While driving east toward his home in Eastport on November 2, 2013, Peter Torrillo struck two people as they were standing along the side of Montauk Highway, killing one and hospitalizing the other.
But instead of stopping to check on them, he continued home, showered, shaved and then took his wife out to see a show at a bar in Center Moriches—passing the accident scene along the way.
After making Mr. Torrillo acknowledge that he intentionally left 27-year-old Erika Strebel of Eastport and her passenger, 26-year-old Edward Barton of East Moriches, lying on the side of the road, Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho on Tuesday went back on his promise to sentence Mr. Torrillo, who pleaded guilty, to only two to six years in prison as part of a plea agreement last month.
Instead, the judge handed down the maximum sentence of 28 months to seven years—citing the fact that Mr. Torrillo lied to probation officials about what happened on the night in question, thus violating the terms of the plea agreement.
Prior to the sentencing, Ms. Strebel’s two sisters, Laura Marino and Tammy Barton—whose husband is the brother of Edward Barton—and their mother, Maureen Strebel, each read an impact statement about how the accident has affected their lives. During their emotional, tearful testimonials, all three women referred to the punishments Mr. Torrillo faced as being a “slap on the wrist” considering that he took the life of Erika Strebel, the mother of a young boy, and seriously injured Mr. Barton. Both were hit while standing next to Ms. Strebel’s black 1988 Jeep Cherokee after it had run out of gas and was parked along the shoulder of Montauk Highway.
All three said they did not feel they would be able to forgive him.
“You have single-handedly destroyed my family,” Ms. Marino said. “We will never be whole again. We never had a chance to say goodbye to her. We never had a chance to say we loved her one last time.”
Tammy Barton described the hardship the loss has caused Ms. Strebel’s son, Ayden, now 6, sharing the story of how she and her husband took him to visit Ms. Strebel’s grave on Mother’s Day last month. Stricken with grief, the child lay down on his stomach in front of his mother’s headstone and tried to speak her, Ms. Barton said.
“Picture this, Peter, okay?” Ms. Barton said, looking Mr. Torrillo in the eye. “I hope you have this image in your head, because it’s burned into mine.”
Maureen Strebel said she and her husband, Leo—who was unable to hold back tears and could be heard sobbing throughout his wife’s statement—are haunted by the memories of the fall night their daughter died. Ms. Strebel said her daughter’s car ran out of gas on the stretch of road next to her backyard, adding that she was awakened by the sound of Mr. Torrillo hitting the disabled vehicle.
Ms. Strebel also shared her disgust with Mr. Torrillo’s refusal to come forward willingly and accept responsibility for his actions, particularly considering that both families live in the small, tight-knit community of Eastport. Mr. Torrillo is married and has four children.
“Peter, you will eventually see your family and live your life again when your sentence is over,” she said. “Our sentence will never end.”
“Your lack of compassion won’t get you very far,” Ms. Marino added. “You may have beaten the criminal justice system this time, but I believe you will have to answer to a higher power someday.”
Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Carl Borelli said investigators suspect Mr. Torrillo might have been intoxicated at the time of the accident and, therefore, chose not to stop in order to avoid more severe consequences, although this would be nearly impossible to prove in court, Mr. Borelli added.
Mr. Torrillo was arrested in 2012 for driving while intoxicated by drugs, but ended up pleading guilty to the lesser charge of driving while his ability was impaired by drugs, Mr. Borelli said after the sentencing. Mr. Torrillo also has battled addiction, the prosecutor added.
Mr. Torrillo pleaded guilty on May 6 to a pair of felony counts, leaving the scene of a fatal accident and leaving the scene of an accident with serious injuries, as part of an agreement reached with prosecutors that was also supposed to have reduced his jail sentence to between two and six years. But after learning that Mr. Torrillo had lied about the circumstances of the accident that left Ms. Strebel dead and Mr. Barton in serious condition, Justice Camacho withdrew that part of the offer, opting instead for the maximum sentence.
Mr. Torrillo admitted in 1st District Court in Central Islip that he lied to probation officials when describing what happened on the night of Saturday, November 2, originally stating that he did not know he hit someone with his 1999 GMC Sierra while driving along Montauk Highway in Eastport at around 9 p.m. He also falsely stated that he originally thought his side-view mirror struck a disabled car, when it actually fatally struck Ms. Strebel, who was later pronounced dead at the Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, and severely injured Mr. Barton, who had to be airlifted to another hospital.
Mr. Torrillo told probation officials that he still did not realize he had hit someone as he drove past the scene of the accident later that evening on his way to Buckley’s Irish Pub in Center Moriches, but he admitted in court that he knew from the beginning what he had done and chose not to stop.
In a press release issued on Monday evening, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said investigators matched paint chips left behind at the accident scene to Mr. Torrillo’s vehicle, which he tried to have repaired at a friend’s auto body repair shop in Queens to cover up the crime.
“I have found few words to express my remorse and despair for what I’ve done,” Mr. Torrillo said prior to receiving the maximum sentence Tuesday. “I’m embarrassed of what I did that night.
“I am guilty of striking two people and killing one that day,” he continued. “I do not expect forgiveness—to ask for forgiveness is much more than saying sorry. … As contrite as it sounds, I am deeply affected by what happened that day.”
Unmoved by the defendant’s words, Justice Camacho then sentenced Mr. Torrillo to 28 months to seven years for leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and to one to three years for fleeing the scene of a crash with serious injuries. He will serve both sentences concurrently. He was then taken away in handcuffs.
Justice Camacho said the fact that Mr. Torrillo not only intentionally left Ms. Strebel and Mr. Barton, who attended Tuesday’s sentencing in the confines of a wheelchair, lying in the street after the crash, but also drove by again and did nothing, showed a lack of humanity.
“To call it callous is an understatement, and to call it cowardice doesn’t do it justice,” he said.
Mr. Torrillo’s attorney, Brian DeSesa of the Sag Harbor firm Edward Burke Jr. and Associates, declined to speak with the media after his client’s sentencing. Since the judge broke the conditions of the plea agreement, Mr. DeSesa could appeal the sentencing.
In the same press release, Mr. Spota said witness accounts and forensic evidence helped investigators track down Mr. Torrillo about three weeks after the fatal accident.
“A witness reported a large truck heading east with one headlight out just before driving past the scene of the crash,” Mr. Spota said in a prepared statement. “Prosecutors in our Vehicular Crimes Bureau eventually prepared and executed a search warrant to recover the vehicle when we learned the defendant took his 1999 pickup truck to a body shop in Queens.”
The district attorney also used Tuesday’s sentencing to stress that state lawmakers need to increase the penalties for those who might be drunk or impaired by drugs and flee the scene of an accident with serious injuries or fatalities. “A drunk or drug-impaired driver who kills someone may face up to 25 years in prison,” Mr. Spota said. “But fleeing the accident scene allows the wrongdoer a chance to sober up, and under the current law, any driver guilty of a hit-and-run faces a maximum prison sentence of seven years—even when someone dies, and even if the defendant has a prior felony record.”
After the sentencing, Maureen Strebel and Ms. Marino echoed the district’s attorney’s sentiment that tougher penalties are needed for drivers who flee the scenes of fatal accidents.
“D.A. Spota and the legislators are trying to pass a law that’s very important,” Ms. Strebel said. “We all have to get behind them to get this law changed, because people are getting away with murder.
“This we will do,” she continued. “We will go as far as we have to, to get this law changed.”