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Limo Operator In Deadly 2018 Schoharie Crash Avoids Prison With Plea Deal

Nauman Hussain (seen here in a black suit and black face mask) walks outside Schoharie High School Sept. 2, 2021.
Lucas Willard
Nauman Hussain (seen here in a black suit and black face mask) walks outside Schoharie High School Sept. 2, 2021.

Over objections both loud and soft, the operator of the company involved in the October 2018 limousine crash that killed 20 in Schoharie will avoid jail time.

The plea hearing for Prestige Limousine operator Nauman Hussain was held inside the high school gymnasium of the Schoharie Central School District, the same place where almost three years ago hundreds of mourners gathered for a memorial service for the 20 people who lost their lives on October 6th, 2018.

That day, a modified 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limousine lost its brakes as it traveled down a steep hill in Schoharie into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, striking a parked vehicle before coming to rest in a ravine.

All 17 passengers, the driver, and two bystanders were killed.

On Thursday, Hussain pleaded guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide for his role in the crash. During the hearing, family members and friends of the victims spoke softly and shouted through tears as they delivered victim impact statements.

Hussain, eyes down, sniffled as those who lost their loved ones fumed. One mother said though she would never wish Hussain dead, she wished the 31-year-old would “live a life of pure hell.”

As part of a plea agreement, Hussain will avoid jail time with five years of probation, including two years of interim probation that requires 1,000 hours of community service. Hussain was also ordered to provide restitution and is prohibited from working in the transportation sector.

“We’re all mad. We’re all so mad,” said Mary Ashton.

Mary Ashton and her husband Kyle lost their son Michael Christopher Ukaj, a Marine veteran who was also celebrating his 34th birthday on the day of the crash when several friends were on their way to the Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown in the limo.

Ashton said due to illness, she had not seen her son alive since Christmas 2012. In the wake of the crash, she described experiencing “extreme” PTSD and near-constant anger.

Her husband Kyle, who said his youngest son is afraid to drive due to the accident, leaned into the microphone during his testimony to emphasize the word “failure”: The failure of vehicle inspectors who allowed the limo to remain on the road; the failure of waiting three days to hear of his son’s death, and the failure of “today.” He joined his wife in the parking lot following the hearing.

“A lot of failure on the part of the state, and a lot of other people…we feel,” said Kyle Ashton.

Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery, who reached the plea deal with Hussain’s attorneys, only offered brief comments to reporters waiting outside. The Republican running for re-election unopposed said she could not speak about the case.

“But I thank you for coming here and I hope that justice was served,” added Mallery.

It was not apparent the families felt that way on Thursday.

Cynthia LaFave, one of the attorneys working on a civil case, acknowledged the families’ frustration. But, she said Wednesday, “they need to go forward.”

“I hope that ultimately we will find justice in the civil case, and that the true story of everything that happened will be told in that case,” said LaFave.

LaFave and her fellow attorneys have filed suit against Prestige Limousine, Nauman Hussain, and Hussain’s father and company owner, Shahed Hussain, who is believed to be hiding out-of-country.

Suits have also been filed against the State of New York and Mavis Discount Tire in Saratoga Springs, which was approached by Hussain to perform repairs on the limousine’s brakes.

Hussain defense attorney Joe Tacopina said it was the “substantial and intervening acts by others,” including Mavis, that led to the crash.

“Remember what [Hussain] did was go into Mavis in May and again in September and ask for the brakes to be checked and fixed. And he was told that they were, he paid for that service, and that service was never done,” said Tacopina.

The limousine was found by National Transportation Safety Board investigators to have poorly maintained and “largely, if not entirely, nonoperational” rear brakes, placing the burden on the vehicle’s front brakes.

In a report issued in November 2020, the NTSB criticized Prestige Limousine for operating the vehicle, Mavis Discount Tire for giving the modified vehicle an inspection sticker despite not having the authority to do so, and New York State for not taking the vehicle off the road following prior violations.

At the time, the state Departments of Transportation and Motor Vehicles said they exercised their full authority to order the limo off the road several times, claiming Prestige repeatedly violated state law.

Asked about the heart-breaking testimony of the families Thursday, Tacopina said his client intends to respond at sentencing.

Before adjourning the hearing, Judge George Bartlett III made a request of Hussian on behalf of the families: “Please, don’t forget these people.”

Jim Levulis speaks with Lucas Willard
WAMC's Jim Levulis speaks with Lucas Willard during Northeast Report: Late Edition on Thursday, September 2nd, 2021.
Lucas Willard speaks with attorney Cynthia LaFave
WAMC's Lucas Willard speaks with attorney Cynthia LaFave about the Schoharie limousine case, as aired on Midday Magazine on Thursday, September 2nd, 2021

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.