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Sound Beach

In honor of Memorial Day, Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park hosted its annual Parade of Flags, while VFW’s in Rocky Point and Sound Beach took the time May 27 to memorialize those servicemen and servicewomen lost throughout the years.

Joe Cognitore, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249 in Rocky Point, read the names of 204 people who have died in the service of the U.S., with each set of names said to the sound of a bell. He said the number of names he reads every Memorial Day grows every year.

Over in Sound Beach, the Sound Beach Civic, along with members of the Sound Beach Fire Department, hosted their own ceremony at the Sound Beach Veterans Memorial. Flags flew at half mast, but veterans of each branch of service, from the U.S. Military, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, helped raise each of the flags high to the bright, sunny sky. Members of the Miller Place Boy Scouts of America Troop 204 played an echo version of taps.

“Flowers, memorials and flags at half staff, and the sad notes of taps, as meaningful as they are, they are not enough,” Cognitore said. What we really must do to honor their sacrifice is to live what they died for.”

 

Jeans placed in the Safe Center LI Bethpage headquarters in recognition of National Denim Day which looks to support survivors of sexual violence. Photo by Kyle Barr

This post is in regards to a story published on April 25 about Raymond Radio III, who allegedly ran a sex trafficking ring in his parents’ house located in Sound Beach.

The house on Lower Rocky Point Road that allegedly was used by Raymond Rodio III for sex trafficking is well known in the community for its multitudes of colorful lawn ornaments. For residents of the small North Shore hamlet, with a population barely over 7,500, reactions on social media ranged from disbelief to outrage. 

But sex trafficking has become a growing front for those linked to the illicit drug trade, and according to those who try and work with those who have been victims of sex trafficking, the trade is well-linked to the middle-class suburban areas of Long Island.

The house where Raymond Rodio III allegedly committed acts of sex trafficking. Photo by Kyle Barr

Emily Waters is the director of Human Trafficking Programs at The Safe Center LI, a Bethpage nonprofit that assists the survivors of drug addiction, domestic abuse, child abuse and other issues. She said the issue of sex trafficking has only escalated in recent years, due in part to the opioid crisis that has killed millions across the nation. The center is currently involved with more than 130 human trafficking cases on Long Island, including minors and adults involved in sex and labor, but cases like the one in Sound Beach, she said, are extremely common. 

Waters said these human traffickers, often called pimps, use drug addiction as a means of control of these people, mostly women. She said the average age for these young women is 14 or 15 years old, though she has personally been involved, in the United States, with cases of one as young as 9 years old.

“A victim can look like anyone,” Waters said. “Could be anyone from a high socioeconomic background to somebody who’s living in poverty.”

Worse, sex trafficking has become, in many cases, a more profitable business for criminals. Keith Scott, the director of education at the Safe Center, said a pimp could make upwards of $280,000 a year, and that the practice is often harder to prosecute on the polices’ end.

In 2017, the Suffolk County Police Department, at the time headed by Sini, launched a pilot program to go after human traffickers, according to the DA’s office. In 2018, Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart adopted the Human Trafficking Investigations Unit while the DA launched its own team to track human traffickers.

For years, human trafficking has been growing as an issue. Data from the New York National Human Trafficking Hotline show there have been more than 6,400 calls and more than 2,000 cases of sex trafficking for New York since 2007. The vast majority of these are sex trafficking, and the vast majority are with women.

A 2017 report by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health said the top sex trafficking venues are commercial-front brothels (with legitimate businesses up front and illegal sex work in the back), online advertising venues such as craigslist and hotel- or motel-based venues.

Those who have worked to get people treatment understand the issue has grown on Long Island, people like Joe Czulada, a graduate of the Riverhead school district and Riverhead resident until recently who moved with his wife to Brooklyn, where she operates a funeral home. Czulada worked as an interventionist, helping to put people into recovery for about five years. He saw the way the opioid epidemic was tied to the illicit sex trafficking industry. What he saw was mostly young women from small hamlets, those who were often addicted to drugs, and whose pimps used that addiction as leverage against them.

“It’s prevalent, it’s become ever more prevalent, the whole industry,” Czulada said. “It’s everywhere, in every small town here on Long Island.”

The work was emotionally draining, especially in seeing people go in and out of recovery, often ending up back on the street or back with the people who abused.

