The driver who struck and killed a Montgomery County police officer — and who police suspect was driving drunk — had been drinking for four hours at a restaurant just before the crash, police officials said Thursday.
Luis Gustavo Reluzco, 47, was at the Hooters on Rockville Pike, according to a police incident report and law enforcement officials. Immediately after the Dec. 3 crash, according to the police report, Reluzco could not stand straight and told an officer who had arrived at the scene, “My balance won’t let me do it, probably because I drank too much.”
Reluzco also had smoked marijuana before the collision, said Montgomery Police Chief Tom Manger. He had been arrested twice before on drunken-driving charges, in 1988 and 1990, according to county police.
“This tragic loss was so preventable,” Manger said. “Once again it is a drunk driver who ends the life of someone who has done great things for his community, who was a great son and who was a great person.”
The officer, Noah Leotta, 24, had been working a special DUI assignment the night of the crash. He had pulled over and approached a different car, police said, and was returning to his cruiser when Reluzco’s vehicle hit the cruiser and Leotta.
Leotta’s death was the 18th in the line of duty in the department’s history.
Leotta, an energetic, well-liked officer, is survived by his parents, sister and other relatives. He died Thursday morning at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda with family at his bedside. They had decided to remove him from life support after long discussions with doctors, who had been working around the clock to save him, according to police officials.
Reluzco could not be reached for comment. Telephone calls to numbers associated with him have not been returned. It is unclear whether he has retained an attorney.
Police detained him after the crash on “suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs,” police officials said.
Police obtained a blood sample to test Reluzco’s alcohol level, but the results aren’t back, officials said. Reluzco has not been charged while the investigation continues, a timetable that is not uncommon for fatal-crash cases in Montgomery. The county’s top prosecutor, John McCarthy, said the probe could take more than a month.
Manger said his officer’s death was the 36th crash-related fatality in the county this year — in one-third of those, the driver was drunk.
Thursday was wrought with emotion for Leotta’s family, friends and fellow officers.
By mid-afternoon, outside the Wheaton station where Leotta worked, officers stood three deep and stretched about 50 yards. Officers in dark uniforms stood next to plainclothes detectives and department staffers, their hands clenched into fists by their sides or clasped behind their backs.
Twenty-one police motorcycles, with blue and red lights flashing, rumbled past, followed by a black SUV and more vehicles carrying relatives. As officers saluted, Leotta’s family members stepped out, including his mother, father and sister, and walked silently toward Manger, who hugged them one by one.
When the motorcycle escort roared up again about 10 minutes later, it headed east to the medical examiner’s office in Baltimore. Only the black SUV, containing Leotta’s body, followed.
Speaking to reporters about the crash, Manger’s voice grew angry.
“Officer Leotta’s death is an absolutely tragic loss,” Manger said. “This young police officer, who is an example of what every cop should be, was killed by a man who decided to smoke some dope, drink for four hours and get behind the wheel of a car.” Leotta died, Manger said, “trying to prevent the exact crime that killed him.”
Authorities are probably considering vehicular manslaughter charges against Reluzco. Manger said the penalties for that charge, and the state sentencing guidelines, are too low.
“The state of Maryland needs to get serious about the drunk driving and drugged driving because right now it is not,” the chief said.
The somber scene Thursday sharply contrasted with the mayhem a week earlier, when Leotta was struck.
Reluzco stayed at the scene and was behind the wheel of his Honda CR-V when an officer approached, according to the incident report. The CR-V showed significant front-end damage, and when Reluzco spoke, his speech was “slurred,” according to the report.
Rockville police Cpl. John Pfaehler asked Reluzco whether he had consumed alcohol.
“Reluzco stated he was coming from the Hooters bar and restaurant located on Rockville Pike,” Pfaehler would later write.
The officer asked Reluzco to step outside his vehicle and began sobriety tests. Reluzco failed a “walk and turn” test and declined to try a one-leg stand, according to the report. “I choose not to do that, because I had too much to drink,” he said.
He was taken to a police station, where he refused to give a breath test, police said. Because of the nature of Leotta’s injuries, officers were able to order a blood sample from Reluzco, which they obtained at Shady Grove Hospital, according to the report and officials.
A manager at the Hooters declined to comment Thursday, referring inquiries to a national spokeswoman. In a statement, the restaurant chain said it was saddened to learn of Leotta’s death and is “keeping his family in our thoughts and prayers. At this time it would inappropriate for Hooters to comment further on the matter or the investigation.”
Leotta grew up in Montgomery, graduated from Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, worked as a lifeguard and attended Montgomery College. In 2011, he secured a Montgomery police internship and was trained by Officer John Romack, a legendary figure in the department because of his penchant for catching drunk drivers.
Leotta also was mentored by officers of the department’s alcohol-initiatives section.
In 2013, he graduated from the police academy and was assigned to the department’s Wheaton district. He recently raised his hand for the holiday alcohol task force, whose members also recruited him.
Last Thursday, Leotta showed up at 4:15 p.m., 45 minutes before his roll call for the task force. Capt. Tom Didone, commander of the traffic division, saw him.
“Are you having fun?” Didone recalled asking.
“Absolutely,” Leotta said. “I’m getting drunk drivers off the road.”
He headed out for work and was struck several hours later.
As officers moved in and out of the hospital, keeping vigil, Didone said he met Leotta’s father, who wanted to know how his son had been doing on the job.
“Was Noah doing good?” Didone remembered his father asking.
“Noah was doing great,” Didone said.
His performance reviews reflected that.
“He arrives at work early every day with a smile on his face as though he can’t wait to start the day,” a supervisor recently wrote. “His enthusiasm for the job is unwavering and infectious.”
Added Didone: “His life was stolen from him by someone who made a bad decision and had made it before.”
Officer Noah Leotta’s family requests that anyone wishing to make donations in his memory make them to any of these groups:
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, 10440 Shaker Drive, No. 207, Columbia, MD 21046
HEROES, 1200 29th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20007
Concerns of Police Survivors, P.O. Box 3199, Camdenton, MO 65020