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By Anthony Petriello

One of New York City’s finest is bringing a wealth of experience to Suffolk County.

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office recently announced the hiring of Kevin Catalina, a 26-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, as Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr.’s (D) new undersheriff, the department’s second in command.

Newly appointed Suffolk County Undersheriff Kevin Catalina. Photo from Suffolk County Sheriff’s office

As of Aug. 1, Catalina, 51, will get started in the position, joining current Undersheriff Steve Kuehhas, who was appointed to the post by Toulon’s predecessor Sheriff Vincent DeMarco (R) and will continue serving in that role. Catalina was born and raised in Sayville, graduated from Sayville High School, and has lived on Long Island his entire life.

Toulon spoke highly of Catalina, and said he is optimistic about the value he can add to the department.

“During my six months in office, I was searching for the very best talent to help me lead the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office into the future, and we are very fortunate that Kevin has accepted the position of undersheriff,” Toulon said in a statement.  He is a resident of Long Island and knows our communities well, but he also brings a high level of expertise from the NYPD that will help drive innovation and reduce crime in Suffolk County.”

Catalina has a vast and varied history with the NYPD, having served in many crucial positions, and including in the NYPD’s counter-terrorism and counter-gang initiatives. He is currently serving as the deputy chief and commanding officer of the NYPD Intelligence Bureau in the Operational and Analytical Section, which oversees all proactive counter-terrorism investigations in New York City.

He started with the NYPD in 1992. He was promoted to sergeant in 1998, and soon after was transferred to the Queens Gang Squad as a sergeant. He was then promoted two times within the Queens Gang Squad to lieutenant and then captain, where he served until 2005.

Catalina then transferred to Manhattan, where he was put in charge of an upper-Manhattan precinct covering public housing. He was later promoted once again to deputy inspector and was put in charge of Manhattan’s 32nd Precinct. After three years in charge of the 32nd, he was transferred and became the captain of the 44th Precinct in the Bronx, which covers Yankee Stadium and the surrounding area.

When NYPD Commissioner William Bratton was reinstated in 2014, Catalina was placed as the captain of the NYPD’s Citywide Gang Unit, where he oversaw more than 350 detectives, and developed and implemented all gang investigative and suppression strategies utilized throughout the city . According to the NYPD, he is recognized as a subject-matter expert in gang violence and crime reduction strategies, and pioneered an initiative in the South Bronx that resulted in a 40 percent reduction in shooting incidents.

“During my six months in office, I was searching for the very best talent to help me lead the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office into the future, and we are very fortunate that Kevin has accepted the position of undersheriff.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

In 2016, Catalina was transferred to Manhattan North and became the executive officer, second in command, of all precincts above 59th Street. He then made his final transfer to commanding officer of the Operational and Analytical Section, where he will serve until July 31st.

Catalina said he was confident his experience in gang relations would be effective in dealing with the gang MS-13, one of the foremost concerns for law enforcement in Suffolk County currently.

“We really started to understand the gang issue around 2010 or 2011 and we saw a dramatic drop in violence,” he said. “We put together violence conspiracy cases using every possible bit of information we could get from social media, to jail calls and text messaging. We were able to prove conspiracies to commit violent acts, and once these kids realized they could actually get in trouble, the violence was seriously curtailed. MS-13 is no different than any other gang. People look at them like they’re this big bad organization, but ultimately they’re no different than the gangs we dealt with in New York City.”

Toulon said he was also optimistic about the success of the Gang Resistance Education and Training Program, which he implemented a few months back prior to learning of Catalina’s interest in the undersheriff position. Toulon said he visited Washington D.C. to garner more funding for the program. Gang activity in Suffolk has become a topic of national discussion, thanks in large part to the light shone on it by President Donald Trump (R), including in a visit he made to the Suffolk County Police Academy in Brentwood in 2017.

“Gang recruitment usually starts at the middle school level, and that’s what the GREAT program is geared towards,” Toulon said. “We have deputy sheriffs and corrections officers that work with these kids in communities that are adversely affected by gangs, and I’m advocating for additional funding [for this program].”

