LOCKPORT – The driver who struck and killed a 16-year-old pedestrian and left the scene in Wheatfield nearly two years ago was sentenced Monday to a five-year probation term and six months in the Niagara County Jail.
Sheriff’s deputies, who arrested Anthony J. DiFilippo a year ago, concluded he was texting while driving.
But acting Niagara County District Attorney Theodore A. Brenner said he couldn’t prove DiFilippo was texting at the instant of the crash. Brenner said DiFilippo definitely texted within a minute or two before the accident.
“Mr. DiFilippo is not a bad man,” Brenner said. “He hit Ryan Fischer and panicked. That said, he acted like a bad person.”
“I do not believe he would have been charged if he had stayed,” defense attorney Thomas J. Eoannou said. “It’s easy to say he should have stayed, but God knows what people do when thrown into that situation.”
DiFilippo, 41, of Michael Drive, Wheatfield, accepted a plea bargain May 25 to a reduced felony charge, attempted leaving the scene of a fatal accident without reporting. If he violates probation, he risks a resentencing that could send him to prison for as long as four years.
Ryan Fischer, 16, was fatally injured about 7 p.m. Nov. 20, 2014, as he and his girlfriend, Leeza Kalish, now 19, walked along Krueger Road.
At the time, there was no shoulder on the road, with only a narrow strip of grass between the pavement and a drainage ditch. Fischer was believed to be walking on the pavement.
Since the accident, the Town of Wheatfield has filled in the ditch and has been seeking grant funds to pay for a sidewalk.
State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. said he didn’t like the plea negotiations, because he was under the impression that Fischer’s family supported the plea. A probation officer’s presentencing report showed that at least some family members didn’t approve. They declined to speak in court or afterward Monday.
“I think they’re not up to it. I don’t blame them. They’ve been through an awful lot,” Brenner said.
Kloch said he could have refused to impose the agreed-upon sentence, but Eoannou said DiFilippo then would have withdrawn his guilty plea and the case would have gone to trial.
“I think that would have been more harmful then helpful,” Kloch said.
He denounced DiFilippo for his actions and ridiculed letters he received telling him of DiFilippo’s “integrity” and “high moral character.” “Baloney,” the judge snapped. ““On this particular occasion, you were concerned only about yourself. You had no compassion for the boy you left on the street.” DiFilippo said, “I am so sorry for this tragic accident. It happened so fast, Your Honor. I think of Ryan and his family every day. They will always be in my heart.” Besides the jail and probation, Kloch imposed fines and fees totaling $5,375 and $6,000 in restitution to the Crime Victims Board for covering the Fischers’ expenses. The judge also revoked his driver’s license for five years, ordered him to complete 60 days in the county work program after his release from jail, and sentenced him to house arrest for the duration of his probation except for work, school, medical appointments of religious services. He also must wear a Global Positioning System bracelet for a year after his release.
“Let your home be your jail cell in addition to the Niagara County Jail,” Kloch said.
“We’ll come back once he has employment and ask the judge to reconsider that,” Eoannou told reporters after the hearing.
Eoannou and Brenner both complimented Sheriff’s Investigator Tracy Steen for her work investigating the case. Eoannou called it “one of the best investigative cases I have ever seen by a police officer.” “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” Brenner said. “She did an incredible job. The county owes her a lot.”
The original indictment included a charge of evidence tampering, because DiFilippo, who lives in the neighborhood where the tragedy occurred, had his Nissan Murano repaired after the accident. Brenner said DiFilippo fixed a broken headlight himself, and had other repairs done at “an out-of-the-way shop” because every body shop in Niagara County was asked to be the lookout for damage to a Murano.
Deputies seized the vehicle in December 2014 as part of their investigation, which involved trying to match it to pieces of damaged metal from the scene.
DiFilippo, who has no prior criminal record, was not charged with vehicular manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide because those charges imply that the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and Brenner said he not under the influence.
A wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against DiFilippo was filed in December 2015 by Lisa Fischer, Ryan’s mother.