Man sentenced to 2 1/3 to 7 years in fatal DWI crash

George Kiaha of Garrison wept today as a Westchester County judge sentenced him to serve 2 1/3 to 7 years in prison for causing a 2009 drunken driving crash that killed a retired auto worker from Peekskill and injured his family in Cortlandt.

The sentence was the maximum allowed by law for vehicular manslaughter, the top count on which he was convicted last year in the death of 55-year-old Ralph Wood.

A red-eyed Kiaha, who still uses a cane from the injuries he sustained in the Sept. 4, 2009 collision, apologized to Wood’s family, who wore memorial T-shirts to court and filled one side of Judge Barbara Zambelli’s courtroom.

Wood’s two daughters, his sister and his 10-year-old granddaughter gave tearful victim’s impact statements. They shared memories of camping trips and family outings, nicknames and small but cherished conversations.

“I don’t think you realize what you took from me,” said Gloria Wood, the victim’s oldest daughter. “I’m not sorry you have to pay for what happened.”

Prosecutors said Kiaha (pictured, above) was driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 percent when he crossed the double yellow line and slammed into the car with Wood and his family near Sarah Road. The family was headed to dinner in Dutchess County when Kiaha hit them.

Everyone involved was hospitalized. Kiaha was unconscious and had to be extricated from his car. Wood had a ruptured spleen that was undetected at first. He later went into cardiac arrest and died.

Kiaha, 25, was convicted of the entire 12-count indictment against him, which included criminally negligent homicide, drunken and reckless driving and five counts of assault, one each for Wood’s three grandchildren, his daughter and her fiance, all passengers in the GMC. Those counts are misdemeanors.

The jury rejected the defense’s argument that sloppy police work in question and mishandled evidence that cast doubt on the blood-alcohol report created reasonable doubt.

Read more about this story tomorrow in The Journal News and on LoHud.com.

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.