A Maryland man pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter Wednesday for the drunken-driving death of Montgomery County police officer Noah Leotta, a tragedy that spurred a new state law designed to curb drinking and driving.
Luis Reluzco, 47, of Olney, demonstrated little emotion during a 30-minute court hearing in Rockville. He faces a term of up to 10 years in prison at his scheduled sentencing Aug 23.
Because vehicular manslaughter is considered a “nonviolent” offense under Maryland sentencing rules, Reluzco would be eligible for parole consideration after completing 25 percent of his term.
The hearing Wednesday revealed new details about the case, including Reluzco’s rapid consumption of beer and whiskey at a Hooters restaurant in the hours before the Dec. 3 crash; an account from a new witness who said he saw Reluzco’s Honda CR-V strike Leotta’s police car and then, Leotta, just before 10 p.m.; and Reluzco’s statements that he didn’t know he had hit anyone.
Leotta — a well-liked, 24-year-old officer — had pulled over a different vehicle on Rockville Pike as part of a holiday DUI enforcement effort and was out of his car.
The witness “described seeing the defendant’s SUV approach the back of the police car and thinking that the SUV was too close,” prosecutor Bryan Roslund said in court. “It appeared to him that the SUV tried to go around at the last second, but had waited too long to move over. [The witness] saw the sparks and smoke.”
Moments after the crash, Reluzco was still behind the wheel when a police officer responding to the scene came up to him.
Roslund said Reluzco told that officer: “ ‘Sorry I didn’t even see you,’ ” adding that Reluzco thought he had merely hit a car. “He was not aware that he had hit a person,” Roslund said at the hearing.
In the courtroom were Leotta’s parents, Rich and Marcia Leotta, also of Olney.
“I want to hear him say: ‘Yes, I am guilty for the crime that I committed,’ ” the officer’s father said Wednesday before going to court.
The hearing was part of an emotional month for Leotta’s parents, who attended memorial services for their son as part of National Police Week. “It was the right thing to do, but it breaks your heart every time,” Rich Leotta said.
He has spent a lot of time recalling a conversation he had with Noah a year ago. It came as he and Noah were walking their dogs. Noah told his dad he’d gone to the annual candlelight vigil in downtown Washington at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, which honors fallen officers.
“ ‘It’s such an honor to have your name on that wall,’ ” he recalled his son saying.
“Noah, it is an honor,” Rich Leotta had replied. “But that’s not a good thing. I wouldn’t want that for you.”
On Wednesday in court, before Leotta’s parents and about 80 others, including officers and the county’s police chief, events leading to the officer’s death were laid out.
Reluzco, who has worked as a bartender at Bethesda Country Club, went to a late afternoon doctor’s appointment along Rockville Pike. Afterward, he smoked a “one-hitter” of marijuana before starting his drive headed for home, according to Roslund.
Along the way, Reluzco would later tell a detective, he saw the Hooters sign and pulled over. Before going in, Reluzco said, he took a half-milligram pill of Xanax.
Surveillance video from Hooters showed him entering at 5:20 p.m.
The electronically stored bar tab showed that over roughly two hours, he “purchased four Stella draft beers, one Big Daddy Bud Light, three shots of well whiskey and two shots of Jameson’s whiskey,” Roslund said in court. The drinking drew the attention of a server who “encouraged him to get something to eat to slow the alcohol consumption down,” Roslund said. “The printed bar tab receipt does reflect that a chicken quesadilla was ordered.”
Reluzco stayed at Hooters after paying his credit card tab. Police have said he also purchased drinks in cash. Surveillance video showed him leaving Hooters at about 9:40 p.m., and blood tests would later show he had a blood alcohol concentration of approximately 0.22, or nearly three times the legal limit.
About the same time, Leotta had pulled over a Chevy Tahoe in the far-right lane of Rockville Pike and was walking back to his car. Reluzco’s CR-V came up from behind, clipped the rear driver’s side of Leotta’s car, scraped along the edge and struck the officer.
Leotta died a week later at Suburban Hospital.
Reluzco has been held in jail since his indictment in February. He wore a green inmate jumpsuit and white sneakers during the hearing Wednesday, answering “Yes, ma’am” to questions from Circuit Court Judge Ann S. Harrington, designed to assure her that he wanted to plead guilty. Reluzco’s attorney, John Roth, spoke briefly, saying his client accepted full responsibility.
“He never tried to jump away from what he did,” Roth said.
On Thursday, Rich and Marcia Leotta plan to go to Annapolis to see the ceremonial signing of “Noah’s Law,” which expands the mandatory use of breath-testing ignition devices for drunk drivers in Maryland. It is set to take effect later this year.
Rich Leotta said he expected the ceremony to be easier than the court hearings or the memorial events.
“I think it’s a good capstone of what we’ve been through,” he said.