Courts

James Murphy mugshot from the DA's office

A Huntington man who admitted to huffing an aerosol cleaner before getting behind the wheel on New Year’s eve in 2013 and broadsiding a 63-year-old Commack woman’s car, killing her, was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison on Friday, according to the Suffolk County DA’s office.

State Supreme Court Justice John Collins sentenced James Murphy, 20, in Riverhead this morning after what DA spokesman Bob Clifford described in an email as an emotional courtroom scene. Family members of victim Herta Palma attended the sentencing.

Murphy pleaded guilty on Feb. 26 to second-degree manslaughter, second-degree reckless endangerment, reckless driving and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. He was remanded to the county jail following his February plea.

On the day of the fatal crash, Murphy was driving a Chevy Blazer north on Commack Road when he sideswiped one car and ran a red light at the intersection with Hauppauge Road, according to a Thursday statement from the DA’s office. Murphy’s SUV broadsided the Hyundai sedan Palma was driving. Palma died soon after at Huntington Hospital.

District Attorney Thomas Spota said Murphy told cops at the scene of the crash in 2013, “I was driving the white Blazer. I’m not going to lie to you officer. I just inhaled a can of Dust Off and threw it in the back of my truck.”

He also told officers he took Xanax and smoked hash a couple of days earlier.

Clifford said Murphy told the court today that he made “bad choices.”

Murphy’s attorney didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on Friday afternoon.

According to Clifford, Palma’s son, Joe Palma Jr., spoke to the court as well, saying, “As a family we have already been given our sentence. A life sentence of pain and grief from the loss of a mother taken much too soon for no good reason.

“All of our lives have been forever altered. We will never be the same.”

Clifford said Herta Palma’s daughter-in-law, Mary, also spoke, saying that the victim had visited her Commack home that afternoon, reminding the family to be safe on New Year’s Eve. Palma was staying home on New Year’s Eve because she lost a friend years ago in a drunk-driving crash.

“We actually spoke of it, obviously not knowing as she drove away that her life was going to be taken within nine minutes of her leaving my home,” she said, according to Clifford. “As she was pulling away, she was waving with her big smile at me, blowing kisses. … I hold on to that memory every day.”

In his statement, Spota called on the New York State Legislature to include intoxicative inhalants to current statutes that make driving under the influence of a drug illegal.

“It is well-established science that people who abuse inhalants experience intoxication, muscle spasms, a loss of coordination, hallucinations and impaired judgment — and it is also a fact that for many teenagers, inhalants provide a cheap and accessible alternative to alcohol,” he said. “It is time New York State treats inhalants as intoxicating substances so prosecutors can charge offenders with driving while impaired by drugs in the first degree.”

Claims district violated his First Amendment rights

Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano, second from left, was punished for ad-libbing a line during the school’s variety show last month. Photo by Barbara Donlon

A Miller Place High School student is suing the district for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights after he was punished for making an ad-libbed remark about the superintendent’s salary during a variety show.

At the Thursday, March 26 variety show, Kyle Vetrano, senior class president, appeared in a skit poking fun at the high school’s new bathroom policy, which allows one student at a time to use the bathroom in an effort to combat drug use and sales. According to the senior, he improvised the line that later got him into trouble.

“Is this what our superintendent gets paid all that money for? To write bathroom policy,” Vetrano said in the skit.

Following the remark, Vetrano said school administrators told him that he was not allowed to participate in the Friday night performance and was banned from school grounds during the show, as the line was not included in the pre-approved script.

“Kyle exercised his political speech rights, which are not to be violated by any government agency what so ever, including his own school,” Vetrano’s attorney John Ray, of Miller Place, said at a press conference held outside the high school on Thursday.

Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano’s supporters rally on his behalf. Photo by Barbara Donlon
Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano’s supporters rally on his behalf. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Vetrano’s mom, Christine, said the district is bullying her son, which is why they decided to take a stand and file the lawsuit.

The high school senior said he told a harmless joke with no malicious intent and was singled out by the district because it was the superintendent he made the remark about. He claims other students also veered off script, but were not reprimanded or punished.

Vetrano said he apologized to Superintendent Marianne Higuera numerous times, but was allegedly told that if he continued to bring up the situation, his senior prom, awards night and graduation privileges could be revoked.

“I think as an American in this country we have a right to freedom of speech and I’m just embarrassed that the district I have been a part of my entire life completely violated my first amendment rights,” Vetrano said.

When reached for comment, the district’s public relations firm, Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc. referred to a letter from Higuera posted on the district’s website.

According to the March 31 letter, students were made aware of the consequences for breaking the rules, which have been consistent year-after-year. Higuera said she was not present at the performance, but was advised of the ad-libbed line.

