The man who allegedly struck and killed Scott Wayte on his 50th birthday outside Cliff's Rendezvous in Riverhead had been drinking vodka out of a water bottle since approximately 7 that morning, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.
Joseph D. Plummer, 48, of Middle Island, allegedly fled the scene after striking and killing Wayte -- and set out to concoct a scheme to hide his crime, Spota said.
To that end, Spota is calling for tougher penalties for those who flee the scene of an accident that results in death or serious injury.
Those who flee, he said, make it impossible to not only help the victim immediately, but to determine if the defendants were driving while intoxicated or impaired by drugs, and to subsequently charge them with more serious crimes.
"This is an epidemic," Spota said, outlining not only the Wayte hit-and-run but three others than have occurred within Suffolk County over the past few weeks. "They're beating the system," Spota said. "We need immediate legislative action."
Plummer, Spota said, hit Wayte on Dec. 28, when he was out to dinner to celebrate his 50th birthday with his wife and family. Wayte, he said, had parked on East Main Street and gone back to park his car more closely to the curb. When he was crossing back to the restaurant, Wayte was struck by Plummer, Spota said.
According to an investigation conducted at the scene and witness accounts, Wayte was attempting to cross East Main Street from north to south when he was struck by Plummer and sent into the eastbound lane, where he was struck by a second vehicle, a 2006 Honda Pilot, operated by Ernest Austin, 53, of Glen Rock, Pennsylvania.
Police said Austin continued driving eastbound for a short distance before stopping after he realized he had struck someone.
Spota said Austin was not charged in relation to the accident.
Plummer, Spota said, had been returning home to Ridge from work; he had been installing a pool in Aquebogue.
"He began drinking vodka at work in the morning," Spota said.
Plummer, who was driving his boss's car, drove back to Ridge, where he lives with his boss. According to Spota, he stopped at a gas station to call his boss.
"They concocted a plan," Spota said. "They were going to report the vehicle stolen and collect the insurance. Then they decided that was not a good plan."
Next, Spota said, Plummer drove the car to his boss's house and put a tarp over it. The pair decided to say the car had hit a tree and "put wood splinters" on the car to make that seem plausible.
Witnesses both at the scene and at the Ridge gas station called police; Riverhead police arrested Plummer days later. The grand jury indictment was unsealed Wednesday.
But because he had fled the scene, police were only able to charge him with one count of leaving the scene of an incident without reporting. Plummer was arraigned on Wednesday. Bail was set at $500,000 cash or $1 million bond. He was remanded to the Suffolk County Correctional facility.
"I'd bet you every penny if we had gotten him sooner, he would have been charged with more serious crimes," Spota said.
The district attorney credited witnesses for coming forward but said the state legislature needs to impose stiffer penalties for fleeing the scene.
As it stands, Plummer is charged with a class "D" felony, and faces a maxiumum of seven years in jail; had he been caught sooner, he might have been hit with additional charges and faced up to 15.
"People just aren't stopping anymore," Spota said. "There should be more serious consequences for leaving the scene. The indictments I announce today once again demonstrate the devastating consequences of getting behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol. But also clearly demonstrate the need for our legislature to strengthen criminal penalties for leaving the scene of an incident where serious physical injury or a death has occurred. There is no reconciling the disparity that occurs when drivers who remain at the scene after causing an accident face the possibility of a more severe punishment under our law than drivers who flee. I urge our state legislators to change the law now.”