Cases of sex trafficking with prostitutes over the age of consent require proving a form of cohesion. Many cases, like the alleged one of Rodio, come in the form of what Waters called the “chemical tether,” or the trauma bonding between a trafficker and victim. The pimps often come in two forms, ones who expressly use violence to maintain control, and the others who first get the trust of girls, often abusing their need for affection if they come from affectionless backgrounds, and then hooking them on drugs in the process. Scott said opioids are often used, especially in modern cases of sex trafficking, because it makes those victims more docile. Stimulants, like cocaine, are also used often. Those sex traffickers use the threat of withholding drugs as cohesion. In many cases, the pimps will effectively brand women with tattoos, which can range from the pimp’s name to words like “whore,” effectively reducing their chance of being able to get employment if they wished to escape the life.

A patchwork quilt hung up in the Safe Center LI’s headquarters in Bethpage. Photo by Kyle Barr

The biggest misconception when it comes to sex trafficking is that it only happens to those in poverty. Cases like the one alleged in Sound Beach show just how tangible the reality is for middle-class areas. And in the age of the Internet, pimps also find these victims through social media, luring in these young women through the promise of affection and drugs. Waters said recruitment also often occurs at schools. Often sex work is sold through online websites, such as craigslist, but she said it also occurs at more than 20 other websites, and even on mobile dating apps such as Tinder.

Beyond that, it takes a campaign of education, starting with local schools, to keep the community informed. It takes people knowledgeable about the warning signs, and a need for people to call the police if they suspect someone is engaged in sex trafficking.

“People may not know what they’ve seen, but they’ve seen something,” said Scott, who grew up in Smithtown and currently lives in Kings Park. He knows the North Shore and said despite its prototypical sense of suburbia and pockets of wealth, residents need to understand what issues creep into the smallest of residential neighborhoods. 

“People often don’t want to realize it’s going on in their own backyard,” he said.

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Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) during a press conference about an alleged sex trafficking operation in Sound Beach. Photo from DA's office.

A Sound Beach man was indicted for allegedly conducting a human trafficking ring out of his parents’ house since at least 2014.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) and the Suffolk County Police Department said Raymond Rodio III, 47, allegedly operated a sex trafficking ring of over 20 women by luring them with the promise of crack cocaine and heroin, and then using that addiction as leverage against them. The man also allegedly kept the women in horrible conditions in his parents’ basement for long stretches of time.

“This is a dangerous and depraved individual,” Sini said in a release. “He kept women locked up in the basement of his parents’ house, using the basement as a dungeon. He preyed on women using their vulnerabilities and their drug dependencies to maintain his control over them. With this indictment, we are putting an end to his criminal operation and his victimization of over 20 women.”

In August 2018, the Suffolk County Police Department identified a suspected victim of human trafficking during a routine traffic stop. An investigation by the Police Department’s Human Trafficking Investigations Unit revealed evidence that the victim had allegedly been forced into sex trafficking by Rodio in the spring of 2018.

Further investigation by county police and the DA’s human trafficking sections revealed Rodio was allegedly trafficking women out of the basement of his parents’ residence, located on Lower Rocky Point Road in Sound Beach, since 2014. The investigation identified more than 20 victims of Rodio’s alleged sex trafficking operation. Rodio was arrested March 18.

Rodio would allegedly post advertisements on websites, including Backpage and Craigslist, promoting prostitution by the victims and would keep either a large percentage or all of the profits of their prostitution, according to the district attorney’s office.

“This man preyed on vulnerable women, using threats and drugs to manipulate them for his own financial gain,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said.

The district attorney’s office said the investigation also revealed evidence Rodio would allegedly occasionally keep victims in the basement for extended periods of time and force them to use a bucket as a toilet because the basement does not have a bathroom. The door to the basement has an exterior lock to which Rodio had the only key. In addition to the house, Rodio also allegedly forced the victims to perform prostitution at various motels throughout Suffolk County.

Rodio is alleged to have used threats of violence to force victims to continue engaging in prostitution on his behalf. He also allegedly provided his victims with heroin and crack cocaine before prostituting them to impair their judgment.

“This creates a vicious cycle that is extremely difficult for victims to break,” Sini said. “That is precisely why my office and the Suffolk County Police Department have shifted the paradigm in how we deal with these cases. We treat the women as victims, because they are.”

