SCHOHARIE — A former limousine company operator pleaded guilty Thursday to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide in the 2018 Schoharie limo disaster but will serve no prison time if he fulfills the terms of the first stage of his probation.
Some of victims’ relatives sobbed as Nauman Hussain, 31, said the word “guilty” in a clear, steady voice 20 times, once for each of the people killed Oct. 6, 2018, in a crash at the intersections of routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie.
Later, as the victims’ families told of their pain and grief, Nauman shed tears as well.
State Supreme Court Justice George R. Bartlett explained at considerable length why the agreement was reached, and why he was accepting it. But the dozens of victims’ relatives in attendance were visibly unhappy with the plea agreement reached between prosecutors and Hussain’s lawyers, and some lashed out at Hussain verbally.
“I think you deserve 20 years for each person you slaughtered,” John Schnurr, brother of James Schnurr, told Hussain, branding him a mass murderer.
Another described the crushed skull and vertebrae and ruptured arteries an autopsy documented in her son’s body, and suggested that Hussain be forced to attend 20 autopsies as part of the community service he must perform.
“I hate every day without him,” she said of her son, Shane McGowan.
Hussain would have faced only 1-⅓ to four years in prison if convicted at trial of all 20 counts — the sentences would have to be served concurrently because they all resulted from the same act of negligence.
He additionally was indicted on 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter, which carries a longer sentence, but that charge requires proof of an active attempt to cause death, rather than a failure to prevent it, and there was no indication Hussain meant for anyone to be injured or killed.
On that afternoon nearly three years ago, Prestige Limousine of Wilton was hired to take a party of 17 friends in their 20s and early 30s from Amsterdam to Cooperstown on a birthday outing.
As the driver and 17 passengers were heading down the steep Route 30 hill into the Schoharie Valley, the limo’s brakes failed.
It hurtled through a stop sign at the bottom of the hill at an estimated 100 mph and crashed into a parked car and an embankment, killing everyone aboard and two bystanders.
It was the deadliest transportation accident the nation had seen in a decade.
Hussain operated Prestige, which was owned by his father, and was arrested soon after the crash. He has remained free on bail since then.
A lengthy examination of the wrecked limo helped delay progress in the case as did the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited court operations.
The investigation revealed that the 2001 Ford Excursion had been modified in a way that made it far too heavy, and that its rear brakes had limited or no function on Oct. 6, placing the task of slowing the 13,500-pound, 31-foot truck almost entirely on the front brakes, which failed during the mile-long descent on Route 30.
Bartlett noted the investigation documented Hussain cutting corners on maintenance but also documented things that undercut the case against him: He’d hired Mavis Tire to repair the limo’s brakes, and paid them for work he believed they’d done but allegedly didn’t; driver Scott Lisinicchia was not licensed to operate that class of vehicle and had marijuana in his bloodstream; a state inspection a month before the crash had faulted the limo for other issues but nothing that would have caused the crash; Lisinicchia was taking an indirect and unlikely route to Cooperstown, calling into question his condition; and state agencies failed in their oversight.
All of this led to the plea agreement announced shortly before Thursday’s proceeding, which was moved from the Schoharie County Courthouse to the Schoharie Junior/Senior High School gym to provide more space for friends and relatives of the victims to attend while remaining distanced.
Court officers ringed the gym, two standing at all times behind Hussain and his attorneys, facing the audience. Two hulking men who accompanied Hussain stationed themselves behind him as well.
Nothing more than harsh words were hurled at Hussain, though.
Bartlett placed Hussain under oath and asked him whether he, with criminal negligence, had caused the death of each victim.
Some relatives sobbed quietly or dabbed their eyes as the same question was asked 19 more times, with only the name changing.
Twenty times, Hussain said “yes.”
Toward the end, one woman dabbing her eyes broke down crying, and was comforted by those nearby.
Then Bartlett ran through another question 20 times more: How did he plead to counts 21 through 40 of the indictment?
The same answer 20 times: “Guilty.”
The sobs were fewer this time, perhaps because Bartlett didn’t mention the victims’ names this time.
One spectator grew increasingly agitated as this went on.
“Don’t touch me,” she yelled as others approached. “He killed so many people, touch him.”
“[Expletive] this,” she said, making her way out.
“Good for her, she only said what everybody was thinking,” another woman remarked to those around her during a recess soon after.
THE PAIN OF LOSS
Thursday’s proceeding was unusual not only for being held in a gymnasium but because victims were allowed to read their impact statements at the plea rather than at the sentencing, which is delayed two years while Hussain is on his initial period of probation.
The enormity of the tragedy — 20 people killed in a moment — was terrible enough, but the details of this case magnified its effects: The 17 passengers in the limo were all interwoven by family, marriage or friendship, or all three. Those who survive feel the pain of losing not one person but three or five or even more.
