SCHOHARIE — Nauman Hussain, the operator of the limousine company that rented the vehicle involved in the deadly Oct. 6, 2018 crash, was found guilty Wednesday of the top charge of second-degree manslaughter for his role in the wreck that killed 20.
The more than two dozen family members of the victims who packed the third-floor courtroom of the Schoharie County Courthouse during the seven-day trial let out an audible gasp and were seen wiping tears as the jury foreman read off the verdict and name of each victim associated with the counts following less than six hours of deliberation. Hussain’s girlfriend and brother burst into tears and ran out of the room.
Hussain, the 33-year-old operator of Prestige Limousine & Chauffeur Service, his father’s limousine company, now faces up to 15 years in prison. State Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch remanded Hussain, who has been out on bail since his arrest in October 2018, to Schoharie County Jail until his sentencing on May 31.
His attorney, Lee Kindlon, said he plans to appeal the verdict.
“I’m happy for my son, he finally got justice and that is what I have been fighting for,” said Mary Ashton, whose son, Michael Ukaj, was killed in the wreck. “Four and a half years, I kept telling him, ‘Michael, I will fight for you. I will not give up until I get justice,’ and praise God, it’s finally been done.”
But several family members of those killed, including Ashton, said Wednesday’s verdict was only partial justice for their loved ones, and questioned why the mechanics from the Mavis Discount Tire repair shop in Saratoga Springs that serviced the brakes of the 2001 stretched Ford Excursion SUV on several occasions in the months leading up to the crash have not been charged.
Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen announced Wednesday that her office has reached out to state police investigators seeking information on Mavis’ actions, a sign that a criminal investigation could soon be underway.
The limo — which was stretched 144 inches and weighed approximately 7 tons at the time of the crash — suffered catastrophic brake failure while descending a steep hill on state Route 30 shortly after picking up a group of 17 friends in Amsterdam for a birthday celebration in Cooperstown.
Juror Andrea Austin:
The vehicle eventually crossed the intersection of Route 30A at speeds in excess of 100 mph, striking a vehicle in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country store before crashing into a culvert.
All 17 passengers, the vehicle’s driver and two bystanders were killed in what remains the deadliest automobile wreck the country has seen in more than a decade.
Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery had little to say as she left the court house, telling reporters only that she was happy for the families of those killed.
“Today is really about the families,” she said.
Wednesday’s verdict almost never happened — a fact not lost on family members of those killed in the crash.
Hussain in 2021 accepted a plea deal to the criminally negligent homicide counts that would have seen him sentenced to probation and serve community service. Lynch, however, rejected the deal at a sentencing hearing and offered Hussain a sentence of up to four years instead.
Lynch began presiding over the case after Supreme Court Justice George Bartlett III — who accepted the plea deal — retired.
“I’m very grateful to Judge Lynch,” Ashton said.
Mallery called approximately two dozen witnesses during the seven day trial that was expected to last at least a month and include testimony from more than 130 prospective witnesses. She said many of those called on to testify were “chain of custody witnesses.”
“It’s been a long time coming. It may have been a shorter trial than we thought, but for those of us sitting in that courtroom, it was a long trial and those were long, long days,” said Jill Richardson Perez, whose son, Matthew Coons was killed in the crash.
Mallery, who prosecuted the case alongside special prosecutor Fred Rench, focused much of the case on showing that Hussain was not only aware of the state and federal regulations that would have subjected the limousine to rigorous state inspections that could have prevented the crash, but intentionally ignored them in order to turn a profit.
Chad Smith, a state DOT inspector, testified that he tried for more than a year to get Hussain to bring the vehicle — which was improperly registered with DMV and did not have authorization to operate as a motor carrier — into compliance, and sent numerous emails and had several phone and in-person conversations with Hussain.
Smith twice placed the vehicle out-of-service after failing several roadside inspections in the months leading up to the wreck. An out-of-service sticker Smith placed on the limo’s windshield in September 2018 — a month before the crash — was recovered in Hussain’s personal vehicle at the time of his arrest.
Brian Chase, a paid consultant hired by state police to determine the cause of the wreck, testified that the crash was the result of catastrophic brake failure brought on by a failure to properly inspect, maintain and repair the limousine.
Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery:
Chase said that a heavily corroded steel brake line burst shortly before the crash, rendering the vehicle’s rear brakes inoperable, which put additional strain on the front brakes, causing them to overheat, which melted the brake pads and caused the brake fluid to boil.
Andrea Austin, one of the 12 jurors presiding over the case, told reporters that it was the “chain of events” that led to the guilty verdict.
“I think in some ways it was simply the chain of events,” she said. “It was not just one thing, it was the constant showing of issues. There was this constant not taking care of things, a constant breakdown of things that show a path.”
Kindlon said that he was “heartbroken” after learning the verdict.
“I’m just heartbroken for everyone involved,” he said.
Kindlon, who did not call any witnesses during the trial, attempted to shift the blame for the wreck on to the Mavis repair shop in Saratoga Springs that serviced the limo’s brakes on several occasions in the months leading up to the crash.
He focused heavily on testimony given by several Mavis mechanics who admitted that Hussain was charged for brake work that was never performed on May 11, 2018 and that the vehicle was given a DMV inspection sticker even though a safety inspection was never performed on the vehicle that same day.
Virgil Park, a manager for the repair shop, said during the trial he told Hussain to “burn” the vehicle in June 2018, but admitted that he never told the operator that mechanics failed to replace the vehicle’s master brake cylinder or perform a brake line flush on the vehicle the month before. He also admitted that he was not aware that limousines were not subject to DMV safety inspections.
Thomas Klingman, a mechanic at the shop, said he placed a DMV inspection sticker on the vehicle but never actually performed the inspection because he felt “pressured” by Park and did not want to lose his job.
Kindlon, who said he plans to appeal the verdict, welcomed the news that Saratoga County prosecutors were looking into the repair shop’s actions.
Mavis faces a number of civil lawsuits filed by the victim’s families.
“If we were able in any way to help move that discussion forward, certainly Nauman is happy about that,” Kindlon said.
Several family members told reporters that Wednesday’s verdict was only the first step in getting justice for their loved ones, and that they would also like to see the mechanics from Mavis charged.
“I have a lot of thoughts about Mavis,” Perez said. “They definitely hold accountability. There’s a part of this that’s there’s also. However, that young man (Hussain) put my son in that vehicle.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] or by calling 518-395-3120.
Previous Gazette Trial Coverage:
- Saratoga DA requests briefing on Mavis’ role in Schoharie limo crash, 5/17/23
- DA, defense give closing arguments in Schoharie limo trial; Deliberations underway, 5/16/23
- Waite: Prosecution’s Schoharie limo crash case full of blunders, 5/15/23
- Sides rest in Schoharie limo crash trial; Closing arguments now set for Tuesday (with video), 5/15/23
- Defense attorney in Schoharie limo trial considering next move, 5/12/23