Trial begins in fatal DWI case in Westchester

UPDATE: KIAHA CONVICTED OF ALL BUT ONE COUNT IN 2009 DWI DEATH

There is no discernable proof that George Kiaha (left) was drunk when he caused the head-on crash that killed a retired auto worker from Peekskill, Kiaha’s defense lawyer told a jury today.

“Respect the presumption of innocence,” attorney Ted Brundage said during his opening at Kiaha’s felony trial for vehicular manslaughter in Westchester County Court.

Kiaha, a Garrison resident, is also facing a felony charge of criminally negligent homicide and misdemeanor counts of drunken driving and assault for the Sept. 4, 2009 that killed Ralph Wood, 55, and injured his family on Route 9 in Cortlandt.

Police said Kiaha, now 25, was driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 percent that night. The legal threshold for driving while intoxicated is 0.08 percent.

Brundage suggested that sloppy police work puts the blood-alcohol report in question. He said the case had “some of the most egregious gaps in evidence in terms of a New York State police investigation” that he has seen in his 20 years as a lawyer.

But Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Strongin argued that police handled the evidence properly, and that an ambulance worker smelled alcohol on Kiaha’s breath as he was taken to Westchester Medical Center.

“Ralph Wood died on Sept, 4 because the defendant chose to drink and drive,” he said in his opening statement. Kiaha is free on $50,000 bail.

Wood, a retired General Motors assembly line worker, was headed to dinner at the Wapppingers Buffet in Dutchess County with three of his grandchildren, his daughter Gloria and her fiancee. The family usually went to dinner together every Saturday night, Strongin said, but they headed out a day earlier because they had other plans the next night.

“This would be the last time the six of them would ever be together again,” he said.

As the family approached Susan Lane on Route 9, Kiaha smashed into the silver GMC driven by Javier A. DeJesus of Cortlandt, Wood’s future son-in-law.

Everyone in the GMC was injured, and Wood’s daughter was trapped inside. Wood, unbeknownst to those at the scene, had a ruptured spleen and was bleeding internally. He went into cardiac arrest and died.

Kiaha was seriously hurt in the crash and was taken to Westchester Medical Center.

Wood was described by friends and relatives as a fun-loving man dedicated to his five children and grandchildren. Several family members were in the courtroom to show support for the family patriarch.

The trial, before Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli, will continue Friday.

Last member of Peekskill drug crew gets 25 years in prison

The last of the members of the infamous Barnes Brothers drug crew that operated out of Peekskill was sentenced today to 25 years in prison for his part in the violent crack cocaine organization.

U.S. District Judge Stephen C. Robinson sentenced Tuere Barnes, 27, in U.S. District Court in White Plains more than a year after a federal jury convicted him of racketeering, narcotics conspiracy, murder conspiracy, kidnapping, and possessing a firearm in connection with a violent crime.

Barnes is the younger brother of kingpin Khalid Barnes who was sentenced to life in prison after a jury spared him the death penalty following his conviction in the cold-blooded killings of two other drug dealers in Manhattan. The crew operated from 1995 to March 2004, federal prosecutors said.

All 11 members of the Barnes crew have been convicted. Another defendant in the case who was not a member of the crew, Anthony “Toast” Paulino, remains on the lam.

Happiest sentencing ever

Criminal sentencings are usually a somber affair, accompanied by frowns and scowls from defendants and frustrated tears from family members and friends.

Today was a little different.

A young woman named Jessica Bonacci was thrilled — thrilled! — to receive five years’ probation for third-degree robbery, a felony that’s punishable by up to 7 years in state prison. The 22-year-old from Peekskill thanked the judge, pumped her handcuffed fists behind her and beamed a smile back to her mother sitting in the front row, who threw her arms around another woman in sheer joy.

“I know you have the love and support of your family,” state Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Molea said. “Hopefully, this has been a lesson for you.”

Here’s the back story: Bonacci was accused of setting up robbery victims, tag-team style, with an accomplice, according to the Westchester County District Attorney’s office. One would distract the victim, while the other snuck up and attacked the victim, stealing whatever was available — money, cell phones, and so on.

Bonacci was arrested Feb. 27, 2008 when, prosecutors allege, she and the accomplice pulled this scheme at an Ossining shopping center. She used the victim’s company van as a getaway car, but she didn’t get far.

A Westchester grand jury handed Bonacci a 12-count indictment that included felony charges of robbery, grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property and misdemeanor assault. She got a break from prosecutors and was allowed to plead guilty to the one robbery count if she served probation for five years and paid back the $2,500 she stole, plus court fees.

Bonacci’s legal problems are not over yet. After being released on her own recognizance for the February 2008 robbery, she was arrested for a March 5, 2009 robbery in Peekskill, as was her alleged accomplice, Tony Perez. Both were charged with first-degree robbery for allegedly stealing a wallet out of a man’s pocket and have been in the Westchester County Jail since that arrest.

Bonacci is to appear before Westchester County Judge Susan Capeci on the second felony robbery charge next week. She has yet to take a plea in the second robbery case, but the DA’s office says she’s not expected to serve any prison time.

No wonder she was so happy.