Rodio has been charged with seven counts of sex trafficking, a B felony, one count of sex trafficking, a B violent felony, one count of promoting prostitution in the second degree, a C felony, one count of promoting prostitution in the thirddDegree, a D felony, and four counts of promoting prostitution in the fourth degree, an A misdemeanor. If convicted of the top count, Rodio faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

In addition to the sex trafficking charges, the Suffolk County Police Department’s Narcotics Section, in conjunction with the Human Trafficking Investigations Unit, began a subsequent investigation into alleged drug dealing by Rodio. The investigation resulted in Rodio being indicted by the District Attorney’s Office on March 22 and charged with five counts of Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the Third Degree, a B felony.

Rodio was arraigned on the indictment in connection with the alleged human trafficking operation today by Suffolk County Acting Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho. Bail was set at $1 million cash or $2 million bond. He is due back in court May 21.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Daniel Cronin, of the Enhanced Prosecution Bureau’s Human Trafficking Team.

A house located at 55 Shinnecock is torn down by Brookhaven town. Photo by Bea Ruberto

There was once a house on Shinnecock Drive in Sound Beach. Now there is a vacant patch of land and rubble. From the front, it was close to idyllic, featuring a small single-floor cottage, a mason stone exterior, a picket fence and a worn birdbath sitting just behind a fence. 

The house is gone, torn down by the Town of Brookhaven for being a derelict property. Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) said the frontage of the home was beautiful, but everything behind the front, what one couldn’t see from the street, was torn up and run down.

“It was like on a theater stage, the front looked good, but there was nothing behind it,” Bonner said.

A house located at 55 Shinnecock is torn down by Brookhaven town. Photo by Bea Ruberto

The work to take down derelict homes is constant. At the tail end of February, the town had demolished another home on Audrey Street in Miller Place. These vacant and derelict houses have had a menacing moniker affixed to them, zombie homes, and since the 2008 mortgage crisis and subsequent recession, they have become endemic on Long Island. At a Sound Beach Civic Association meeting March 11, Bonner explained the process the town takes to removing these blighted structures and explained the reasons why it’s difficult to repurpose the land after the home is torn down.

Town officials are informed about zombie homes in multiple ways. Residents can call up town hall or contact the council district office directly. Otherwise, Bonner said her office learns about these derelict buildings through interacting with the community at civic meetings or by just driving around the district.

The town sends out a third-party inspector, namely Hauppauge-based engineering firm Cashin, Spinelli & Ferretti LLC, to check on the home and make sure the property is vacant. If not, the house is then put on the vacant home registry, a long list of houses in the town that no longer have legal occupants.

At its annual March 11 state of the town address, Brookhaven town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said more than 250 zombie homes had been demolished since 2014. Bonner said the town currently has approximately 2,000 zombie homes in the process of being demolished by the town.

“When I started, I never thought the town would be in this kind of business,” Bonner said. 

Bonner said her office often gathers information on a derelict property from the Suffolk County Clerk’s office, especially looking at whether the property’s taxes are current, whether there is a mortgage on the property, or whether the land is owned by an LLC. Town employees try to contact the homeowner, who is required to contact the town clerk, pay a fee of $250 and provide a point of contact for the maintenance company. However, this step is especially challenging, as often there are little means of contacting the homeowner, especially if they no longer live in the state and their contact information is not current. It could mean months of work talking to the banks or going through other channels to contact these people.

“When I started, I never thought the town would be in this kind of business.”

— Jane Bonner

If there is a significant number of problems with the property, and if there is no property management company the town can get a hold of, Brookhaven will go in and cut overgrown grass or board and secure the property, though they will only board and secure the first floor and the town does not repair roofs. After the inspection is done the inspector determines whether it meets the threshold for demolition. The inspection will also detail if there is asbestos on the property, which will mandate additional work to contain during demolition.

After the home is recommended for demolition, the town hosts a public hearing on the property. A typical town board meeting could have several of these public hearings for properties all across the town. Occasionally, the homeowner or bank that owns the property will come to the hearings and based on the arguments of the property owner, an extension could be made to allow the owner to fix up the property. Otherwise, the town allows 30 days after the public hearing before a final decision to raze a property is made.

“Occasionally, I think they don’t think we’re serious at the public hearing,” Bonner said. “Sometimes we give them time, other times we tell them they already had their 30 days.”

Brookhaven spokesperson Jack Krieger said the town expects to spend $1.8 million in 2019 on derelict properties, of which $1.2 million is directly related to demolition. The rest of that money is spent on support staff dealing with matters on contacting property owners or taking care of the property. The property owner is responsible for the demolition costs.

