Top 11 Long Island News Stories of 2011

Cover52MainScroll1. LI SERIAL KILLER Last December when four young women were found dead in Gilgo Beach, fears of a serial killer at large shocked the region. The body count along Ocean Parkway rose to 10 this spring after police found the remains of four more women—one dumped 15 years ago—a toddler believed to be a daughter of one of them and a man in women’s clothing. Only five women have been identified, all prostitutes. The Suffolk district attorney recently blasted the outgoing police commissioner for telling the media all were slain by the same killer—not at least three separate killers, as they had previously agreed. And on the anniversary of discovering three of the first victims, police found a dead prostitute nearby whose disappearance sparked the initial searches. Police believe she accidentally drowned, but her family thinks it was foul play. Either way, Suffolk’s largest-ever homicide investigation is sure to see more twists.

2. STEVE LEVY OVERTHROW Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy looked like he had it made in the shade. With more than $4 million in his campaign war chest, the newly minted Republican began the year as the clear frontrunner in his quest for re-election. But on March 24, Levy made an amazing announcement: He said he would not run; instead, he would turn over his finances to District Attorney Tom Spota because “questions have been raised concerning fundraising through my political campaign.” The questions have yet to be answered by either Levy or Spota, prompting us to call it “a bloodless coup.” As Pine Barrens Society President Dick Amper put it: “Maybe we should have sent Spota to Libya because he seems able to obtain regime change without firing a shot!”

3. NIFA TAKEOVER To hear Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano back in January, his budget was indeed balanced, not some $176 million in the hole. The trouble, he said, was that “they” wouldn’t believe him. “They” were the six members of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, commonly referred to as NIFA, a New York State watchdog agency created in 2000 to monitor the county’s finances when Nassau was nearing bankruptcy. Earlier this year NIFA voted to impose “a control period,” effectively taking command of Nassau’s budget. NIFA can’t raise taxes, but it can freeze wages and approve borrowing. The rest is up to Mangano, who seems to have grown accustomed to their ways because he doesn’t seem to mind the slings and arrows of NIFA’s Conservative Party member, George Marlin, who took to quoting T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men,” when referring to Mineola.

4. LONG ISLAND BUS It’s been a long ride but like all things, there comes an end of the line. For Long Island Bus, which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has operated in Nassau for 38 years, the last stop is Dec. 31. Starting on Jan. 1, Veolia Transportation, a private company based in Illinois and owned by a French consortium, will take the keys from the county. The buses will be renamed—and repainted—the Nassau Inter-County Express (aka NICE). The next privatization battle has already started but will undoubtedly unfold throughout 2012: Mangano’s controversial $1.3 billion plan to sell or lease part or whole of Nassau’s sewer system. Veolia’s got a stake in that fight, too.

5. NASSAU VETERANS MEMORIAL COLISEUM REFERENDUM Nassau Executive Ed Mangano’s plan for county taxpayers to finance a $400 million renovation of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, home to the New York Islanders, came to a screeching halt Aug. 1 when voters rejected the proposal through a much-hyped referendum. The scheme was the latest attempt to resurrect development of the long-troubled Nassau Hub following the all-but-declared death of multimillionaire/Islanders owner Charles Wang’s ill-fated Lighthouse project last year. Mangano’s initiative divided the Island between supporters—hockey fans and labor unions who desperately sought the work—and residents tired of paying the second-highest property taxes in the nation who later had to pay more than $2 million to hold the failed vote. Whether the team will stay on Long Island when their lease is up in 2015 remains uncertain.

6. NASSAU POLICE CRIME LAB Shuttered in February by Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano at the behest of District Attorney Kathleen Rice following a scathing report in December that blasted the police crime lab for gross noncompliance with national accreditation standards—requirements crucial to ensure the validity of its critically sensitive tests and analysis on everything from narcotics and fingerprints to blood work and ballistics—the scandal over who knew what and when remains an open wound. Taxpayers continue to lose $100,000 per month for outsourced testing, while thousands of cases are still under review. A November report by state Inspector General Ellen Biben has sparked more questions than answers.

7. MEDFORD MASSACRE Long Island had become complacent to its epidemic of heroin and prescription medication abuse when unemployed 33-year-old Army veteran David Laffer walked into his neighborhood Medford pharmacy and gunned down four people on Father’s Day while stealing thousands of the powerful painkillers that he and his wife were hooked on. Slain were a pharmacist, his 17-year-old assistant days away from graduating high school, a grandfather planning his 50th wedding anniversary and a young mother of two who was buried in the wedding dress she had recently picked out. Laffer was captured days afterward along with his 29-year-old wife, Melinda Brady, and both later pleaded guilty. He’s now serving five consecutive terms of life in prison. She got 25 years for robbery, not having known her husband was going to kill anyone. All of which proved a hefty price to pay for the public to finally wake up to the severity of the addiction crisis.

8. POLICE DEATHS  This past year proved especially deadly for those in law enforcement on Long Island. In February, Nassau County police highway patrolman Michael Califano was killed when a truck driver slammed into his patrol car while he was conducting a traffic stop on the Long Island Expressway. A month later, Geoffrey Breitkopf, a plainclothes Bureau of Special Operations officer with Nassau police, was accidentally shot and killed by an MTA police officer at a Massapequa Park crime scene. Hour later, NYPD officer Alain Schaberger, an East Islip native, was killed when a suspect allegedly pushed him down a flight of stairs in Brooklyn. And just this month, another NYPD officer, Peter Figoski of West Babylon, was shot and killed while chasing a burglary suspect in Brooklyn.

9. HURRICANE IRENE  After reaching mammoth Category 3 status while churning the Caribbean and downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it slammed into Long Island on Aug. 28, Hurricane Irene wrought massive destruction up and down the Eastern seaboard, ringing up a total price tag estimated at more than $7 billion—$1 billion for New York State alone. About half of the Long Island Power Authority’s 1.1 million customers lost electricity when strong winds knocked down trees and power lines, blocking streets and roads. Some remained in the dark for a week. Torrential rains caused flooding across the North and South Shore, overwhelmed Nassau sewage plants and prompted evacuations south of Merrick Road. Despite the limited destruction, it seems LI is still overdue for The Big One.

10. SAT CHEATING SCANDAL It all started with a high school rumor. A Great Neck High School North teacher overheard some students talking about classmates who paid a college student to take their SATs for them. Administrators later found academic inconsistencies between SAT results and prior grades of some of the students suspected of paying off a nerd-for-hire. Authorities later arrested those students and alleged test-takers, who are accused of charging up to $3,600 for college-admissions test knowhow. Investigators later found the alleged scam in other schools. A total of 20 currently face charges in the scandal. SAT security is now subject of intense reviews and possible legislation. And odds are the case will continue snowballing. The things kids will do for good grades…

11. LIRR PENSION SCANDAL In October almost a dozen people connected to the Long Island Rail Road were charged in a massive disability pension scandal that involved taking the federal Railroad Retirement Board for a ride over the past decade. Since 2008, the FBI, the New York Attorney General’s office and the MTA’s Inspector General have been investigating why nearly every LIRR employee who requested the federal railroad board for a disability pension got one—on top of their state pension. Hundreds of people “gamed” the system for years, apparently with no shame and no pain, and the doctors were in on the scam. Collectively, the alleged scheme may have cost U.S. taxpayers up to $1 billion.