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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.

Brig. Gen. Richard Sele speaks on the importance of treating veterans with care. Photo by Alex Petroski

In Suffolk County, veterans who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law now have a rehabilitation resource in a peer setting.

Veterans returning home from military service abroad often struggle assimilating into everyday civilian life. Suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional difficulties, some land in prison — for crimes such as those related to substance abuse — because of difficulty coping with the transition.

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C) announced the Incarcerated Veterans Re-Entry Initiative at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank last week. DeMarco spearheaded the new initiative along with Suffolk County Legislator Bill Lindsay (D-Holbrook), Judge John Toomey of the county’s Veterans Treatment Court, and veteran mentors from the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 11.

A block of cells, also known as a pod, within the correctional facility will now be comprised completely of veterans, who will have access to mentors and other services provided by the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center and others, as well as the added benefit of being around others with similar backgrounds and experiences.

“I don’t know of any population of citizens that we would rather have reintegrated into our communities and into our society.”
—Thomas Croci

According to the sheriff, about 8 percent of inmates in the United States have served in the military. And there are about 174,000 military veterans living on Long Island alone.

DeMarco said in an interview after the event that Vietnam veterans have been approaching the sheriff about establishing a dedicated jail pod for many years, similar to what has been done for the adolescents who are separated from the rest of the jail population, but the county’s overcrowded facilities made it a challenge.

“Veterans who have served our country and have been honorably discharged, the lowest point of their lives [is] if they get incarcerated,” DeMarco said, adding that the program will focus on getting incarcerated veterans treatment through various nonprofits for PTSD, addictions or any other mental health problems their experiences in the service contributed to.

“I think we owe that to them. They put their lives on the line for us.”

Brig. Gen. Richard Sele was the keynote speaker and said it is important to treat these veterans with sympathy.

“As soldiers, in addition to the wide range of regulations and policies that we follow, we hold our soldiers accountable to values — very high values,” Sele said. “As a leader and someone who has commanded at various levels, I’ve done so in a very firm and fair manner. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that you also have to show compassion. You can still be firm and fair and show compassion.”

Ralph Zanchelli, of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 11, has been visiting jails on Long Island to serve as a mentor to veterans for about 16 years, and he spoke on behalf of the group.

“Housing veterans together is so very, very important,” he said. “They will be able to communicate with each other and support each other. We should never forget, when someone serves the country they sign a blank check, pledging to protect and serve the people of the United States of America, willing to give up their lives — and many have.”

“Veterans who have served our country and have been honorably discharged, the lowest point of their lives [is] if they get incarcerated.”
—Vincent DeMarco

New York State Sen. Thomas Croci (R-Sayville) spoke about the importance of rehabilitating returning soldiers with mental health issues.

“I don’t know of any population of citizens that we would rather have reintegrated into our communities and into our society,” he said. “These are exactly the people that we want back in our communities, running our businesses, sharing their experiences in school as teachers, and in law enforcement.”

DeMarco addressed the possible criticism that everyone should be held accountable for breaking the law without preferential treatment.

“They’re being held accountable for their crimes, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “They have to go to court. They’re going to be charged. They’re going to be sentenced. They’re not getting off easy. We’re just giving them a better place and services while they’re incarcerated.

DeMarco likened this jail block to a similar one established in 2011 for 16- to 22-year-olds, which included rehabilitative efforts and mentoring. He said the incarcerated population from that demographic has dropped 75 percent since then.

Christopher Foster mugshot from the DA's office

A Long Island man has been convicted of beating his month-old son to death and faces up to 25 years in prison.

According to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, a jury convicted the 32-year-old Kings Park man of first-degree manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child four years after the boy, who was 43 days old, was killed.

The defendant, Christopher Foster, was found not guilty of second-degree murder.

The DA’s office said in a press release that an autopsy showed infant Jonathan Hertzler had suffered a fractured skull, four broken ribs and bruises on his face. When he died on Oct. 11, 2011, his fatal injuries had been caused by multiple blows.

Clarissa Hertzler, the boy’s mother, testified that Foster often became angry when the baby cried, the DA’s office said, and the infant “was a source of constant aggravation.”

According to the DA’s office, Assistant District Attorney Dana Brown told the jury that the night the baby died, Foster was the last person to hold him. She said Foster called his boss — not 911 — to report Jonathan was not breathing.

First-degree manslaughter is a Class B felony, and is defined as occurring when an adult intends to cause physical injury to someone younger than 11 years old and “recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of serious physical injury … and thereby causes the death of such a person,” the DA’s office said.

Foster was remanded to the county jail and will be sentenced on Sept. 8. He faces up to 25 years in state prison.

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