One by one, the victims took the stand. Some were merely battered when Neilson Rizzuto drunkenly plowed his truck through a crowd of people watching the Endymion parade this year. Others were shattered.
“My high school friends were visiting New Orleans for their first time, and I was so excited to have them here,” Allison Reinhardt said Friday. “Within 15 minutes, the blink of an eye, our lives were completely turned around.”
Rizzuto, 25, had a blood alcohol content of .232, nearly three times the legal limit, when he got behind the wheel of a truck and crashed it into a crowd of parade spectators in Mid-City on Feb. 25. Police said at least 32 people were injured.
Rizzuto was taken into custody on the scene at Orleans and North Carrollton avenues after a New Orleans firefighter wrestled him to the ground.
Last month Rizzuto pleaded guilty to just over half of the charges against him, 13 misdemeanor counts. On Friday, he pleaded guilty to one more misdemeanor charge and the 11 felony charges against him, each of which carries a maximum five-year sentence.
Criminal District Court Judge Ben Willard delayed sentencing until Jan. 12.
Rizzuto’s defense attorney, Nanak Rai, said his guilty pleas did not come as part of a deal with prosecutors. Rizzuto does not know how the judge will sentence him, Rai said.
Longtime New Orleans cultural advocate Allison Reinhardt, 40, has devoted her career to look…
Rizzuto is expected to deliver a statement before he is sentenced in two months. On Friday, the judge listened as a series of victims named in the charges to which Rizzuto pleaded guilty last month described about how their night out at the parade has left them with lasting scars.
Rizzuto stood shackled and mute as the first victim to give impact testimony, Faye Bertrand, walked to the stand. She said she was leaving the parade in a car with her family members when Rizzuto rammed them from behind, slamming their car into a utility pole.
“I blacked out and had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital with injuries to my head, my neck, my abdomen, back and my knee. I’m in pain every day. I suffer from insomnia, migraines, and what has been diagnosed as PTSD. It seems like it’s a nightmare on some days,” Bertrand said.
Almost all of the seven victims who testified Friday — five in person and two via written statements — said they have struggled with flashbacks to the crash and whopping medical bills. Several asked for restitution from Rizzuto, who remains in jail in lieu of more than $400,000 in bail.
While Rizzuto has sat in jail, Reinhardt has spent time in a sort of prison of her own. Reinhardt, who co-founded the youth music and mentorship program Roots of Music, had two friends in town from New York when the crash happened.
Tears began falling from Reinhardt’s eyes as soon as she took the stand. She described the surreal feeling she experienced as she was lifted into the air by Rizzuto’s truck and then smashed into another vehicle parked on the neutral ground.
“As I was looking to my left, then looking to my right, I noticed my hair was blowing, and I was stuck on the grill of the truck, just standing up, until we crashed into the dump truck," she said.
The man accused of drunkenly plowing into a crowd of Carnival revelers during this year's En…
Every rib on the left side of her body was broken, several on the right side were fractured, her collar bone was dislocated, and her left arm was broken. Her two friends were also injured, one seriously.
For months, the three of them were forced to live in her two-bedroom apartment together to recuperate. Reinhardt was unable to visit her terminally ill father in another state. She said she stills suffers from PTSD.
“In just the flash of a second, that one decision … you really changed a lot of people’s lives. And not only the ones who were injured, but everybody who cares about the injured person had to go through it,” she said.
More victims are expected to give testimony at Rizzuto’s sentencing hearing in January. Some may give testimony as graphic as Reinhardt’s about how their lives shifted.
At least one victim who spoke Friday, however, said her life in a way has changed for the better.
Second District Lt. Jennifer Dupree and Det. Michael DiMarco recall a chaotic scene after al…
Shaunice Williams, 22, took the stand in a white lab coat. She said her studies at nursing school were interrupted when Rizzuto’s truck left her with a perforated stomach and lacerations on her body.
It took Williams two weeks to leave the hospital and months to recover, she said. But when she went back to school she had a different outlook on her career.
“I’ve gone back to nursing, and it makes me want to help people even more,” she said.
Williams said the help she’s received from other people during her recovery has affected her more than her physical injuries. “It shows me that there are more good people in this world than bad,” she said.