Catalina’s addition, joining Kuehhas, will help round out the leadership in the sheriff’s office, according to Toulon.

“I was looking for another component because Steve Kuehhas, who will be remaining with me, has a strong legal background, and my background is in corrections, so adding Undersheriff Catalina with a strong police background brings a great asset to the sheriff’s office,” he said.

Juan Lopez of Huntington Station was convicted of using the threat of violence to recruit people into the gang MS-13. Photo from Suffolk County District Attorney’s office

A Huntington Station man has been found guilty of being an MS-13 gang member who used the threat of violence in attempt to recruit new members.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) announced April 9 that Juan Lopez, 32, was convicted by a jury of first-degree attempted coercion, a felony. Lopez faces a maximum of four years in jail.

“The victims did not join; they did the right thing,” Sini said. “That’s why it’s critical that the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office is here to protect the victims of not only gang violence, but also of gang intimidation.”

On April 16, 2017, Lopez was approached by two young men at the soccer fields of Manor Field Park in Huntington Station at approximately 1 p.m. in attempts to recruit them to MS-13, according to the district attorney. This occured less than five days after the murder of four young men near a park in Central Islip by alleged gang members.

Tattoos denoting Juan Lopez’s connection to the gang MS-13, according to District Attorney Tim Sini. Photo from Suffolk County District Attorney’s office

“When the boys resisted, this defendant stated to them in unequivocal terms, ‘this is how you end up dead in the park,’” Sini said. “My message to Mr. Lopez is: That’s how you end up in jail in Suffolk County.”

Lopez was arrested by Suffolk County Police Department the following day, April 17, 2017.

The case was prosecuted by the Enhanced Prosecution Bureau’s Gang Unit. The Gang Unit was launched in January 2018 by the newly-elected district attorney to focus exclusively on investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by gang members, such as members of MS-13.

Sini said prosecutors’s evidence against Lopez at trial included witness statements in addition to his own tattoos. Lopez has a “1” tattoed on his right arm near his shoulder with a matching “3” tattooed on his left arm near the shoulder joint. In addition, he had a skull with two horns tattooed lower on his left arm, forming the letter “M” when viewed upside down. The district attorney said these tattoes are symbolic of membership in the MS-13 gang.

“We will spare no resources, we will spare no effort to eradicate MS-13 from our communities,”he said.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini during his inauguration. File photo by Alex Petroski

By Kyle Barr

Amid escalating gang activity in Suffolk County, District Attorney Tim Sini (D) announced the creation of a gang task force to combat the rise, specifically of MS-13, the group linked to six Suffolk killings in 2017.

The gang unit, which has already begun operations, exists inside the new Enhanced Prosecution Bureau within the district attorney’s office. Sini said during a press conference Feb. 7 that the unit will focus specifically on prosecuting gang members, even lower-level ones or members who commit non-gang-related crimes. Just before the event a meeting took place, which is said to be the first of many bi-weekly meetings, co-led by the DA’s office and Suffolk County Police Department.

“This is an enormous shift in paradigm — this will bring the fight to a whole new level.”

— Tim Sini

“Previously, when a gang member committed an offense, that prosecution issue was handled by any number of different bureaus within the district attorney’s office,” Sini said. “It created a system where gang members could fall through the cracks or be treated like any other individual. That is no longer going to be the case. We will be strategic in our prosecution against gang members.”

Though overall crime rates in Suffolk County have gone down, there has been persistent MS-13 activity, including the double homicide of young Brentwood residents Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, and the murder of four young Latino men in 2016. More than a dozen alleged gang members were arrested in 2017 and charged with their murders. Many more murders, attempted kidnappings and drug sales have also been linked to the gang.

The new focus on gang activity has become internalized in other law enforcement agencies, such as Suffolk County’s Sheriff’s Department, which plans to revamp its gang unit inside the office and expand its data analytics and predictive models relating to gang crime.

