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Home » 20 people died in a horrific limo crash. A reporter’s persistence helped get their families justice

20 people died in a horrific limo crash. A reporter’s persistence helped get their families justice

Seventeen childhood friends from upstate New York expected to celebrate a 30th birthday at a popular brewery the fall morning they boarded a noisy white stretch limousine. The outing through small towns and winding farm roads instead turned deadly when the limo’s brakes failed on a steep hill, catapulting it at more than 100 mph into a ravine. 

Twenty people died in the Oct. 6, 2018 crash in Schoharie, New York; two recently married couples, four sisters, three of their husbands and the driver, among them, along with a man and his son-in-law in the limousine’s path. Babies lost both parents and parents were left childless in what federal transportation authorities called one of the nation’s worst road disasters. 

Within days, as the tragedy gained international attention, the Albany Times Union showed it was no fluke. Instead, business writer Larry Rulison and colleagues documented how Prestige Limousine avoided repairing the 2001 Ford Excursion, just as the family who ran it had long ignored health and safety regulations and drawn investors into questionable business ventures. Even in this case, for a while it appeared they would again get off lightly.  

Instead, Prestige Limousine operator Nauman Hussain began a hefty prison term this year, transportation laws are being rewritten, and the government is answering for huge gaps in oversight, due in no small part to Rulison’s exhaustive reporting. 

“It was a really bad intersection and there’d been a lot of accidents, but nothing as bad as that,” says Rulison, 52, who reviewed years of records. “Everything that could have gone wrong that day went wrong.” 

This Oct. 8, 2018 photo shows debris scattered in an area at the site of a fatal limousine crash in Schoharie, N.Y. that killed 20 people. (Hans Pennink/AP, File)

In 300-plus stories he documented repeated failures to keep a hulking, broken vehicle off the road. He captured the muddled response of state agencies, politicians and the courts — and kept families’ calls for answers in the public eye.

Ultimately, many people close to the case maintain Rulison helped reroute the limo operator’s sentence from community service and probation to state prison. 

“You could go to the courthouse and see on days Larry broke stories that he was driving the agenda. People were responding to his reporting, and they didn’t always want to be,” says journalist Ben Ryder Howe, who drew from Rulison’s work in his May 2023 New York Magazine expose of the crash. “Things would not have happened the way they did without his reporting.” 

Times Union reporter Larry Rulison. (Will Waldron/Times Union)

Rulison’s multipronged investigation of a tragedy in rural New York stands out as thinly staffed local newspapers often struggle to do much more than respond to breaking news. 

Focused on four counties and the state government in Albany, the Times Union once regularly published deep dives along with municipal news from all corners. Today, Times Union editor Casey Seiler says the staff of about 60 reporters, editors, photographers, clerks and stringers is about half of what the paper had when he joined in 2000. Allocating resources is a daily challenge. 

But with fewer outlets able to stay on the weightiest stories, Seiler maintains doing so is even more important. And once Rulison started probing the limo crash, taking him off daily coverage of corporations and banks was the clear choice.  

“If we weren’t going to throw resources into this story, why keep doing this?” says Seiler, the paper’s editor since 2020. “When you have 20 people dead, 17 from a single community, obviously that leaves an enormous hole in the lives of their family and friends and co-workers. And as this story went on, Larry found that it was connected to stunning regulatory deficiencies the families had to endure on top of everything else.” 

Over five years, Rulison’s articles fanned out from New York’s capital region to the Missouri factory where the limo was stretched — even to Lahore, Pakistan, where, he reported, limo company owner Shahed Hussain remained as his son Nauman took the fall in New York. 

Victims’ families relied on the paper to keep the story going. The drumbeat for answers brought solace, then results. 

“My hands still get numb and my heart hurts and the tears start coming,” says Jill Richardson-Perez, whose son Matthew Coons, 27, and his partner Savannah Bursese, 24, died. “But knowing a price is being paid, that (Nauman Hussain) is in jail, I breathe a little better. My shoulders can drop. I’m not fighting anymore.”