The town has two full-time employees who work directly on these derelict properties. Beyond that, each council member is supposed to be involved in the houses within their own district. Bonner said her office will spend a cumulative time of a full eight-hour day each week just dealing with these zombie homes.

Krieger said there have been 35 zombie homes demolished in district 2 since the zombie program began in 2013. That is peanuts compared to the likes of Mastic Beach, a village that had disincorporated in 2016. In that area, the town is dealing with more than 100 known derelict and run-down properties.

“Talk about impacting the quality of life,” Bonner said. “Talk about squatters, talk about drug dealing, talk about impacting your property values — there are a lot of components to it.”

These derelict properties often have issues with animal infestation, break-ins and squatters, which can intensify and lengthen the process of removing the run-down properties. But the biggest roadblock to bringing a house back up to standards might be the lien put on the property. 

“Talk about squatters, talk about drug dealing, talk about impacting your property values — there are a lot of components to it.”

— Jane Bonner

After the town cleans up the property, Brookhaven will often put a lien on that property for the property taxes, either expecting the property owner or the county to pay back the town. In order to buy that property, a prospective buyer must satisfy that lien first, which on the steep end could be as high as $500,000, such as the case with the house on Audrey Street, according to Bonner.

These liens could make buying the now vacant property much harder, often leaving the property vacant for years with minimal means of getting a developer to build on the property with the extra fee coming from the lien. 

“It’s kind of like a cog in the wheel, it gums up the work, it really does,” she said.

Mimi Hodges, a Sound Beach resident, asked why these houses couldn’t be rejuvenated using state loans to rehabilitate them. That, or start community projects in order to buy the property and turn it into housing for homeless veterans or other needy groups, an example of which was a land trust that was recently created in Uniondale by community members.

“To support the character of the community,” Hodges said. “Make it an affordable house.”

Logo from Facebook

The Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce only established its current form less than a month ago, but in that short time it’s already full steam ahead on a number of ambitious projects.

“It’s gangbusters, and it’s a challenge, but we wanted to get something on the map right away,” said John Tochterman, chamber treasurer and the branch and financial services manager for the Teachers Federal Credit Union in Rocky Point.

The chamber hosted its first meeting in August, but already it is planning several events including multiple festivals, expos and golf tournaments. Gary Pollakusky, the president of the new chamber and managing partner of Media Barrel LLC in Rocky Point, said the hamlets of Rocky Point and Sound Beach need a group to champion not only those on the highly trafficked Route 25A, but the businesses on the roads leading to the North Shore.

“The first piece of what we do is bring business into the area and inspire our merchants to do things that are a bit out of the box,” Pollakusky said. “We have to get customers to our different business districts — to our Sound Beach business district and our Route 25A business district.”

The chamber started to come together in January, when Marie Stewart, the owner of Brooklyn Bagels & Café in Rocky Point began gathering local business owners, slowly building the chamber until it formed a new board in March. In June, the chamber incorporated and attained 501(c)(6) chamber status.

In October 2017, the North Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce, which covered businesses from Port Jefferson Station to Wading River, dissolved because the time commitment proved too much for volunteers in such a large coverage area. It was then decided the chamber would split up to take on original shapes, which focused on businesses in just a handful of hamlets.

Pollakusky said the North Brookhaven chamber collapsed because it simply couldn’t reach every nook and cranny of businesses in its coverage area. Now more people are stepping up in local communities to fill the void left behind.

Members of the Port Jefferson area created the Port Jefferson/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, people in the Mount Sinai area established the Mount Sinai-Miller Place Chamber Alliance, and the community in the Shoreham area created Wading River Shoreham Chamber of Commerce.

Jeff Davis, owner of the Rocky Point Funeral Home was part of the North Brookhaven Chamber before it dissolved, and he said the new chamber focusing on the local businesses is heading in the right direction.

“They have all the right ideas — I’m hoping they can pull it off,” Davis said. “We’ve talked about [the fall festival] for years. It takes people who want to get involved to do it.”

Already boasting approximately 40 members, according to Pollakusky, chamber leaders are still looking for new people to fill positions on the board. They are asking local business people to fill positions to help welcome owners to the neighborhood, hold ribbon cuttings, drive membership, find sponsorships and plan events, among others.