“Part of it is going to be a learning curve, because my staff is going to have to learn my ideals and how I want to look at things, and it will require more resources,” Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said. “The Suffolk County PD is assisting us with some technology that will allow us to look at these patterns differently, and not only patterns, but individuals as well.”

Sini said that with this change the county will be more effective in deciding whether a crime should be processed locally or federally.

The Suffolk County PD is assisting us with some technology that will allow us to look at these patterns differently, and not only patterns, but individuals as well.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

“This is an enormous shift in paradigm — this will bring the fight to a whole new level,” Sini said. “In some instances, it may make sense to start a case in the state system where we’re able to develop probable cause in an efficient manner while it may take longer to build that federal case.”

The 14-member gang unit includes eight assistant district attorneys and six special investigators. The gang unit will be led by deputy bureau chief Kate Wagner, and the Enhanced Prosecution Bureau will be led by veteran prosecutor Christiana McSloy, who has previously worked on gang cases in Nassau County’s District Attorney’s office.

The assistant district attorneys assigned to the gang unit will be on call on a rotating basis. and available around the clock for when police need assistance or advice. One of the prosecutors speaks Spanish.

The district attorney’s office also announced a partnership with Suffolk County Crime Stoppers, which will still allow community members to send in tips on gang activity that, if leads to an arrest, offers cash rewards up to $5,000.

The new program was announced just over a week after President Donald Trump (R) made mention of MS-13 in his State of the Union address. He cited the rash of gang killings as reason for America to change its immigration laws. MS-13 activity in Suffolk also inspired the president to visit the Brentwood Suffolk Police Department Academy campus during summer 2017 in which he addressed a crowd of officers.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon speaks during a media event Feb. 9 at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. Photo by Kevin Redding

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon (D-Lake Grove) has only been in office for six weeks but he’s wasting no time working on the issues he campaigned on and bringing change to his new environment.

“Every single day since I’ve started, I wake up very enthused and energetic to get to work,” Toulon said during a media roundtable discussion he hosted Feb. 9 at Yaphank Correctional Facility. “I want to break down the barrier between law enforcement and our community — I want residents to know who their sheriff is.”

Since Jan. 1, Toulon, a former Rikers Island corrections officer and captain, has visited five school districts across the county, from Huntington to Bay Shore, to speak with students about bullying, vaping, opioid use and gangs as part of a long-term initiative to, in his own words, “get to the kids before they get to me.” A more thorough “listening tour” will be held across local high schools during which Toulon will meet with specific students who face drug- and gang-related problems.

“I told him, ‘You’ve done more in six weeks than I’ve ever seen anyone take office do.’”

— Steve Kuehhas

“I am going to be very tough on crime,” he said. “I will, as I did in New York City, go after gang members and those distributing drugs illegally and I encourage the community’s support.”

He said he is in the process of creating an intelligence-gathering system within the correctional facility similar to one established in the gang unit at Rikers Island to help outside law enforcement partners, including District Attorney Tim Sini (D), track down criminals and better prevent and solve crimes. As part of the system, information will be  gathered from inmates through interviews, phone calls, visits and social media interactions that occurred before incarceration, with a focus on targeting particular crimes in certain towns and jurisdictions.

He said he will also be implementing a re-entry program for inmates leaving the jail focused on rehabilitation and counseling.

“We’re all in this together and that individual that’s in his cell today may be in Target tomorrow buying something,” he said. “So I want to make sure we treat everyone with fairness and respect, and assist them in keeping their dignity. I feel confident that, after four years, we are going to make a big difference in a lot of people’s lives by deterring individuals from joining gangs, reducing this epidemic involving prescription drugs and [reduce] the high rate of recidivism.”

Toulon said he is adamant about taking politics out of the sheriff’s office, insisting he will not be accepting any political contributions and that all employees will be evaluated solely on attendance and work performance.