Rulison, a seasoned business writer who practically devours filings and databases, worked the Times Union’s early shift to accommodate his sons’ schedules. The first reporter in the suburban newsroom that Monday, he was put on the crash. He dived in, if somewhat clinically. 

“Now, I’ve met all the families. But at the start I didn’t think I could handle it because, honestly, I cover banks,” Rulison recalls. “But we were outraged by the incompetence. That’s what journalism is all about.”  

Within days, he and his co-workers nailed down the most significant factors:

Prestige Limousine owner Shahed Hussain had drawn headlines as an FBI informant involved in post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism cases against Muslim men. The Hussains were frequently accused of deceitful business dealings. 

The state Department of Transportation had twice cited the doomed limo, including a month before the accident, for major failures and for lacking DOT authorization large commercial vehicles require. Instead, Prestige, which Nauman Hussain operated for his father, had a Mavis Discount Tire shop slap on the Department of Motor Vehicles sticker for smaller, lighter cars — without inspecting.     

“Records obtained by the Times Union show the vehicle was driven nearly 1,300 miles … following a (DOT) inspection that found numerous safety and state transportation law violations,” read an Oct. 9, 2018, co-bylined story. “A TU analysis of 100 state limo companies found Prestige the worst violators for two years,” read an Oct. 11 Rulison piece.  

Soon, he reported that while Shahed Hussain served as an informant, fellow Pakistanis said he persuaded them to open gas stations, taking the proceeds and leaving them unable to keep the lights on.     

In addition, the Hussains operated Prestige from their rundown residential motel, which remained open despite years of unpaid taxes and sanitary violations. A year after the crash, Rulison reported the motel was on the market, a move a judge blocked to protect assets needed for crash victims families’ civil penalties.

Even when it veered from the accident narrative, such reporting kept the story on the front page.

“Larry was digging deep enough so that the public was seeing this was not an accident,” notes lawyer Cynthia LaFave, representing the estates of Abigail and Adam Jackson, who left behind an infant and a 4-year-old. “It was a tragedy that could have been avoided with the slightest care.”  

Rulison says he benefitted from co-workers’ expertise with courts, police and government, and editors who put him on the story full time. There were plenty of sources with grievances against the Hussains, and records of the limousine’s decrepit state. 

But Rulison, non-confrontational yet single-minded, also sought answers in places few looked. With help from an expert, he navigated a federal DOT website that would confound most consumers. He gathered thick dockets on the Hussains from across the country and from municipal offices in six upstate counties he visited. 

While the state DOT denied all his requests for information, he said, this became something of a blessing as the documents he obtained through Freedom of Information filings often went beyond what he sought. After the TU questioned how the Hussains had been able to keep the limo on the road, the DOT seized dozens of out-of-compliance vehicles.

And Rulison alone located Shahed Hussain in Lahore after an exhaustive Facebook search.

“I tried to figure out what it would cost to go to Pakistan,” he half jokes.

Effusive in discussing his newspaper days in the Adirondacks in the 1990s and humbled to accept a cup of Panera coffee, Rulison is focused and understated in his work. His stories, largely unsentimental, pack a punch with their facts: 

The limo driver lacked the proper license; another driver refused to use the car because of its faulty brakes. Prestige bought it for $1,200 from an operator who said it barely passed inspection. Seatbelts were stashed under the seats.

Rulison’s stories called out authorities on promised laws, reports and task forces that languished. In a mostly empty hall in Albany’s legislative office building, he reported in May 2019, families tearfully testified at a limousine safety hearing just two lawmakers attended in its entirety. 

“They looked at us as grieving parents letting off steam,” recalls Kevin Cushing, who lost his son, Patrick, 31 and niece Erin McGowan, 34. 

But the perseverance of such parent advocates resulted in an extensive series of safety measures. Among these, limousines that don’t pass an annual inspection are now taken off the road. Safety precautions — including the location of seat belts — are announced when passengers board.