“The more the merrier,” said Stewart, who now serves as chamber vice president.

Plans are set for the Fall Festival in the Rocky Point business district Oct. 27. The event will include a children’s costume parade, hayrides, local vendors and demonstrations from the Rocky Point Fire District. After hours, the event will also include a late-night adult-only session including live music, a beer garden and costume contest.

Events are being planned into next year. The chamber hopes to establish a spring festival to be set in Sound Beach next year, along with a senior expo and golf tournament fundraiser. Pollakusky said they were still ironing out the full details for those events.

“There’s all kinds of businesses that need our support, it could be our lawyers, our doctors, our nonprofits, it could be our home-based businesses, our brick and mortar craft merchants, our restaurants, there are many categories of business that need our help,” Pollakusky said. “To look at every category and see how we can support them that is the difference maker in this chamber.”

The chamber is looking for more volunteers and vendors for its upcoming Fall Festival. Contact the chamber through its website, www.rpsbchamber.org.

A popular Sound Beach event for a good cause took place Sept. 22, but this year it was renamed to honor a late friend and participant.

For the sixth time, the Sound Beach Civic Association hosted its pet adopt-a-thon in the parking lot of the Hartlin Inn on New York Avenue, during which representatives from local animal groups and shelters set up shop and push for the adoption of dogs, cats and more looking for permanent homes. During adopt-a-thons past, Sound Beach father-daughter duo Sal and Gina Mingoia provided the musical accompaniment to the event, singing and playing instruments throughout the day. This year, Gina had to perform without her dad, who died after a battle with cancer in 2017. This year and going forward, the event will be known as The Sal Mingoia Pet Adopt-A-Thon.

“Sal loved animals, and everybody loved Sal,” said Bea Ruberto, Sound Beach Civic Association president and organizer of the event. “So we checked with the family to see if it was OK with them. They said great, they loved it, so that’s why we changed the name. And that’s what it’s going to be named from now on.”

Sal Mingoia was described as a gentle, caring soul by civic association member and Sound Beach resident Ernestine Franco.

“Although he’s gone, Sal’s kindness and generosity are not forgotten,” she said.

The event always leads to the adoption of quite a few animals, according to Ruberto, who said this year four cats, three dogs and a guinea pig were adopted, though applications are pending for the adoption of eight more cats and six other dogs. More than $1,100 was raised through donations and auction items, as well as from the sale of digital pet caricatures done on-site at the event by 19-year-old Sound Beach resident Brianna Florio using a drawing tablet. Funds raised were distributed to the animal organizations in attendance.

Ruberto credited volunteers and civic members for helping to set up and execute the event and gave special thanks to Boy Scout Troop 244 for helping to set up. A local band called Random Notes even showed up unexpectedly and offered to take turns with Gina providing music for the event, Ruberto said.

“Over the time that I’ve been involved with this event, I’ve never had to really go looking for people to step up and help — they just show up and offer their time and talent,” Ruberto said.

Sound Beach resident Todd Leighley’s mustache is freckled with gray and his face shows lines of age, but he doesn’t mind. Though his left leg was amputated below the knee after a motorcycle crash in 2009, and now he wears a thick carbon fiber prosthetic, all that matters to him is that he continue the sports he played as a kid, namely skating. He has embarked on a mission to try to get a skate park built in his community.

“I’m fat, middle aged and one legged, and I’m having the time of my life,” Leighley said.

For the past four years Leighley, the 47-year-old emergency services specialist for public electric company Public Service Enterprise Group, has been advocating for the construction of a skate park in the Sound Beach area, which he hopes to call Hawks Nest All Wheel Park. What he has in mind is something to help those kids in the area who aren’t keen to participate in the usual team sports.

“Skateboarding is looked down upon — it’s not embraced and supported like football and lacrosse,” the skateboarder said. “The parks are coming, and they can’t keep fighting it forever.”

When he was 6 years old Leighley said he learned to love skating. He became mired in a culture that conveys freedom: freedom of expression, freedom from problems, freedom to go where you want. His appreciation for the culture deepened when he moved to Hawaii in his 20s and became involved in the surfing scene. It was a continuous part of his life until 2009 when he was involved in a motorcycle crash, suffering compound fractures in his femur, tibia and fibula. The leg had to be removed, and he did not know if he could continue with all his favorite sports from his childhood.

