left turn lane and "because of his sheer negligence" McWilliams abruptly changed lanes, "making it impossible" for Belniak to avoid the collision.

The lawsuit also accuses McWilliams of possibly being under the influence of medication at the time of the crash.

"Mr. McWilliams was the cause of the accident," Tuomey said.

There is a civil case by the victims' relatives against Belniak winding its way through court. Tuomey said she hopes her lawsuit will be joined with that case, so a jury will hear both sides during the April trial in Pasco County. She said her brother accepted a plea deal on the three counts of DUI manslaughter and other charges because he was facing a possible sentence of life in prison.

"Do you risk it?" Tuomey said. "Or do you say 'No. I want to have a life.' "

"He pled guilty in his best interest."

Maureen M. Deskins, the Tampa attorney representing the estate of Linda and Ray McWilliams, said the lawsuit is "gut-wrenching" and the relatives are "stunned."

"It seems there is no end to the pain David Belniak is willing to inflict on this family," Deskins said.

But Belniak is "not looking to do this to hurt anyone," Tuomey said.

"All the families have suffered in this," his sister said.

DeFranco said Christmas is a terrible time for the family, and news of the lawsuit made it worse. It's already awful "and then this guy wants to sue our family," DeFranco said. "Really? Are you joking?

"They are adding insult to injury. It's nuts."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

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