Top 14 Long Island Local News Stories Of 2014

Gary Melius
Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius was shot in the head by a masked gunman Feb. 24, 2014 as he sat in his car at the luxury hotel. He then released a video statement regarding the failed attempt on his life. Melius’ assailant is still on the loose. (Video and Screengrab Photo credit: THALER FILMS)

Oheka Shooting
This case is the biggest whodunit to hit Long Island in recent memory. A shooter tried to gun down Gary Melius, the powerful owner of Oheka Castle—the palatial hotel, restaurant, catering hall and frequent film set in Huntington—but Melius survived a gunshot wound to the head in broad daylight as he got into his car at the estate on Feb. 24. Since the wealthy, prolific political donor and Independence Party backer has his fingers in a great many pies across Nassau and Suffolk counties, the rumor mill ran wild with speculation over who might have wanted him dead. Melius couldn’t identify the shooter and says he doesn’t know who would want to execute him. Suffolk County police, who are continuing the investigation, have neither made any arrests nor named any suspects. They have only released a surveillance camera image of a light-colored four-door Jeep Grand Cherokee that was spotted fleeing the scene. Does Maggie Simpson have an alibi?

Islip Parks Dumping
Clockwise from top left: Brett Robinson, Thomas Datre Jr., Ronald Cianciulli, Joseph Montouri Jr., Thomas Datre Sr. and Christopher Grabe.

Islip Dumping Scandal
So much for learning from the plight of the infamous Mobro 400—the garbage barge loaded with Islip trash that became a lesson in waste mismanagement after ports across the hemisphere refused to take its toxic cargo in 1987. A quarter century later, Islip town parks officials allegedly allowed a politically connected contractor to dump tons of toxic debris at parks in Brentwood, Central Islip, wetlands in Deer Park and a veterans housing complex in Islandia. Rallies outside Islip Town Hall became a regular sight. Anthony Senft, the town board member who was liaison to the parks department at the time, was forced to drop out of his Republican bid for a New York State Senate seat. Republican Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci, a Navy reservist who was deployed in Afghanistan when the scandal broke, ran and won that race instead—successfully dodging the task of cleaning up the mess his appointees were accused of making. Six suspects were indicted for alleged environmental crimes. And the investigation is continuing.

Nassau County speed school zone traffic cameras

Speed Camera Debacle
If non-voters ever needed an example of how much their vote counts, this is it. After being hounded everywhere they went by those constituents complaining about how much they hate the school-zone speed cameras, Nassau County legislators repealed the program in December, halfway through its first school year—fearing for their 2015 re-election chances if they didn’t. These were the same lawmakers who requested that New York State legalize the cameras earlier this year. And in their zeal for public safety, they’d launched the program in June. Some residents were mailed multiple $80 tickets for speeding more than 10 miles over the 20 mph school speed limits. Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, a Republican, dismissed the first tickets issued during summer school amid the uproar. Lawmakers then promised to increase signage so drivers would be better warned where the unpopular cameras were. Then Mangano cut down the speed cameras’ hours to just when students enter and leave their school grounds. Less than a week later, the program was repealed. Watching the disaster from across the county line, Suffolk lawmakers nixed their speed camera plans before their scheduled launch in 2015.

Scattered Body Parts
When a woman’s dismembered body was found in a vacant lot on Maple Avenue in Bay Shore in July, some feared that the Long Island Serial Killer had struck again. The case took an even weirder turn when the victim’s head and severed arms were found scattered throughout the village of Hempstead. The victim was later identified as Chinelle Latoya Thompson Browne, a Guyanese immigrant and mother of four, who was reported missing. The suspect, Leah Cuevas, is accused of killing her while posing as the landlord of the Brooklyn apartment building in which the victim lived, following an argument about a power outage over Fourth of July weekend. In court documents, one neighbor reported hearing screams coming from the apartment “like nothing I ever heard before.”

Ronald Bower Freed (From Prison)
It was 25 years in the making, and to a growing number of supporters, 25 years too late. On a drizzly grey morning this past June the 53-year-old father of two from Queens shuffled out of a maximum-security prison several miles south of the Canadian border for the first time without shackles since 1993, when Queens sex crimes detectives arrested him at his job as a security guard in the Douglaston Mall. Bower was then ordered by cops to dress in clothes a number of sex crimes victims say their attacker wore and paraded through up to a dozen lineups until he was pointed out as “The Silver Gun Rapist,” an armed perpetrator who raped and molested women in Queens and Nassau throughout the early 1990s with a silver handgun. Despite his conviction and incarceration for the crimes, the heinous acts continued. Soon thereafter, an FBI agent and Inspector General’s Office investigator uncovered that a New York police officer bearing a striking resemblance to Bower—and who owned a silver handgun, among nearly a dozen other weapons—was the likely culprit. Several judges, despite the evidence, have since disagreed, and thus, as the Press realized while driving Bower home from prison, until he’s fully exonerated, Bower will never truly be free—instead, barely scraping by as a Level Three registered sexual predator.