It was around the time shortly after the accident he said he learned, in the Brooklyn Bike Park, which was a different type of skate park, of something called a “pump track,” where riders build momentum through the up and down motion of wheels on a track with several ups and downs, either with a bike or skateboard.

“It’s like a roller coaster, but instead of a roller coaster that would use machinery to pull carts up hill, here you’re using your muscles,” Leighley said. “You’re pumping and using it to get speed. It tricks you into using your muscles.”

He said that type of skate park revitalized his lifelong passion for skating. The transcendent experience of boarding around the block is something he said he wants his community to feel.

While the skater exudes passion from every pore, Leighley has had trouble generating the right type of interest for the project from the community. While there are multiple mountain bike trails in the area and the Shoreham BMX track right behind the Robert S. Reid Community Center, there are very few options for a skateboarder other than sidewalks and roadways, not unless they want to travel many miles to either Riverhead, Amityville or Huntington.

Joseph Mannix, a Copiague social studies teacher, is also a community leader when it comes to the Huntington skateboarding community and has walked the steps Leighley is trying to follow. As a veteran skater who has been boarding since “the clay wheel days” of the 1970s, he is the one chiefly responsible for the East Northport Veterans Park Skate Park. It was built after years of working with his community, starting with skating lessons that eventually built up into clubs and a driving interest of local children, adults and eventually support from the town.

“At [the Greenlawn Skate Park] I started a lessons program and summer camp which became so successful that the town got interested, and they saw how much revenue they were making and how healthy it was,” Mannix said. “I was pushing for those kids who are not so into organized sports, or kids into organized sports who want the personal experience of skateboarding.”

While those parks remain popular, Leighley said he believes a park filled with transitions, pools and quarter pipes can only apply to 20 percent of adrenaline sports enthusiasts because of how daunting they seem to a newcomer. He said a pump track can apply to people of any skill level since riders can take any path at their own pace.

Port Jefferson resident Rachel Whalen, 30, a friend of Leighley’s, said she just got back into skating about seven months ago, and as a single mother raising two children, she wants to have a place near her home where she can exercise along with her kids.

“I would use it, I would want my kids to use it to,” Whalen said.

Despite the setbacks in trying to get the project off the ground, the Sound Beach resident said he has become closer to his community through his skate park campaign. Leighley became involved with the North Shore Youth Council, where executive director of the organization Janene Gentile said he teaches local kids basics in martial arts. While Gentile sees him as a caring man, she said others in the community have been unnerved by his classic skater-rebellion style personality.

“[Leighley] has the personality of a very radical dude, and while he’s trying to temper it, some people get taken aback,” Gentile said. “He’s a radical dude, but he’s caring, compassionate and passionate about his vision.”

Skateboarders agree that tenacity is the foundation of the sport. As long as one keeps at learning a trick, despite its difficulty, eventually any technique can be learned. It’s why Leighley said he will not be giving up on his vision any time soon.

“Kids need hope,” he said. “They need these things, they need these lifelines to pull them up.”

By Kyle Barr

Smithtown volunteers hopped to saving nearly 30 domestic rabbits that were left alone and abandoned in a tick and poison ivy infected stretch of forest last week in Ronkonkoma.

Smithtown-based nonprofit Guardians of Rescue received a tip about the illegally released rabbits and reached out to local animal rescue groups for help. Volunteers spent close to two full days overall, May 27 and 28, capturing 27 rabbits that had been marooned in a forest near the Ronkonkoma train station commuter parking lot. One was found dead in the forest and another died while receiving care.

“These particular rabbit breeds were not suited for the wild,” Robert Misseri, the president of Guardians of Rescue said. “There is no telling how long they would have lasted, but it would have not been long.”

After Misseri got a tip from a local feral cat rescuer, he said he put the call out to several local animal rescue groups including the Sound Beach-based nonprofit Strong Island Animal Rescue League.

Whoever abandoned those rabbits should be ashamed of themselves.”

– Frankie Floridia

The first rabbit that Erica Kutzing, vice president for the Strong Island rescue group, saw when she arrived at the forest was larger than any wild rabbit should have been. It was a Flemish Giant, a huge breed of rabbit known for being extremely calm around humans. Kutzing got down to its level and laid out rabbit feed in a line and the rabbit loped toward her. From behind her, Frankie Floridia, the president of Strong Island rescue, flashed out with a net and caught the rabbit. Kutzing held it as she brought it back to their car. It was nearly as big as a small dog.