“This current ad-libbing situation is simply an issue of rules and consequences and not about me as the superintendent,” Higuera stated in the letter.

According to Higuera’s letter, the district will continue to discuss the “one-person at a time” bathroom policy.

About 50 people rallied at the press conference. They marched and held signs in support of the senior.

“What do we want? Free speech!” the crowd shouted as they marched up to the district office.

The family is suing for monetary damages, but has yet to decide on an amount, according to Ray.

“I was the only one who ad-libbed about the superintendent, but my comments were not with any mal-intent,” Vetrano said. “They didn’t call her out by name and they were part of a skit that was completely satirical and comedic in nature.”

Highway Superintendent Glenn Jorgensen patches a pothole in the Town of Smithtown as another highway department staffer looks on. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Smithtown Highway Superintendent Glenn Jorgensen pleaded not guilty Wednesday to felony charges accusing him of tampering with public records for a town paving project, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said.

Jorgensen, 63, of St. James, was directed to appear in First District Court in Central Islip for his arraignment, where he faced several charges, including tampering with public records, falsifying business records, filing false records, official misconduct and grand larceny, relating to incidents dating back to Nov. 18, 2014.

The district attorney alleged that Jorgensen directed a highway foreman to alter road construction reports to conceal that he had approved a contractor, Suffolk Asphalt Corporation of Selden, to pave at least eight Smithtown streets in freezing temperatures in November. The altered records misrepresented the weather conditions during the repaving work, Spota said.

Jorgensen’s misdemeanor grand larceny charge also accused him of stealing a public work order for the improper repaving and taking the official document home. District attorney detectives found the records in Jorgensen’s Hope Place residence, under his bed, Spota said.

“State department of transportation construction standards dictate asphalt must not be applied to a road surface in freezing temperatures and, in fact, the town’s own engineer has said repaving in freezing weather would result in the asphalt falling apart,” Spota said. “The repaving of a residential street doesn’t happen that often and when it does, residents are paying for a job done correctly, not a faulty repaving that will soon need pothole repair work.”

Both Jorgensen and Anthony M. La Pinta, a Hauppauge-based attorney representing him, did not return calls seeking comment.

Jorgensen has authority over 142 employees with a $30 million annual operating budget to pay for snow removal and the paving, drainage and maintenance of roughly 450 miles of roads and curbs in the town. He was first elected in 2010 to serve as superintendent, but has worked in the department for 37 years in various capacities, including as a foreman. He left retirement in 2009 when he was elected superintendent and was re-elected in 2013.

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio declined to comment on the district attorney’s charges against the highway superintendent.

Drugs, weapons galore
Police on a slew of drug and weapon charges arrested a 35-year-old man from Nesconset at his Gaynor Avenue home on March 21 at about 5:35 p.m. after he struck an officer multiple times while resisting arrest.
The officer executed a search warrant at his home and found the man in possession of heroin. Police charged the man with two counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance (a narcotic drug), 10 counts of third-degree criminal possession of a weapon with a previous conviction, two counts of criminal possession of a narcotic drug with intent to sell it, second-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance (a narcotic drug, 4 ounces or more); fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property (firearms); third-degree criminal possession of a weapon (an ammo clip); fourth-degree criminal mischief; second-degree harassment; and resisting arrest.
He was arraigned on the charges at Suffolk County First District Court on March 22 and held after failing to post $500,000 cash bail or $1.5 million bail bond on most of the drug and all of the weapons charges, and $500 cash and $500 bail bond on the rest of the charges.

Clothing grab
A 50-year-old Bay Shore woman was arrested in Smithtown on March 21 and charged with petit larceny. Police said that at about 12:20 p.m. on Feb. 28 the woman took assorted women’s clothing from a location on Crooked Hill Road in Commack.

What a pill
Police said a 45-year-old man from Howard Beach was arrested in Smithtown on Veterans Highway at 4:15 p.m. on March 19 and charged with seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance. Police said the man possessed Suboxone pills without a prescription. Suboxone is a prescription analgesic to help relieve symptoms associated with opioid addiction withdrawal.

Busted with drugs
A 27-year-old from Huntington was arrested in Smithtown on Fairfield Way at 11:58 p.m. on March 18 and charged with first-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, a narcotic drug, 8 ounces or more. Police executed a search warrant and found the man in possession of a quantity of cocaine.

Window shattered
Someone threw a brick at a front window of a home on Franciscan Lane in Smithtown on March 22 at 2:10 a.m. There are no arrests.

A Golden opportunity
A female complainant told police this week that someone entered the women’s locker room at Gold’s Gym in Smithtown on Landing Avenue and took keys out of her sweatshirt, went to her car, and stole her pocket book containing credit and debit cards.

