At a press conference after the sentencing Noah Leotta's father Richard Leotta is flanked by his family, Montgomery County police Chief Tom Manger, State's Attorney John McCarthy, prosecutors and a photo of his son. Richard Leotta said the judge got it right, "She's sending a message that this is reprehensible behavior." Photo by Andrew Metcalf
Luis Gustavo Reluzco, the drunken driver who struck and fatally injured Montgomery County police officer Noah Leotta in December, was sentenced to 10 years in prison Thursday.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Ann Harrington sentenced Reluzco, 47, to the maximum sentence under Maryland guidelines. She acknowledged Reluzco’s remorse for what he had done, but said that even he understood “this is not a time for leniency.”
The judge imposed the sentence after hours of testimony from prosecutors, Reluzco’s defense attorney and the officer’s family and friends. Reluzco previously pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter in May.
Leotta’s family gave emotional testimony Thursday, describing the officer as a soft-spoken young man with a big smile and bright blue eyes who worked hard to obtain his dream to work for the police department.
“He was at the prime of his life, he loved his family, he loved his sister and he loved the police,” Richard Leotta, Noah’s father, said in court. “He had so much love in his heart and it all ended so suddenly.”
Noah Leotta died at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda seven days after he was struck Dec. 3 by Reluzco on Rockville Pike. Reluzco previously admitted he had smoked marijuana, took Xanax and drank four beers and six whiskeys at the Hooters on Rockville Pike prior to the collision. A blood test taken shortly after the collision revealed Reluzco had a 0.22 blood alcohol level, more than three times the .08 legal limit to drive.
Reluzco struck Leotta just a short distance away from the Hooters while the officer was conducting a traffic stop as part of a holiday task force designed to reduce drunken driving. On Thursday, prosecutors said it was possible that Reluzco could see the flashing lights of Leotta’s cruiser when Reluzco pulled out of the restaurant’s parking lot.
Prosecutors said Reluzco failed to apply the car’s brakes and only barely started to swerve before he struck Leotta and the officer’s cruiser at a speed between 30 to 50 mph. The impact sent Leotta flying more than 25 feet and caused the traumatic injuries that led to his death, Deputy State’s Attorney Peter Feeney said.
Harrington said that in imposing the sentence, she took into consideration that Reluzco had been convicted of other alcohol-related driving offenses in 1988, 1990 and in 1999.
“You have received leniency before and the behavior pattern you exhibited did not change and this time [it had] devastating and tragic consequences,” Harrington said.
Many of Leotta’s family members broke down in tears as they read emotional victim impact statements.
“There are times when I walk into the woods with Noah’s dog and I just cry,” Richard Leotta said. “There are times when I would just like to die.” He recently dreamed about setting up a golf tee time with Noah. “Then I wake up and I am in a nightmare,” he said.
Marcia Goldman, Leotta’s mother, said Noah struggled in school, but found his passion after he took a criminology class at Montgomery College and went on a ride-along with a county police officer. She said he spent long hours in the gym and changed his diet to get into shape to become an officer. He interned with the county police department and was later accepted into the police academy.
“The day Noah graduated from the police academy was the proudest day of my life,” Goldman said. Now she struggles with sadness and her physical health has deteriorated.
“His killer deserves the maximum penalty and not a day less,” Goldman said. “Please show the world we honor the victim’s life and not the killer’s.”
Montgomery County police Chief Tom Manger described Noah Thursday as “among the best of the best.” He said that Noah’s tragic death still “looms in the hearts and minds” of every police officer on the force.
Reluzco took responsibility for Leotta’s death near the end of the hearing. He stood up, wearing a green prison jumpsuit, and addressed Leotta’s family, which was seated in front of him.
“I’m eternally sorry for what I’ve done,” Reluzco, who was supported by his family, including his wife, son and sister in court, said. “I know it’s difficult for you to come see me, the man who killed your son. The only thing I can really say is that what I’ve done—you’re right—it’s a senseless, preventable thing that I’ve done.
“The fact that he was killed by me while trying to prevent the very thing I was doing is more than tragedy,” Reluzco said. “I’ll never forgive myself. I’ll never live this down.”
He praised Leotta’s family for fighting for Noah’s Law—a new Maryland law that will require drivers who are convicted of drunken driving in the state to install ignition interlocks on their vehicles. The devices require drivers to blow into breath analyzer that determines whether they have drunk too much to operate a car.
Reluzco said when he’s released from prison, he plans to share his story to help prevent others from driving while drunk. “I won’t do it now because I have to pay for my crime,” he said.
At a press conference after the sentencing hearing, Richard Leotta said he didn't know if Reluzco was truly remorseful, due to his past history, but Leotta said there were no winners in the case.
"There's only loses in this," Leotta said. "I lost my son. [The Reluzcos] lost their son to jail. They're hurting. We're hurting—in different ways—but we're all hurting."
Photo left: Luis Gustavo Reluzco via Montgomery County police.