The man whose vehicle struck Montgomery County police Officer Noah Leotta, causing injuries that led to his death, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter Wednesday in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Rockville.
Prosecutors said Luis Gustavo Reluzco, 47, of Olney, was drunk and had just left a Hooters restaurant when he struck Leotta, 24, on Rockville Pike the night of Dec. 3. Tests later revealed Reluzco’s blood alcohol level was three times the .08 legal limit to drive when his 2012 Honda CRV struck Leotta, who had pulled over another vehicle during a traffic stop.
Reluzco agreed to a plea agreement with prosecutors in March, which was made official in court Wednesday. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $5,000 at sentencing, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. Aug. 23.
Reluzco, who has been held in the county jail, appeared in court in a green jumpsuit and only addressed the court to say he understood the charge he faced and that he was accepting the terms of the plea agreement.
Reluzco struck Leotta while the officer was working as part of a holiday task force to enforce drunken driving laws. Leotta was standing outside his police cruiser in the curbside northbound lane of Rockville Pike after he had pulled over a vehicle when Reluzco’s SUV struck him and his cruiser. Leotta’s body traveled 27 feet in the air, landing near the vehicle he had pulled over, according to prosecutors. Police determined during a collision reconstruction investigation that Reluzco made little to no attempt to stop before striking Leotta’s cruiser, which had its police lights activated at the time of the collision. In interviews with officers at the scene, Reluzco said he did not even know he had struck anyone.
Leotta died seven days after the collision at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.
Prosecutors wrote in a statement of facts read in court Wednesday that receipts from Hooters showed Reluzco had purchased “four Stella draft beers, one Big Daddy Bud Light, three shots of well whiskey, and two shots of Jameson whiskey” before he drove away from the restaurant. An officer who interviewed Reluzco at the scene reported that when he put Reluzco through field sobriety tests, Reluzco said, “My balance won’t let me do it. Probably because I drank too much.”
Luis Reluzco's Honda CRV, left, and Noah Leotta's police cruiser, right, at the scene of the collision. Provided by the Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office. Photo above left – Luis Reluzco, via Montgomery County Police.
Reluzco also admitted to smoking marijuana and taking the prescription drug Xanax prior to the collision. Police later found a prescription bottle of Xanax with Reluzco’s name on it inside his vehicle.
In response to Leotta’s death, the officer’s family members and Montgomery County police officials lobbied the state legislature to require more ignition interlock systems in vehicles of convicted drunken drivers. The law will require any driver who has failed a breath-alcohol test to install and use an ignition interlock system—which requires a driver to blow into a breathalyzer before he or she can start their vehicle.
Gov. Larry Hogan is scheduled to sign Noah’s Law into law Thursday.
Reluzco’s defense attorney, John Roth, told reporters Wednesday that Reluzco supports Noah’s Law and believes its passage means “some good” has come out of the fatal collision. Roth said Reluzco accepted the plea agreement to avoid putting Leotta’s family through a trial as well as to take responsibility for what he did.
Richard Leotta, Noah’s father, spoke briefly after the plea hearing and said he didn’t believe Reluzco had any choice but to plead guilty, given the evidence police had gathered in the case. He said not having to go to trial prevents him and his family from hearing the details of the case again, but added, “The pain and suffering of losing our son doesn’t change, no matter what happens today or any other day.”
He said that Thursday, when the governor sign’s Noah’s Law, will be a better day.
“Tomorrow is going to be a good capstone for everything we’ve ben through,” Leotta said. “It’s a good thing that we got something positive from such a terrible tragedy.”
Right photo: Officer Noah Leotta, via Montgomery County Police