Carjacked
A woman reported this week that someone stole a 1996 Buick from the driveway of a Bonny Court, Smithtown, home sometime between 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. on March 21. There are no arrests.

Graffiti reported
Someone reported graffiti in a boys’ bathroom of Kings Park High School sometime between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on March 19. Police declined to provide specifics on what kind of graffiti, noting it was an active case.

DA says suspect faces life in prison if convicted of shooting Mark Collins

District Attorney Tom Spota says Sheldon Leftenant faces life in prison if convicted of shooting police officer Mark Collins. Photo by Barbara Donlon

A shot in the neck was close to fatal for a Suffolk County cop injured in the line of duty, according to a details of the struggle with his alleged shooter law enforcement officials recapped last week.

District Attorney Tom Spota released new details surrounding the March 11 shooting of Suffolk County Police Officer Mark Collins in a news conference on Friday afternoon. The DA said after investigators spoke with Collins, they found out the play-by-play of what happened that night in Huntington Station.

The suspect, Sheldon Leftenant, 22, of Huntington Station was indicted by a grand jury in Riverhead on Friday shortly before the news conference. Leftenant pleaded not guilty to attempted aggravated murder of a police officer, resisting arrest and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

The suspect could be facing up to life in prison if convicted of the charges, Spota said.
Collins, who worked for the 2nd Precinct’s gang unit, pulled over the vehicle where Leftenant, who is allegedly a member of the “Tip Top Boyz” gang, was a passenger. After being asked to get out of the vehicle, the suspect fled out of the right rear passenger door and Collins chased after him.

“Collins gave chase, he had his police-issued taser in hand,” Spota said. “He never drew his weapon.”

The officer continued to chase Leftenant when he cornered the suspect, after Leftenant was not being able to open a gate at 11 Mercer Court. A confrontation took place and the officer tasered Leftenant. The officer was unaware the suspect had a gun, Spota.

“Collins successfully deployed his taser twice in Leftenant’s back and while it brought the defendant to the ground, unfortunately it did not completely immobilize him,” Spota said.

The officer dropped down to handcuff Leftenant when a struggle ensued. At that point, Collins was on top of Leftenant and reported seeing two blue flashes and hearing four gunshots in quick succession. The officer was shot in the neck and hip. The neck shot, had it been any closer, could have hit the carotid artery and killed him, officials said.

“Police Officer Collins knew right away he had been shot because he couldn’t feel anything on his right side and he couldn’t move at all his right arm or his right leg,” Spota said.

Collins began to try and drag himself over to a stoop on the property, as he was trying to protect himself the best he could.

“He tried to draw his weapon, but he had lost the complete use of his right arm, right leg, that’s why he is actually crawling to get over here,” the DA said, pointing to a spot on a photo of the crime scene where the officer went to protect himself.

Spota said Collins knew the gun was .38 caliber revolver and that there were at least two shots left. He covered himself with his police-issued bullet proof vest and faced it towards the suspect, as he felt Leftenant would walk over and shoot him again.

After allegedly shooting the officer, Leftenant fled and dropped the weapon in the backyard of 13 Mercer Court. He then ran about a quarter-mile away from the scene and hid. According to Spota, canine units quickly arrived and found the gun and Leftenant.

Two bullets were found inside the Mercer Court home where the struggle took place. While people were home as the two struggled outside, no one was injured by the shots.

After court, Leftenant’s lawyer Ian Fitzgerald said the defendant was sorry to be in this situation, but wouldn’t comment any further.

“I don’t think he showed any mercy at all, after all he fires two shots one in his neck virtually point blank range, that doesn’t tell me there is any mercy at all,” Spota said.

During Leftenant’s arraignment, a handful of the suspect’s family members were in the audience. While they wouldn’t comment, they left the courtroom chanting, “Free Shel.”

Abdelgheni Dakyouk mugshot from SCPD

Police have arrested the man they say is responsible for an early morning hit-and-run in Coram that killed a pedestrian.

According to the Suffolk County Police Department, East Patchogue resident Abdelgheni Dakyouk, 48, has been charged with leaving the scene of a fatal incident without reporting.

Shortly after the crash on Route 112 on Saturday, March 14, police reported that the victim had been walking north between Granny Road and Route 25 when he was hit by a light-colored, possibly tan vehicle. The incident occurred just before 6 a.m. and the driver, whose car had front-end damage, fled north.

Police arrested Dakyouk on March 18, following an investigation by detectives from the SCPD’s Vehicular Crime Unit.

Attorney information for Dakyouk was not available. He was scheduled to be arraigned on March 19.

