Michael Pepe

The driver of the PSEG utility truck that slammed head-on into Barbara Tocci’s SUV on Flanders Road Jan. 16, 2014 was released on $100,000 bond following his arraignment on a felony criminally negligent homicide charge this afternoon at Suffolk County Criminal Court in Central Islip.

Michael Pepe, 54, of of Bayport “was having an extended text conversation with his girlfriend at the time of the crash,” according to a spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.

Pepe told investigating officers he hit a pothole in the road and lost control of his vehicle, according to the Southampton Town Police police accident report. The report lists Pepe’s use of a hand-held cell phone and “defective pavement” as contributing factors in the crash.

Pepe’s GMC southbound utility truck crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic on Flanders Road and hit Tocci’s Ford Explorer head-on. Tocci, who has on her way to work in Riverhead, was pronounced dead at the scene.

“We’re happy and relieved the DA’s office is pursuing charges,” the victim’s sister, Susan Tocci, said after the court proceeding today, which she attended with her father, brothers and other family members in Central Islip.

“On the way home, we passed a PSEG truck and actually saw the driver texting,” she said. “My father took a picture with his phone. The company needs to make sure its drivers comply with the law.”

Asked for company policy on texting while driving and whether Pepe is still employed by PSEG, a utility spokesperson said, “With charges and an ongoing investigation pending, PSEG Long Island cannot comment at this time.”

N.Y. vehicle and traffic law prohibits use of “portable electronic devices” while driving. Pepe is charged with violating that provision of the statute and is also charged with criminally negligent homicide, a class E felony punishable by up to four years in prison, and reckless driving, a misdemeanor.

Under state penal law, a person is guilty of criminally negligent homicide when, with criminal negligence, he causes the death of another person.

“We’re just happy the DA is pursuing charges,” Susan Tocci said. “My family and I are relieved that Mr. Pepe is finally being required to take responsibility for texting while operating a commercial motor vehicle, a decision that cost my beautiful sister Barbara her life.”

Pepe is next scheduled to appear before Judge Camacho on March 3.

The much-beloved Tocci, 47, was a Flanders native who whose family lives in Flanders and is active in the local community, including volunteering with the Flanders-Northampton Volunteer Ambulance.

After the fatal crash, the community rallied around the family in support of a drive to get the pothole-ridden state road repaired — an undertaking begun by the state last fall on an expedited basis due to road conditions and pressure from elected officials, including Assemblyman Fred Thiele and State Senator Ken LaValle.

Susan Tocci last summer erected a billboard on her Flanders Road property warning people not to text and drive. She said she heard from sources close to the investigation that Pepe had been texting just before the crash.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.