He has already met with various members of his staff, and inmates in the housing area, to address any issues they may have faced in the past. In light of the nationwide #MeToo movement, he said he will be meeting with female deputy sheriff’s, correctional officers and non-uniform staff members to create a more open environment when it comes to addressing issues of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Inside the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. File photo by Kevin Redding

While he admits to having a different management style than his predecessor, former sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C), Toulon said he is pleased so far by the way Suffolk’s two jails operate and will be holding onto many of DeMarco’s implementations.

This includes a controversial policy change in December 2016 to detain undocumented immigrants who have been arrested in Suffolk County, and are eligible to be released pending a trial, at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents so they can begin the deportation process. Before DeMarco implemented the change, the county needed a judge’s order, or warrant, to hold onto someone wanted by federal immigration officials.

At the time, DeMarco expressed concerns about the impact on public safety that could come from releasing immigrants who committed crimes back into their communities.

“ICE will stay in this jail,” Toulon said. “It’s a hot button topic, but my number one job is to keep the community safe. Looking at local charges of all undocumented inmates, these are really horrific crimes — if done by anybody. We’re talking about sexual assault, robberies, burglaries.”

Current Undersheriff Steve Kuehhas, a former bureau chief for the district attorney’s office who became second in command to DeMarco in 2016, is the only past employee of the office who will be interviewed for undersheriff in the new administration as Toulon seeks “an infusion of new and objective ideas.”

Kuehhas said he’s beyond impressed with the job Toulon has done so far.

“I told him, ‘You’ve done more in six weeks than I’ve ever seen anyone take office do,’” he said. “I know because I’m at his side all the time and the work is constant, which I love. It’s always busy. And this is just the beginning. He’s very honest when he says he wants to be transparent and always available to the public.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco was honored for his impact surrounding gang violence and rehabilitation during Council For Unity’s annual Champions for Children Gala Nov. 9. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

In 2006, a year after he was elected Suffolk County sheriff, Vincent DeMarco took a huge risk. In an effort to reduce gang violence in the Riverhead correctional facility, DeMarco brought a seemingly ill-fated program into the jail where rival gang leaders and members — Bloods, Crips, MS-13, Latin Kings and Aryan Brotherhood — gather in a room to share stories, make peace and help one another escape a life of crime. In doing so, Riverhead became the first county jail in the nation to embrace Council for Unity, a nonprofit founded in Brooklyn in 1975 to keep gang activities out of schools and communities and replace a culture of despair with a culture of hope. The newly-appointed sheriff’s gamble quickly paid off.

Robert DeSena, Vincent DeMarco, Alex Bryan and Butch Langhorn were recognized for their work. Photo by Kevin Redding

In a matter of months, DeMarco and correctional facility members watched the entire jail system turn around, as inmates who came to the prison as enemies began to form friendships through their similar experiences. The men, many of whom are imprisoned for violent behavior and drug dealing, find careers after they’ve served their sentences thanks to job and education opportunities offered in the program.

Inmate population and the rate of recidivism at Riverhead are now at an all-time low and the jail serves as a model for other correctional facilities statewide. The Riverhead Police Department has since developed its own companion anti-gang program with the organization.

“DeMarco has changed the dynamic in that facility and has created hope for inmates who live without hope,” said Robert DeSena, president and founder of Council For Unity, who met with DeMarco and his staff to pitch the radical concept in February 2006. “He has a tremendous social conscience and his perception of incarcerated people is atypical. He saw they had the capacity to be reclaimed and he went with it.”

DeSena and others involved in the program, including ex-gang members, honored DeMarco for his significant impact surrounding these criminals’ rehabilitation during Council For Unity’s annual Champions for Children Gala at the Garden City Hotel Nov. 9.

“I had this smirk on my face as if to say to ‘this guy is nuts. You’re going to get Crips and everybody together Kumbaya-ing? That’s not happening here. But Sheriff DeMarco is somebody who’s willing to take a chance. And let me tell you, it was worth a chance. I love this man.”