Officials have not yet named the victim, who was pronounced dead at the scene. But two days after the crash, police announced they had “tentatively identified” him as a 37-year-old Medford resident, awaiting positive identification by detectives and the Office of the Suffolk County Medical Examiner. Police said they had notified the person’s next of kin.

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Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. File photo

By Elana Glowatz & Rachel Shapiro

Suffolk County officials, including former County Executive Steve Levy, “intentionally corrupted and undermined” the Ethics Commission and contributed to its disbandment, according to a special grand jury report released April 19.

Testimony in the report by unnamed county officials alleges that County Official E, who worked in the county executive’s office, attempted to influence ethics commissioners’ decisions; tried to use an ethics complaint as leverage against a legislator to influence his vote; and had not received proper authorization to file financial disclosure forms, among other offenses.

Based on previous reporting, this newspaper determined that County Official E is Levy.

Testimony in the report alleges that other county officials colluded with Levy in these actions as well as committed separate offenses. County Official H, the report said, was an Association of Municipal Employees worker who filled out his time sheets and calculated his accruals as a management employee, leading to him receiving more than $14,000 in health benefits he did not earn.

This newspaper, also based on previous reporting, has determined County Official H to be Alfred Lama, the former executive director of the Ethics Commission.

No charges have been filed against the officials, as testimony did not reveal any illegal activity. The grand jury instead made recommendations to the executive and legislative branches — including creating penalties for ethics violations such as improperly influencing the members of an ethics board or commission — and future county ethics bodies, such as enacting procedural guidelines regarding complaints, hearings and decisions.

Levy took issue with the report. It was “based in large part on testimony from political detractors of the county executive,” he said in a statement shortly after it was released Thursday.

He said seeking the commission’s opinion on a potential conflict of interest, as he did in the case of the legislator, “is not an abuse of the Ethics Commission, it’s the very reason you have one,” and that he did not tell Ethics Commission members how to vote on any issue.

The former county executive also took issue with the report saying that while, for a time, he only filed state financial disclosure forms, he was obligated to file county forms, which the report said were more thorough.

Mark Davies, a former executive director of the Temporary State Commission on Local Government Ethics who drafted state ethics law, said in written testimony to the Suffolk County Legislature in September 2010 that “on the whole, the state form is more extensive than the county form.” He argued that because the county form lacked certain categories, such as offices in political parties and organizations and agreements for future employment, it was not in compliance with state law. Legislation has since been introduced to bring the local form into compliance with state law.

Levy also said that state law mandated the county to accept the state form over the county form, something the grand jury report said “remains an open question with advocates on both sides publicly arguing their positions.” Lama advised the former county executive without a ruling from the entire Ethics Commission, saying Levy could file the state form instead of the county form.

The grand jury report also discussed the findings of an audit by the county comptroller. Lama, who was the ethics commission’s executive director from 2004 until it was abolished, was audited last year. According to the document from Comptroller Joe Sawicki’s office, the investigation was to determine whether the director’s hours worked from 2004 to 2011 had been logged correctly, and whether he was given appropriate pay and health benefits according to the hours he had worked.

The grand jury report said Lama, an AME union employee, had filled out his time sheets as if he were a management employee. It also said there was no evidence of fraud on Lama’s part.

Sawicki said in an interview that he began reviewing Lama’s time sheets and found that the director had often worked less than 50 percent of the work week. The audit states, “[Lama] worked 84 percent of the required full-time hours in 2005 and only 49 percent of the required full-time hours in 2010.” The audit states the county attorney did not change the position to part-time so the director would have the flexibility to work full-time if needed.

The comptroller’s audit found that Lama had been overpaid more than $8,000 in wages and had received more than $14,000 in health insurance coverage premiums that he did not reimburse to the county — from periods when he worked less than 50 percent of the work week and therefore, the audit stated, was not entitled to the premiums.

According to the Suffolk County AME contract, part-time employees “must work greater than 50 percent of the established work week to be entitled to benefits.” Those who fall below that mark, the contract says, may purchase health insurance on a pro rata basis.

Lama said in a phone interview Tuesday that he did not know he was a union employee, and filled out his time sheets for the 7.5-hour day of a management employee.

The grand jury report said Lama signed a “new employee orientation” document, acknowledging his “receipt of the collective bargaining agreement for his AME position and his AME enrollment card.” However, Lama said he went to an orientation when he was hired and “they handed me a piece of paper and I signed it. I wasn’t aware that they were going to put me into the union.”

He added that he always tried to be “as truthful as possible” when filling out his logs, and questioned why it took so long for someone to tell him he was filling in his time sheets incorrectly. “Don’t wait until the end of the rainbow and tell me I made a mistake,” he said.

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