The distraught mother of a 13-year-old Long Island girl with Down syndrome who was killed in a hit-and-run crash called a former police officer accused of mowing her down a “heartless man” as his lawyer painted him as a hero cop during his arraignment Thursday at the Nassau County Court.
Michael Elardo, 48, of Syosset, pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Nassau County Court Judge Jerald Carter continued his $50,000 bail and Elardo left the courtroom beside droves of supporters. He declined to comment.
Prosecutors allege Elardo struck 13-year-old Bryanna Soplin shortly after midnight on June 15 along Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown. The teen, who had Down syndrome, was seriously injured when she was hit in the crosswalk near Gardiners Avenue and died from traumatic head and body injuries at the hospital, police said. Soplin’s family has said she snuck out of their home to visit her grandparents in Hicksville.
In court Thursday, Assistant District Attorney Michael Bushwack said prosecutors have obtained “credible information” that Elardo had been drinking at two separate establishments immediately before the crash. He said they also have surveillance video to support their position. Elardo’s lawyer says he has evidence disputing those claims, but declined to say if Elardo had been drinking. The defense lawyer, Michael DerGarabedian, contends Elardo wasn’t intoxicated.
DerGarabedian has said his client didn’t realize he had struck a child – and believed he hit a traffic cone – but surrendered his car to police after seeing news reports about the fatal crash. He said prosecutors have said Elardo didn’t run a red light. “He’s not even concerned about prison time,” the defense lawyer said of his client. “He’s just concerned about how he’s going to live for the rest of his life knowing he took somebody off of this earth.”
DerGarabedian said Elardo was a decorated 13-year veteran of the NYPD who retired after being injured on the job. The defense attorney also said his client had been at ground zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has been volunteering with the several local groups since his retirement. He said Elardo also volunteers as a youth coach.
Soplin’s mother, Jennifer Curuchaga, 33, didn’t buy the good-guy story, calling Elardo a “heartless man” who “had no shame.” She said she hoped he would “get what he deserves” for killing her daughter, who she called a smart girl who loved to play sports and dance to Justin Beiber. “When you have children and you know you hit a child, you can’t deny it,” she said. “He couldn’t even look at me in the eyes at least to try and say I’m sorry.”
Family attorney Sanford Rubenstein said the 4-foot-9, 140-pound girl could not have been mistaken for a traffic cone. He said Curuchaga and her husband, Ramiro Pay, want justice “for the wrongful death of this child.” The family is asking anyone who may have seen Elardo that night to contact prosecutors.