— Butch Langhorn

The annual event aims to celebrate public figures on Long Island active in the reduction of gang violence in society. DeMarco, who has served as sheriff for 12 years and decided earlier this year he would not seek a fourth term, was on the short list of honorees alongside Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas and Council for Unity alumnus Dr. James Li.

He received a plaque referring to him as a visionary, reformer and humanitarian “for creating a climate of hope and possibility for the inmates in his charge.”

While introducing DeMarco to receive his honor, Butch Langhorn, assistant to the sheriff who oversees the Council For Unity sessions at the jail, recalled the first meeting he and DeMarco had with DeSena.

“While we were listening, I had this smirk on my face as if to say to ‘this guy is nuts,’” Langhorn said. “You’re going to get Crips and everybody together Kumbaya-ing? That’s not happening here. But Sheriff DeMarco is somebody who’s willing to take a chance. And let me tell you, it was worth a chance. I love this man.”

During his 2005 campaign, DeMarco advocated for more programs that aimed to work with inmates and provide opportunities to change their lives. This came in response to a New York State mandate at the time to build a new $300 million correctional facility in Suffolk as the county was pushing 1,800 to 2,000 inmates per day. He was determined to not only lower the population, but make sure the inmates were working toward a goal beyond bars.

“I thought, this is corrections and we’re supposed to correct their behavior,” DeMarco said at the podium. “The facility isn’t about warehousing people and just putting them back into the same situation they came from.”

Although he admitted being skeptical of the idea of intermingling gang members at first, fearing it would only lead to more violence, the sheriff said he left the meeting with DeSena fully on board.

Mario Bulluc, a former MS-13 gang member, went trough the Riverhead jail program and spoke during the gala. Photo by Kevin Redding

“He did this Jedi mind trick on me and I was spun around,” DeMarco said laughing. “I just kept thinking, ‘this could work, this could work.’ It was the right thing to do and we’ve come a long way. A couple people who went through the program are out now and they’re getting paychecks, they’re married. [The program] got them out of gang culture. That warms my heart and makes it all worthwhile for me. I know we’ve helped change people’s lives, so this is a big honor for me. You always seem to remember the first and last thing you did in a position and Bob was the first meeting I ever took and now there’s this. It’s a nice little cap off.”

Mario Bulluc, 22, who was an MS-13 leader when he was a student at Riverhead High School and now serves as an employee of the council, sought refuge in the program after countless close calls with death and time spent in the Riverhead jail. He now devotes his life to helping kids get out of gangs.

“Council For Unity saved my life — DeMarco and DeSena are the greatest men I’ve ever met,” said Bulluc, who joined the infamous gang when he was 14. “They try and get to the root of our problems and help us see we are the same people no matter our race, gang, or gang colors. If I can change, anybody can.”

Alex Bryant, a retired corrections officer at Riverhead and a Council For Unity advisor, said the council was put to the test in the correctional facility and has been proven to be life-changing. He pointed to DeMarco’s leadership as the reason for its success.

“I’ve been under several sheriffs in my 30-year tenure in the field,” Bryant said. “DeMarco is by far the best. He is progressive and eons ahead of most sheriffs across the state of New York.”

Republicans Phil Boyle and Larry Zacarese and Democrat Dan Caroleo are running for Suffolk County sheriff. Photos from left, from Phil Boyle, Larry Zacarese and Suffolk Democratic Chairman Richard Schaffer

Three candidates are currently in the race to become Suffolk County sheriff this November. State Sen. Phil Boyle (R-East Islip), career law enforcer Larry Zacarese (R), Boyle’s Republican primary challenger, and retired New York City police officer Dan Caroleo (D) are each hoping to inherit the position held for 12 years by Vincent DeMarco (R), who announced in May his decision not to seek a fourth term. He declined to comment on his decision.

Boyle, 55, of Bay Shore, who was elected to the New York Senate in November 2012 after serving 16 years as a state assemblyman, was endorsed for sheriff by the Suffolk Conservative Party in March and was backed by both the Republican and Independent parties soon after.