“Whoever abandoned those rabbits should be ashamed of themselves,” Floridia said. “They were giving those rabbits a death sentence.

Many of the rabbits found were of different breeds including Lionheads and Flemish Giants. Some had obviously interbred with each other, which makes the rescue groups believe all these animals were held together in only a few small cages.

“Black ones, white ones, gray, brown, there were all different kinds,” Kutzing said. “It was like shopping at Macy’s, you could get any color you wanted.”

Misseri said he suspects the person who abandoned the rabbits might have been breeding them.

Black ones, white ones, gray, brown, there were all different kinds. It was like shopping at Macy’s, you could get any color you wanted.”

– Erica Kutzing

Many of the animals were sick with pneumonia. Others were injured by the cage they were kept in and the rabbits they were caged with, according to Misseri. Several had cysts on their skin and many were suffering from malnourishment. The first rabbit Strong Island rescue captured is currently being nursed back to health, and they have named it André the Giant after the famous French wrestler and actor.

“Once we caught him we were running through the woods, it was just net after net after net,” Kutzing said. “And you have to be careful picking these guys up because if they kick strong enough they’ll break their backs, if they get too frightened they can have a heart attack. They have paper-thin skin so if you handle them wrong you can tear the skin.”

The rescued rabbits have been sent out to multiple animal rescue operations in the surrounding area. Six were taken in by Guardians of Rescue, but all those have already been fostered out. Several more were taken in by Long Island Orchestrating for Nature from Malverne, the Connecticut-based Hopalong Hollow Rabbit Rescue and Queens-based All About Rabbits Rescue.

The Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has put out a $3,500 reward for a person who leads them and authorities to the person who abandoned the animals. Several local animal rescue groups donated money toward that reward, namely Guardians of Rescue, Strong Island Animal Rescue League and Long Island Orchestrating for Nature who  put up $500 each, while the SPCA and All About Rabbits Rescue put up $1,000 each.

This is a sad, pervasive problem in Suffolk County.”

– Vivian Barna

“We at the SPCA take this very seriously, especially in cases of abandonment like this,” Suffolk SPCA President Roy Gross said. “This is a case of abandonment and animal cruelty, and so the person or persons involved in this are up for criminal charges. All that person had to do was to pick up a phone, call any of these organizations and we would have found a home for them, but instead he abandoned them.”

Vivian Barna, who runs All About Rabbits Rescue, took in six of the rabbits, and said that rabbit abandonment on Long Island, especially in Suffolk, is endemic.

“This is a sad, pervasive problem in Suffolk County,” Barna said. “This is about our fourth or fifth recent rescue. We had rescued 25 in Bohemia back in December 2016, another set in Northport not too long ago. These rabbits were just deprived. They had illnesses including upper respiratory problems, intestinal parasites, and these six rabbits are costing us close to $2,500 to give them that care.”

Gross said there have been instances of rabbit abandonment recently not too far from where the rabbits were dumped in Ronkonkoma.

“We had a case just recently of other rabbits dumped in Lake Ronkonkoma,” Gross said. “This may possibly be the same person, but there’s no way right now to be sure.”

All rescue groups mentioned in the story said that if people were interested in fostering the rabbits or wished to donate to call to call and inquire. People inquiring about the rescued rabbits can call the
Guardians of Rescue at 888-287-3864.

The SPCA said that any tips about the person who abandoned the rabbits can be sent to their phone number 631-382-7722. All calls will be anonymous.

Michael O’Brien’s mug shot. Photo from SCPD

Suffolk County police arrested a man who allegedly robbed a Rocky Point bank April 17.

Michael O’Brien entered BNB Bank, located at 75 Route 25A, at approximately 3:25 p.m. April 17, allegedly approached a teller and presented a note demanding cash. The teller complied and the robber fled on foot westbound.

Following an investigation, major case unit detectives located and arrested O’Brien on Glenwood Drive in Sound Beach at 11:10 p.m.

O’Brien, 29, of Sound Beach, was charged with third-degree robbery.

He was held overnight at the 6th Precinct and was scheduled to be arraigned at 1st District Court in Central Islip on April 18.

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The Hartlin Inn co-owner Andrew Streef was named the Friends of St. Patrick's 68th grand marshal. Photo by Kevin Redding

Andrew Streeff likes being a behind-the-scenes kind of person.

