ALBANY, N.Y. — The operator of a limousine company at the center of an investigation of the crash in upstate New York that killed 20 people was arrested Wednesday and charged with criminally negligent homicide, according to the State Police.
Nauman Hussain, the son of Shahed Hussain, the owner of Prestige Limousine, was taken into custody during a traffic stop in the Albany area.
The arrest came four days after a stretch limousine, rented out by Prestige, ran through a stop sign in Schoharie, a town about 40 miles west of Albany, struck two pedestrians and a parked car, and landed in a shallow ravine. All 17 passengers and the limousine’s driver were killed, as were two pedestrians.
The arrest is the latest development in a fast-moving investigation focusing on the limousine — a 2001 Ford Excursion — that had repeatedly failed inspections, including one as recently as last month.
The company, which was doing business out of a low-budget hotel north of Albany, has been visited multiple times by State Police investigators, who are also seeking the elder Hussain, a former FBI informant.
The crash on Saturday was the worst transportation-related accident in the country in nine years, dating to a 2009 plane crash outside Buffalo that killed 50 people.
Among the victims Saturday were 17 young friends — all between the ages of 24 and 34 — who had been traveling in the limousine for a birthday party trip at a local brewery.
In remarks to reporters outside a State Police barracks Wednesday afternoon, a lawyer for the limousine company, Lee Kindlon, said the State Police and other authorities were “jumping the gun” in charging Nauman Hussain, 28. “Even the most simple investigation, done well, takes months,” Kindlon said, adding that his client would plead not guilty. “And now because of the actions taken today, that time frame is compressed.”
Kindlon said Hussain had met on Monday with investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, State Police, and state Transportation Department and was asked to turn over certain documents about the company and the vehicle.
The process of collecting those materials was underway, Kindlon said, when he received a “panicked call” from his client’s family at about 11 a.m. Wednesday, telling him Hussain was being arrested. Kindlon said there had been no request by the authorities to speak with his client’s father.
The crash has also raised questions about the regulation of stretch limousines, specially made vehicles built from former cars or sport utility vehicles that often do not have to meet strict federal safety requirements. While drivers of such elongated vehicles are required to wear seat belts, passengers in the back are not.
Federal officials have described the accident as a “high-energy impact” that drove the limo’s engine into the driver’s side. State officials have said the 2001 Ford Excursion was not supposed to be on the road, having failed inspections, including tests of its brakes.
The charges against Hussain were announced by State Police Major Robert E. Patnaude, the commander of Troop G, which is based in Latham and is investigating the crash.
State Police have made clear they would like to interview the older Hussain, 62.
He has a curious history, having worked as an informant, helping to convict two leaders of an Albany mosque in a 2004 plot to import a missile and assassinate a Pakistani diplomat, as well as a case in 2009 involving a conspiracy to bomb synagogues in the Bronx. In both cases, the attacks were thwarted.
But his record is also filled with criminal acts, including fraudulently obtaining driver’s licenses, and financial troubles — he filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003 after accumulating debts of $177,000. The bankruptcy case was settled in 2007.
A year later, his family started Prestige Limousine.
On Wednesday, Kindlon said Hussain had been in Pakistan for some time to deal with health issues. He said the older Hussain had been much more involved in the day-to-day running of the company than his son, who he said mainly helped market the company and answer business calls.
He also suggested that state officials should have addressed the road where the crash happened, which residents had long said was dangerous.
“This road was a problem,” Kindlon said. “It was a known problem to the State of New York.”
He added that Nauman Hussain’s father was “worried sick about his own son,” and may return to the United States to assist in the investigation.
“I know that should we need him,” Kindlon said, “he will come here.”