“We got momentum because of Larry,” adds Cushing, who served on a limousine safety task force. “Maybe they thought we would disappear, but Larry doesn’t disappear.”  

Born in Syracuse, Rulison attended the Hotchkiss boarding school, once failing English and being told he’d never be a writer. But he did major in English at Colby College, then worked at community newspapers. He landed a job at Mutual Fund Market News, in Boston, where his editor, financial regulator Michael Garrity, eventually broke the Bernie Madoff story.

“He’d say ‘If you’ve got the documents, you’ve got them,’ ” recalls Rulison, who worked at business publications in Baltimore and Philadelphia before joining the TU in 2005. “He’d say ‘99 percent is boilerplate. You need to know the parts to look at.’ Now, when I get a pile of documents I say ‘I’ll be here for hours. I love it!’ ”

As the case progressed, Rulison grew accustomed to seeing his findings in court filings and sensed then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo responded to his coverage with limousine safety reforms. Lawyers called him for updates.

Even so, and despite the many ways he and other journalists showed the Hussains disregarded their passengers, tenants and investors, they appeared poised to avoid serious punishment once more. 

From the start, the families and their attorneys worried about what they saw as Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery’s tepid attitude. Federal authorities complained she damaged their investigation by keeping them from the wreck for months. She said she lacked resources to investigate fully. Families learned a no-jail plea deal was possible. 

“It looked like she literally gave up,” says Rulison. 

In fall 2019, though, he was diverted by his own startling subplot. His appendix burst, releasing 23 tumors. In a 12-hour surgery, a specialist plucked them out, poured in chemotherapy and rocked his body. “I thought I was a dead man,” he says. “I was so scared.”   

Surgery and chemo treatments were excruciating. But there were stretches when he was pain free, and motivated. “On the way to Sloan Kettering I filed a story. I’d be in a doctor’s office working. We were breaking so much news,” says Rulison, now healthy. “The story kept me energized.”  

His recovery coincided with the pandemic shutdown. The case slowed. As he could, Rulison continued reporting from his son’s bedroom. which he left only for doctor’s appointments and to toss a football in the yard. Illness, desolation and fear made him think more fully about those he wrote about. 

“Being sick wasn’t exactly a blessing, but it made me appreciate things,” he says. “I was so green about crime and death. I didn’t get my hands dirty. And all of a sudden I started really sympathizing with the families. I started realizing, those people are so strong.” 

In September 2021, before outraged families, Nauman Hussain pleaded guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide. In return, the deal called for probation and community service. Rulison, like the families and their lawyers, was stupefied by the light penalty. Families put their energies into civil cases.  They braced for further despair in August 2022, when Nauman appeared for sentencing.  

Nauman Hussain, right, who ran the limo company involved in the 2018 crash that killed 20 people, listens at a court proceeding in 2021. In 2023, he was found guilty of 20 manslaughter counts. (Hans Pennink/AP, File.)

Instead, like the culmination of a legal thriller, everyone in the packed courthouse was stunned to learn the judge who approved the deal had retired. In his place another judge threw it out, added 20 counts of the more serious manslaughter, and ordered a trial.  

Over eight days in May 2023, testimony recounted Nauman Hussain’s role in avoiding repairing the car while continuing to book proms and weddings. The defense offered no witnesses. It took the jury just six hours to find Hussain, 33, guilty of 20 manslaughter counts. He was later sentenced to five- to 15 years in prison.

“I feel that the D.A. should have known this was a slam dunk, so why did she want to settle?” Rulison asks.  

But thanks to his reporting, the most important questions were answered. 

LaFave, who is representing the now school-aged children of Abigail and Adam Jackson, sees the outcome as potentially precedent-setting and immensely important.

 “Now there’s some relief that the little children left behind can grow up and do a Google search and know society made Hussain pay,” she says. “At least they mattered. That’s maybe where Larry comes in. He made them matter.”  

Author Jane Gottlieb previously worked at the Times Union in Albany before Larry Rulison joined the staff, and she did not know him before reporting this story.

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