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Koch Bridge driver faces homicide trial

TimesLedger Newspapers

Court proceedings have begun for the first driver in a series of eerily similar accidents that took place off the southbound exit ramp of the Edward I. Koch-Queensborough Bridge in 2011.

Grant Riddell, a 37-year-old Brooklynite who hails from New Zealand, was arraigned last week on an indictment charging him with vehicular assault, vehicular manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and driving under the influence, the Queens district attorney’s office said. If convicted of all charges, Riddell could be in prison for up to seven years, the DA said.

The New York Post reported he and his lawyer had turned down a plea deal.

Riddell had been driving southbound on the bridge’s off-ramp around 4 a.m. March 28, 2011, when he lost control of his red 2007 Volkswagen Rabbit while entering Queens Plaza South, police said. His car hit the guard rail, flipped over and moved onto the sidewalk near Crescent Street, where it struck a pedestrian, 68-year-old Manhattan resident Anthony Buscemi, and destroyed two stores: Villa de Beaute Salon and Espinal’s Caribbean Restaurant.

Buscemi died in the crash while Riddell lost his left arm. Riddell’s passenger, Melissa Cohen, was hurt but did not suffer major injuries.

Riddell’s crash drew the attention of Long Island City’s elected officials after Alexander Palacio, 36, was involved in an almost identical accident a little over a week later. Palacio had been driving a 2006 Volkswagen Jetta around 4 a.m. April 6 with Beatriz “Betty” Rodriguez, 40, in the passenger seat. Palacio also lost control of his car and crashed into the same storefronts.

Like Riddell, Palacio lost his arm. Rodriguez ended up dying at Weill Cornell Hospital in Manhattan as a result of injuries sustained in the crash.

Palacio was arraigned last year on charges of driving without a valid license. He later filed a lawsuit against the city, the city Department of Transportation and the city Economic Development Corp., alleging negligence in how they altered the exit ramp before the crashes occurred.

Two additional crashes occurred at the same intersection, although there were no fatalities. In May 2011, a Volkswagen driver hit a livery cab and concrete barriers that had been erected after the first two crashes as he came off the off-ramp. Another driver lost control and crashed near the intersection May 1, 2012.

Long Island City officials implored the city DOT to investigate the traffic pattern after the accidents. The DOT responded that the traffic pattern had not essentially changed and that the drivers were at fault.

The owners of the destroyed stores have also filed a suit alleging more than $1 million in property damage against multiple city agencies, the drivers and the owners of their cars.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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