Heartbreak, outrage, disgust: community reacts to limo operator plea

ERICA MILLER/THE LEADER-HERALD Mary and Kyle Ashton, mother of Michael Ukaj, speaks to media while leaving the courthouse after Nauman Hussain plead guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide in the 2018 Schoharie limo disaster, but avoid prison under an agreement, at Schoharie High School in Schoharie on Thursday, September 2, 2021.


The Leader-Herald

AMSTERDAM — Heartbreak and the belief that justice has not been served was a common refrain expressed by local residents and officials in the wake of the plea agreement reached in the 2018 Schoharie limousine disaster that involves no jail time for the former limo operator.

Nauman Hussain, the operator of Prestige Limousine and Chauffeur Service, pleaded guilty on Thursday to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide for the deaths of the 20 people killed in the limo crash at the intersection of routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie on Oct. 6, 2018.

The agreement carries a penalty of five years probation and 1,000 hours of community service. Hussain must also pay restitution for the cost of the emergency response to the accident and he may be fined. He cannot work in any transportation-related job.

Under the agreement, Hussain will not serve any jail time as long as he complies with the terms of probation.

State Supreme Court Justice George R. Bartlett accepted the agreement in a court session conducted in the Schoharie Junior/Senior High School gym to accommodate the friends and relatives of the victims.

Killed in the crash was a group of 17 friends from the Amsterdam area who were passengers in the limousine on their way to a birthday celebration in Cooperstown, the driver of the vehicle and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store.

Authorities say the accident occurred when the brakes of the limo failed while traveling down a steep hill, causing the vehicle to reach an estimated 100 mph before crashing into a parked car and an embankment.

An investigation into the accident conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board found the owner of the limo company demonstrated an “egregious disregard for safety” by sending out the vehicle that was in violation of safety standards.

The families of the victims in court on Thursday made clear while reading victim impact statements their beliefs that the penalty handed down to Hussain is inadequate to address the loss and pain they have experienced as a result of his negligence.

Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery declined to comment on the terms of the agreement following Thursday’s proceeding and did not return a call seeking comment on Friday.

Cynthia LaFave, an attorney representing the family of one of the couples killed in the crash in a civil lawsuit, was in the gymnasium during the proceeding with the families and remarked on how difficult it was for them to listen to the terms of the agreement.

“If you divide the number of community service hours by the number of souls lost, that is 50 hours of community service per person. That doesn’t seem like justice to me and I don’t think it felt like justice to the families,” LaFave said Friday. “It just doesn’t seem fair. I would have really liked to have seen some jail time. All of the families are living in their own hell.”

Although LaFave acknowledged that Hussain’s admission of guilt in the accident will bolster the civil lawsuits that have been filed by the victims’ families, she indicated that was not the outcome they were really seeking. Still, she is hopeful that some level of justice can be served in the civil suits as they move forward.

Right now, LaFave indicated the families are seeking privacy as they continue trying to rebuild their lives.

The sudden loss of 20 lives sent shockwaves through the region. The passengers of the limo were people in their 20s and 30s. They were close-knit friends, couples and family. They were active and well known in the community.

Residents and local politicians expressed shock, sadness and disbelief over the penalty Hussain now faces for his admitted role in contributing to the deaths.

“Accepting a plea deal in the Schoharie limo crash was a shocking miscarriage of justice,” Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort said. “The families of the victims of this tragic accident, many of which reside here in Montgomery County, have been failed by the judicial system. Our community mourns with the families over this heartbreaking outcome.”

“My thoughts on the outcome reached in court yesterday was one of sadness and sickness simultaneously,” Greater Amsterdam School District Board of Education President Nellie Bush said. “I cannot even imagine the pain and suffering experienced by the families of these young and vibrant individuals.”

U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, was emphatic that justice was not served by the outcome of the criminal case.

“This is another gut punch for all the families involved in this unbearably difficult tragedy,” Tonko said. “My heart aches for them as they process this latest news. I will carry their pain with me as we work to get limo safety legislation across the finish line in Congress,” Tonko said.

Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, described the accident that killed 20 people in the prime of their lives as an “unforgivable and unforgettable tragedy. Yesterday’s ruling is incomprehensible and doesn’t even come close to providing justice for the families who lost loved ones. As a community, we need to stand together during this incredibly difficult time and do everything we can to honor those 20 lives taken far too soon,” Hinchey said.

Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, expressed “extreme” disappointment in the outcome of the criminal case against Hussain.

“My heart breaks even more for the family members of the 20 wonderful and loving people who lost their lives that day almost three years ago,” Tague said. “Right now, our energy, love and compassion should be directed toward the family members who are working tremendously each and every day to heal and remember their loved ones.”

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said it is an “outrage” that Hussain will not face any jail time for his “callous negligence” that caused the preventable accident after he ignored repeated warnings from the state that the limo was unsuitable for the road.

“I cannot express how shocked and angry I am at the court’s decision in this case,” Santabarbara said. “Loved ones of those we lost on that painful day have not received the justice they deserve plain and simple, and my heart goes out to all those who are similarly angered.”

Members of the community suggested changes to the criminal justice system are needed in light of the “lenient” penalty carried by the plea agreement.

“You want to hold the person accountable,” said John Iannotti of Amsterdam while out for a walk at the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook Pedestrian Bridge. “The parents have to feel they didn’t get any justice. My heart goes out to them.”

The outcome should have involved some jail time for Hussain, Iannotti said.

“Twenty people got killed. Those parents don’t get to see their kids come home,” he added.

The accident never should have happened, said Kendra Hawes of Gloversville, while shopping in Amsterdam. She believes the individuals responsible should be held accountable by being sentenced to prison.

Mike Montelone of East Berne, another shopper, expressed surprise and disappointment that Hussain’s punishment was limited to probation and community service. He too believes jail time should have been involved.

“That’s all they got? That’s very sad,” Montelone said. “There was some serious criminal negligence.”

Loni Heinz of Fort Johnson was blindsided when she heard over the radio on her way home from vacation that the case had been settled with a plea agreement that does not include jail time. The close family friend of one of the victims said the outcome was “absolutely disgusting.”

“It’s sickening, it really is. I don’t even know how they came to that conclusion,” Heinz said. “It’s a hard thing to swallow.”

“Hopefully there will be justice somehow,” she added.