If elected, Boyle, a stepfather of two, said he wants to run the sheriff’s office in the most cost-effective manner possible, promote people based on merit rather than politics and halt the rise of drug overdoses and gang violence. He recently co-sponsored a bill to ban the sale of machetes to minors, the weapon of choice for MS-13 gang members.

The senator, who chaired and helped create the state Senate’s Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction in 2013 to stamp out the growing drug problem, pointed to his active involvement pushing law enforcement issues in Albany as significant qualifiers.

Under the task force, 18 hearings were held across the state, which led to 11 prevention, treatment and enforcement measures passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

When it comes to immigration issues, Boyle said he disagrees with how DeMarco has run the jail.

“I work closely with federal immigration agents to make sure any individuals housed in the Suffolk County jail that agents may want to interact with due to immigration status have access to that,” Boyle said. “DeMarco, for a while, made the jail a sanctuary jail, in my opinion, and I’m definitely not going to allow that to happen.”

Zacarese, 43, of Kings Park, who is currently the assistant chief of  the Stony Brook University police, said he’s looking forward to the primary. Zacarese and his “army of volunteers” are currently gathering 2,000 signatures in order to run. Confident he’s not just another choice, but the better choice, for the top law enforcement job, Zacarese outlined his 25-year law enforcement career.

He started as a Holbrook volunteer fireman at 17, went to paramedic school, then began to work in the NYPD as a patrol officer, canine handler and tactical paramedic. He became a sergeant, then deputy chief fire instructor at the Suffolk County Fire Academy and an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Stony Brook University.

For four years, while working at Stony Brook by day, Zacarese pursued his shelved passion, attending law school by night. He is currently admitted to practice law in the state.

“My wife tells me I’m the biggest underachiever she knows,” the father of four said, laughing. “I’ve worked really hard rounding out all of the areas that are pertinent to the office of sheriff, which is much more than just the person who oversees the correctional facilities.”

He said, if elected, his main priority is the opioid crisis.

“We really need to take a better look at the prevention and collaboration between addiction programs and not-for-profits, as well as how we can influence treatment while people are being incarcerated,” he said. “It’s about [providing] help while they’re in jail so when they return to their communities, they have started on the path to recovery.”

Suffolk County Democratic Committee Chairman Richard Schaffer, campaign manager for Caroleo, 62, of North Babylon, who was unavailable for comment, said the former New York City police officer, director of security at the North Babylon School District and current member of the district’s school board has, “a wealth of experience, he’s well-rounded and I think he can work cooperatively with, and continue, what County Executive Steve Bellone (D), Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini, and DeMarco have laid out — making sure we continue to drive down jail population.”

According to Schaffer, “Caroleo feels he has a great deal of public safety experience” that he could bring to the sheriff’s department.

Nikko Kimzin and Sam Wolf in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Charles J. Morgan

When dance master Jerome Robbins inspired Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim to come up with “West Side Story,” they in turn went to The Bard for his “Romeo and Juliet,” morphing the Guelphs and Ghibellines — that’s the Montagues and Capulets of Verona — into the street gangs, the Jets and Sharks. The “star-crossed lovers” became Tony and Maria. This gift to musical theater hit the boards at the Engeman two weeks ago, and the boards are still rattling.

Zach Trimmer and Samantha Williams in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro
Zach Trimmer and Samantha Williams in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

The entire production is built around dance. The pirouettes, arabesques and jetes were neatly comingled with the modern interpretive method to produce a mathematically perfect, yet emotionally penetrating terpsichorean feast.

At the head of all this was the choreography skills of Jeffry Denman and his two assistants Lauren Cannon and Trey Compton, who also acted as fight choreographer. This talented team gave the audience a night of dance the excellence of which your scribe has not seen in his near decade of writing “criticism.”

They say that the “devil is in the details” but not in this production. Imagine if you will a six-foot-high chain link fence running from upstage center down to stage left … suggesting urban schoolyards. This “prop” was climbed on, jumped on and over by male dancers of the Jets and Sharks in their attempts to escape … in tempo. They actually scaled the fence, landing on the other side on the beat — an incredible act of choreography.