For the past 20 years, he has operated out of the kitchen in the back of The Hartlin Inn, a Sound Beach pub and restaurant and community fixture where he serves as chef and co-owner and he’d hoped to keep it that way. He has always been eager to help local school districts and clubs through fundraisers and donations, but never seeks recognition. And, in 2001, when encouraged by his business partner and mentor Richie Hartig to join the Friends of St. Patrick, Streeff was hesitant, despite his lifelong Irish pride and love for the group.

The Hartlin Inn in Sound Beach. Photo by Kevin Redding

“I told him, ‘I’ll do it as long as I don’t have to march up front,’” Streeff said, referring to the group’s annual Miller Place-Rocky Point St. Patrick’s Day parade. In his 17 years with the organization, and being involved in the parade, Streeff has run raffles, sold T-shirts and fed information to the event’s announcer.

“That’s what I really enjoy,” he said. “When the cameras and the politicians come, I’m darting out of the way.”

That all changes March 11 when Streeff leads the nearly three-mile march from the Flying Pig Cafe in Miller Place to Broadway in Rocky Point as grand marshal of the 68th annual parade. This honor is bestowed on longtime, dedicated members of the organization, or those who have proven to be pillars of the community, and Streef “fits both those bills,” according to Friends of St. Patrick president Michael Tatilian.

“He’s very active in our community, a great guy, and, whenever we’ve asked him to help us out with something, he’s always been there,” Tatilian said.

“While Richie would have loved to have led the parade, in my heart I know that he’ll be walking right alongside Andrew.”

— Linda Hartig

But Streeff said he isn’t marching for himself. Instead, he’s accepting the honor in memory of the man who pushed him to join the group in the first place — Hartig, one of the two original owners of The Hartlin Inn; a U.S. Navy veteran, a detective in the Nassau County Police Department, a commodore of the Mount Sinai Yacht Club; and a proud member of the Friends of St. Patrick until his death from a heart attack in 2004 at age 63.

Hartig died before it was his turn to be grand marshal, Streef said.

“Anyone who knew Richie knew this was right up his alley,” he said. “My biggest concern really was asking his wife how she would feel about this if I did it. It turned out she was 100 percent behind it. A lot of people are excited that I’m doing this in Richie’s name.”

Linda Hartig, who joined the restaurant full time as an accountant after her husband’s death, described Streeff as a “standup guy” who would do anything for anybody in the community. She said she was honored by his motivation to march.

“While Richie would have loved to have led the parade, in my heart I know that he’ll be walking right alongside Andrew,” she said. “I’m sure he’s looking down very happy.”

Streeff was born in Queens to a Finnish father and Irish mother, and moved to Sound Beach in 1969 when he was 7 years old. Just a year later, he marched for the first time in the parade as a Cub Scout, later joking that his mother indoctrinated him with the importance of St. Patrick’s Day from day one.

Richie Hartig is the founder of Sound Beach’s The Hartlin Inn. Photo from Linda Hartig

“I think when I was in Catholic school in Queens, with the mandatory uniform on, she made sure that, on St. Patrick’s Day, I had green on somewhere,” Streeff said. “Any time I got a new job growing up, I’d tell the boss, I can work any holiday and any weekend throughout the year except that one Sunday in March.”

Streeff has been in the restaurant business since he was 16 as a student at Miller Place High School. By the time he graduated in 1979, he had been working full time for about a year. He began at the old Nine Doors restaurant in Port Jefferson and picked up different styles of cooking, from a variety of cultures like French and German, as he moved on from one local establishment to next. He eventually found himself working seasonally in Florida’s Palm Beach County for a number of years in the 1990s, until he learned his friend, Linda Sarich, and her business partner, Hartig, bought a restaurant in Sound Beach. The name Hartlin is a combination of Hartig and Linda’s names. Streeff originally offered to help set up their kitchen and menu, but within a matter of months, he became a full partner.

“Having grown up here, it was ideal for me to get involved,” said Streeff, who, since 1997, has taken it upon himself to hire youth in the community with the aim of steering them in the right direction and keeping them out of trouble. “This is a down-home type of family restaurant in a tight-knit community where you wave to strangers. You don’t really see that anywhere else anymore.”

After 40 years in the restaurant industry, and 21 strong years at The Hartlin Inn, Streeff said, “It feels like I’m the typical hometown boy who made good.”

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