For two hours, Hussain heard their grief.
One woman said a fraction of the money Hussain had paid his attorneys would have made the limo safe. “They lived lives that mattered,” she said.
The mother of Erin McGowan, who was married not even four months earlier, said: “Even with all this loss and pain, I don’t hate the defendant. But I do want justice.”
Adam Jackson’s mother spoke of raising the two orphaned daughters he and his wife, Abigail, left behind. One is too young to remember her parents, but following the crash the older girl wondered why she was not allowed to see them, and wanted to go back to the house where they lived because she was sure they must be there. “I sure would like to see some grief,” she said of Hussain, seated just a few yards away.
“I hope to God you feel what 20 families feel,” another mother said.
Savannah Bursese’s father recalled the torment of not hearing from his daughter, then learning there’d been a terrible crash but thinking she wasn’t in the limo, then learning she was, then hearing the false rumor that there was a single survivor, and hoping it was her — an emotion he now regrets, having gotten to know the other families. He had to describe one of her tattoos to confirm her identity.
“I asked God to take me and spare her life,” Bursese’s mother said. She said she would not wish Hussain dead but “I do wish you to suffer a life of pure hell,” and asked Bartlett to sentence him to prison.
Matthew Coons’ mother spoke of a nightmare that continues to replay in her mind and said: “I pray for you, Nauman. I pray for the lessons you learn and continue to learn. … Now the nightmare is yours.”
DON’T FORGET THESE PEOPLE
Along with his lengthy explanation of why the plea agreement was struck, and along with the formal language of implementing it, Bartlett detoured into non-legal matters.
“As a judge I’m required to put emotions aside,” he said. “I’m also human.”
“Whatever is done here today cannot accomplish what everyone wants,” he added — for the crash to never have happened.
Bartlett said he understood why relatives think the sentence is too lenient, and thinks it’s not an unreasonable opinion. The best he can do is try to prevent something like this from happening again, he said.
Relatives began to walk out as Bartlett went on.
“I hope you rot in hell, asshole,” one shouted.
Speaking directly to Hussain, Bartlett pointed out that he was getting the second chance that 20 victims will not.
“Try to do something good,” the judge said. “Please don’t forget these people.”
Hussain is now on two years’ interim probation, during which he must perform 1,000 hours of community service. If he completes that successfully he will be formally sentenced to three more years’ probation. But if he violates the terms of the interim probation he may be sentenced to prison.
He must also pay restitution for the costs of the emergency response Oct. 6, 2018, and may be fined. He cannot work in any transportation-related job.
The Schoharie County District Attorney declined to speak to reporters as she left the proceeding.
Joe Tacopina, one of Hussain’s attorneys, said the legal team was profoundly moved by the survivors’ words Thursday, as was Hussain, whom he could feel sobbing as they spoke.
Tacopina said Hussain wanted to speak to the victims but Thursday wasn’t the correct venue to do that. He plans to speak when he is sentenced.
Tacopina said Hussain’s family has the wherewithal to help him through the probation period.
Hussain can no longer invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and therefore can be called to testify in the many lawsuits filed in the wake of the disaster, some of them targeting Mavis, which has stated it has no legal responsibility for the crash.
Tacopina said Hussain will testify and wishes the plaintiffs well.
In the nearly three years since the crash, state regulations on limousine operations have been strengthened. Measures to strengthen federal regulations are on the verge of passage by Congress.
Shahed Hussain, father of Nauman and owner of Prestige Limousine, who was in Pakistan at the time of the crash, has not returned to the United States.
Killed in the Oct. 6, 2018, Schoharie crash were:
Savannah D. Bursese, 24, of Johnstown
Rachael K. Cavosie, 30, of Waterford
Matthew W. Coons, 27, of Johnstown
Patrick K. Cushing, 31, of Halfmoon
Mary E. Dyson, 33, of Watertown
Robert J. Dyson, 34, of Watertown
Amanda D. Halse, 26, of Halfmoon
Brian Hough, 46, of Moravia
Abigail M. Jackson, 34, of Amsterdam
Adam G. Jackson, 34, of Amsterdam
Allison King, 31, of Ballston Spa
Scott T. Lisinicchia, 53, of Lake George
Erin R. McGowan, 34, of Amsterdam
Shane T. McGowan, 30, of Amsterdam
Amanda Rivenberg, 29, of Colonie
James Schnurr, 70, of Kerhonkson
Amy L. Steenburg, 29, of Amsterdam
Axel J. Steenburg, 29, of Amsterdam
Richard M. Steenburg, 34, of Johnstown
Michael C. Ukaj, 33, of Johnstown
The Reflections Memorial at the crash site in Schoharie honors their lives.
Read the plea agreement