Overall direction was in the always capable hands of Igor Goldin (“The Producers,” “Evita”). If one prescinds from the dance numbers, his blocking and interpretation efforts were carried through with exemplary professionalism.

Outstanding among the dancers were Scott Shedenhelm of the Jets and Karli Dinardo in the role of Anita. Shedenhelm was at his best in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” by far the funniest and most clever number in the show. Dinardo scored talent-wise in “America.”

The leads were handled skillfully by Zach Trimmer as Tony and Samantha Williams as Maria. Both have fittingly tender voices; he a more lyrical tenor, she a mellow, yet strong soprano. They excelled as the star-crossed lovers.

The leader of the Jets, Riff, was played by Sam Wolf who pits himself and his gang against Bernardo, played by Nikko Kimzin and his Sharks. The battles of Sharks vs. Jets is the dance armature of the play, and these two lead their factions brilliantly in dancing, acting and singing.

Among the musical numbers, the “Jet Song” really set the theme of pride and struggle. “Dance at the Gym” by the whole company brought out the animosity that almost erupted in violence. The tender “Tonight” by Wolf and Williams presented the balcony scene in all its romance. The mordant “America” that also showcased the patent talent of Ashley Perez Flanagan as Graciela, hit hard musically at the state of society in both the USA and Puerto Rico.

From left, Victoria Casillo, Tori Simeone,Samantha Williams and Ashley Perez Flanagan in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro
From left, Victoria Casillo, Tori Simeone,Samantha Williams and Ashley Perez Flanagan in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

Trimmer and Williams also performed romantically in “One Hand, One Heart.” And there was that Officer Krupke number that was most memorable.

The cast also included Mike Baerga, Josh Bates, Christian Bufford, Mark T. Cahill, Nick Casaula, Victoria Casillo, Joey Dippel, Jon Drake, Roy Flores, Eric Greengold, Joan Heeringa, Melissa Hunt, Gregory Kollarus, Leer Leary, Rick Malone, Ashley Marinelli, Kelly Methven, Kaitlin Niewoehner, Joseph Rosario, Tori Simeone and Marquez Stewart who all did a fabulous job.

Piercing live music was led by James Olmstead on keyboard with assistance from Craig Coyle; Robert Dalpiaz and Joel Levy on reeds; the indomitable Joe Boardman on trumpet with Steve Henry and Pete Auricchio; Brent Chiarello and Frank Hall on trombone; bass was Russell Brown with the reliable Josh Endlich on percussion. This ensemble was at its best in the staccato numbers of both Jets and Sharks such as “Dance at the Gym” and especially in “The Rumble.”

The Engeman spares no opposition when it produces a massive piece of entertainment like “West Side Story.”

All elements of the production including costume design by Tristan Raines, set design by DT Willis, lighting by Zack Blane and sound design by Laura Shubert were masterfully integrated into a sophisticated, articulated and authentic whole.

Many critics a few years back tried to see a “social significance” dimension latent in this show. On TV one described it as “… a slice of New York life.” Nonsense, of course. It was Shakespeare with a life of its own as true musical theater.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present evening performances of “West Side Story” on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and matinees on Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 8. Tickets are $74 on Saturday evenings, $69 all other performances. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

This version corrects the spelling of Jeffry Denman’s name.

Cops: Two gang members arrested

Wesley Erickson. Photo from SCPD
Wesley Erickson. Photo from SCPD
Wesley Erickson. Photo from SCPD

Suffolk County police say they arrested two gang members after searching a Huntington home on Thursday and uncovering drugs and loaded weapons.

Police executed a search warrant at the home, on Cedar Drive in Huntington, and investigators seized a loaded .40 caliber Smith and Wesson semiautomatic handgun, cocaine, marijuana, cash, digital scales and an assortment of drug packaging equipment, cops said in a statement. The drugs had a street value of more than $3,000.

