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What you need to know for 08/20/2017

Victims’ families sue over deadly Northway crash

Victims’ families sue over deadly Northway crash

The families of Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers are waging a civil action against Koto Japanese Rest

Some accounts of Dennis Drue’s behavior at Koto Japanese Restaurant on Dec. 1, 2012, suggest he was highly intoxicated.

Though his bill showed he ordered only three drinks — a regular-sized gin-and-tonic and two doubles — customers from at least one other table in the dining room questioned whether he should be served, according to the district attorney.

Legally drunk, Drue left the Wolf Road establishment and minutes later caused a horrific crash on the Northway that killed two popular Shenendehowa High School seniors and critically injured two of their friends.

Drue was headed to trial last fall when he abruptly pleaded guilty to the entire 58-count indictment against him in the highly publicized criminal case. The admission garnered him a prison term of five to 15 years, but also meant none of the people who served Drue alcohol or facilitated his conduct ever needed to take the witness stand in open court — something that continues to bother the families of the deceased.

“We really haven’t resolved this thing,” said Michael Stewart, the father of 17-year-old Chris Stewart, who was killed in the crash. “Drue is in jail right now, but there were other responsible parties that never had to come out because there was no trial.”

Now the families of Stewart and 17-year-old Deanna Rivers — the other student killed in the crash — are waging a civil action against Koto and the workers who served Drue before he got behind the wheel. The lawsuit, which doesn’t ask for a specific amount of money, also names Gail Pendergast, Drue’s mother, who owned the 2004 Volvo S60 he recklessly drove into the rear of Stewart’s 2000 Ford Explorer.

“Part of the reason to bring up this lawsuit is to bring answers to questions that were left on the table for the family,” said John Powers, attorney for the Stewarts. “There really is no other way to get answers other than to take the testimony of some of the witnesses called before the grand jury.”

Brian Rivers, father of Deanna Rivers, said no amount of money will bring his daughter back, but he wants those he believes aided Drue’s reckless behavior to be brought to light.

“It’s about accountability and validation over who was really responsible,” he said.

The two lawsuits are being joined by a pair of others filed by the families of Bailey Wind and Matt Hardy — the two survivors of the crash. Though their lawsuits initially targeted Drue and his mother, they are now being expanded to include Koto.

Hardy and Wind are each asking for $1 million, according to court documents. Their lawsuits were filed in November, just days before Drue was sentenced.

E. Stewart Jones, the attorney representing Wind and Hardy, is now petitioning Saratoga County Court Judge Jerry Scarano to release parts of the sealed grand jury testimony, including statements made by Koto staff and a number of restaurant customers who testified. The matter is expected to be decided sometime Tuesday, and absent any objections, the testimony will likely be released.

“I see no basis for objecting to it,” Jones said Thursday. “There are no secrets here. … We have a general sense of what was said because of statements made outside of the grand jury.”

The Rivers and Stewart lawsuits both cite New York’s Dram Shop Act, which holds establishments that serve alcohol accountable for serving patrons who appear intoxicated.

The lawsuits name Shu Zheng, who waited on Drue’s table, and Tanhokan Purnomo, who served him at the bar.

Koto was sold to another company in October, according to the current general manager. Neither worker is employed any longer at the restaurant, and one has moved downstate.

The former owners could not be reached for comment Thursday. Drue’s attorney wouldn’t say whether he is representing Pendergast and declined comment.

Drue is now in custody at the Collins Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison in Erie County. He isn’t eligible for parole until November 2018.

Drue had consumed at least three beers before arriving at Koto on the day of the crash, according to the District Attorney James A. Murphy. At least one customer at the restaurant believed him to be intoxicated enough that he asked him if he was OK to drive.

Drue flashed a “stop DWI” keychain attached to his car keys and asserted he was fine, according to a witness interviewed by the District Attorney’s Office. Drue was also overheard telling the customer he’d be fine, since he’d driven drunk before.

“This was not a self-serve restaurant,” said Powers, the Stewarts’ attorney. “This is one where they had to look at Drue and make the decision — should we serve him or should we cut him off.”

Text messages later secured from Drue’s phone by police were filled with marijuana references — some about selling it, some about buying it and some about smoking it. In his blood was 8.4 nanograms per milliliter of tetrahydrocannabinol, an amount of the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that is twice what other states consider legal intoxication.

Minutes after leaving the restaurant, Drue veered his Volvo across two lanes of traffic and smashed into the rear bumper of Stewart’s Ford Explorer. Traveling an estimated 85 mph, Drue’s vehicle caused Stewart’s vehicle, which was doing the 55 mph speed limit, to barrel-roll across the highway, crushing him and flinging his close friend, Rivers, from the vehicle.

Hardy, Rivers’ boyfriend of more than a year and Stewart’s teammate on the Shen football team, was partially thrown from the vehicle. Wind, Stewart’s girlfriend of more than a year, was left in the fetal position, clinging to life in the crumpled vehicle for nearly two hours.

Though Drue had a valid driver’s license prior to the crash, he also had a long history of traffic infractions. He racked up 13 speeding violations, four at-fault accidents and a license revocation for accruing too many points over an 18-month period leading up to December 2012.

“This lawsuit isn’t about Dennis Drue,” Stewart said. “It’s about holding organizations as well as people accountable for what they do. It’s about the implications that can happen when people don’t use their heads.”

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