Wesley Erickson, 31, a resident of the home, was charged with second-degree criminal possession of a weapon, two counts of third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance, two counts of third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, two counts of second-degree criminal use of drug paraphernalia and unlawful possession of marijuana.

Andre Knox. Photo from SCPD
Andre Knox. Photo from SCPD

Andre Knox, 37, of Huntington Station, was charged with third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance.

Erickson and Knox, who police said are both members of the Old Station Soldiers gang, were held overnight at the 2nd Precinct and are scheduled for arraignment at First District Court in Central Islip on Sept. 11.

The police units involved included Narcotics Section detectives, 2nd Precinct Special Operations Team detectives, Criminal Intelligence Bureau detectives, and officers from the 2nd Precinct Gang Unit, Emergency Service Section and Canine Section. In a statement, Cops said the execution of the search warrant was “part of the Suffolk County Police Department’s continuing enforcement efforts in the Town of Huntington.”

Attorney information for the pair was not available on Friday morning.

Eric Schell and Faith Ahmed in a scene from ‘West Side Story’ at the SCPA. Photo from the SCPA

By Charles J. Morgan

About an eon ago your scribe was watching a TV talk show on the family’s round screen box on which a participant referred to “West Side Story” as a “slice of New York life.” Another participant, the great Robert Morley, snorted, “Ectually, old boy, it’s Romeo and Juliet.” Morley was right, and the Playbill at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Art’s opening really was the Bard’s opus with full credit put to music, and not just music but Broadway music and dance.

With a team featuring Arthur Laurent’s book, Leonard Bernstein’s music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ choreography, success was all but secure. In SCPA’s effort it was secured in Smithtown.

Direction was by Jordan Hue who, facing the challenge of a massive cast, showed his craftsmanship in blocking and interpretation. Each Jet and each Shark were real tangible creatures thanks to Hue’s disciplined creativity.

The show is practically all choreography, and thanks to the genius of the indefatigable Melissa Rapelje, excellently performed execution was the armature of the show. She faced the off-beat accents, the dissonances and the diversity of rhythms undaunted. Her skills with interpretive, modern, Latin and even ballet were never more displayed.

Coalescing with the dancing and singing was the superb live music led by Melissa Coyle on keyboard with conductor Craig Coyle on piano. Jim Waddell was outstanding on drums. The number “Cool it!,” performed by the Jets, was accompanied by Waddell using only the sizzling hi-hats. Craig Lindsey and Bob Dalpiaz handled extremely competent reeds. Jill Boardman was on violin and Russ Brown’s bass anchored all the intricate changes of rhythm easily. Finally, Joe Boardman’s trumpet reached aesthetically ethereal heights … as usual.

The two “star-crossed lovers” were Eric Schell as Tony and Faith Ahmed as Maria. Schell’s tenor and Ahmed’s soprano melded smoothly in both duet and solo. In the “balcony” (fire escape) scene their “Tonight” was a truly velvet love song while Schell’s rendition of  “Maria” was lovingly rendered. Ahmed also exhibited obvious talent in “I Feel Pretty.”

In a choreographed dream sequence Courtney Braun sang a solo “Somewhere There’s a Place” with both charm and power delightfully linked. Justin Albinder stood out as the doomed Bernardo. As “Action” Bobby Montaniz leads the Jets in a hilarious mockery of the sadistic Officer Krupke. Some of the lines are quite dated: (“…my mother pushes tea…), yet Montaniz is the key to the humor of it all.

In addition to choreographer, Rapelje also played the role of the second lead, Anita. Her drive, verve and singing while leading the girls all keyed to a spicy rendition of “Puerto Rico” like a dish of asopao jibaro.

Add the intricate lighting by Chris Creevy, the massive, flexible set design by Timothy Golebiewski and the wonderful costumes by Ronald Green III and you have a wonderful evening of live theater.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St., Smithtown will present “West Side Story” through Aug. 30. Tickets are $35. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

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.”

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