LI School Districts Immigration Problem
The Hempstead School District’s alleged refusal to enroll at least 34 undocumented or unaccompanied minors this school year sparked New York State to conduct a joint compliance review—and provoked widespread condemnation from civil rights groups. Amid a barrage of criticism, the district opened a so-called “transition school” in the village to help deal with the influx of students. Additionally, the New York Civil Liberties conducted its own review, which found that a dozen LI school districts might be “unlawfully barring” the enrollment of immigrant students. In mid-December, the New York State Board of Regents passed an emergency regulation meant to shed the barriers that prevent undocumented students from enrolling in public schools.

Bruce Blakeman Kathleen Rice

Kathleen Rice Takes McCarthy’s Seat
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, a Democrat, will head to Capitol Hill in January to take over the seat held by longtime U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), who decided not to seek re-election after 17 years in office. Rice won a closer than expected race against Republican Bruce Blakeman in November and had McCarthy at her side when she gave her victory speech at the Garden City Hotel. During her campaign Rice said that she’d continue McCarthy’s fight to stem gun violence and also pledged to support efforts to raise the minimum wage. Rice, Nassau’s first female district attorney, spent eight years in that office, which aggressively prosecuted drunk drivers and uncovered an SAT cheating scandal in Great Neck that led to nationwide changes to test security. McCarthy decided to give up the seat after a long battle with cancer. Rice joins a shrinking minority caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives after Democrats took a beating in the midterms.

New York Islanders sale
New York Islanders John Tavares shoots against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, May 11, 2013. (Photo by Joe Nuzzo)

Islanders Sale Approved; Team Says Farewell to Old Barn
Isles fans have been on thin ice for over a decade. Not only have they had to suffer through several seasons of brutal hockey, but the deeply passionate fan base was also forced to wait breathlessly as owner Charles Wang unsuccessfully tried to keep the franchise at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and even hinted at relocating the team. After several failed bids, Wang finally decided he had had enough and agreed to move LI’s lone professional sports team to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in 2015. Despite the tough luck, there are signs of hope. Wang sold a minority interest in the franchise to Scott Malkin and John Ledecky this year. The duo will maintain minority ownership until 2016, when they take over majority control of the team, thereby reversing roles with Wang. In the waning days of December the Islanders were in second place in the Metropolitan division and third in the Eastern Conference, perfectly positioned to earn a spot in the NHL’s postseason. Things are looking up for the Isles. Too bad it’s all happening while the team is half-way out the door.

LIRR Strike

Long Island Rail Road Strike Averted
It seems like old news now because no one ever actually hit the picket lines, but just imagine the chaos that would’ve unfolded if Long Island Rail Road workers and the MTA hadn’t averted a strike that could’ve stranded upwards of 300,000 daily commuters in July. The searing summer heat coupled with grumpy, decaffeinated straphangers doesn’t quite mix. Thankfully, the crisis was derailed in the nick of time. LIRR unions and the MTA agreed to a 17-percent wage increase over six and a half years for 5,400 LIRR workers who had been without a contract for four years. The agreement also included health-care contributions for members, which the MTA was seeking in order to help prevent a potential fare hike. Despite heated language from both sides, including competing newspaper and radio ads, a deal was reached less than three days before workers were set to strike.

John Bittrolff
Clockwise from left: John Bittrolff, Rita Tangredi and Colleen McNamee.

Cold Case Arrest
In another case that had vague similarities to the unsolved Gilgo Beach homicides, 48-year-old John Bittrolff of Manorville was arrested in July for allegedly murdering two women two decades ago and is suspected of slaying a third woman around the same time. Bittrolff is accused of fatally strangling Rita Tangredi-Beinlich, who was 31 when she was last seen hitchhiking before her nude body was found in a wooded area off of Esplanada Drive in East Patchogue on Nov. 3, 1993. He is also accused of fatally strangling Colleen McNamee, who was 20 when her nude body was found in a wooded area south of the Long Island Expressway in North Shirley two months later, on Jan. 30, 1994. Both women had frequented the area and had prior arrests for prostitution, police had said at the time. Homicide Squad detectives are also investigating whether Bittrolff killed a third woman, Sandra Costilla, 28, of Queens, whose cause of death resembles Tangredi’s and McNamee’s, authorities said. Costilla was found dead in North Sea on the South Fork on Nov. 20, 1993.

Dave Denenberg
Nassau Legis. Dave Denenberg, right, leaving US District Court in Central Islip in November following his arraignment on fraud charges. (Rashed Mian / Long Island Press)

Denenberg Implodes
It happened so fast it took people’s breath away. David Denenberg was one of the Nassau Democrats’ crown jewels in the legislature, a constant thorn in the Republicans’ side—especially the late great, irascible GOP Majority Leader Peter Schmitt—and a real contender for the 8th District State Senate seat, which had been in Republican hands until Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. left the office vacant. Denenberg’s candidacy threatened the razor-thin margin that Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the Senate Republican leader, counted on in Albany. At the end of September Denenberg held a double-digit lead in the polls over his Republican opponent, Legis. Michael Venditto (R-Massapequa), the 33-year-old fortunate son of Republican Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto. But out of the blue the 51-year-old Merrick Democrat was slammed with charges that he’d bilked his former law firm of more than $2 million. Suddenly he decided to drop out of the race. Next he was charged with eight counts of mail fraud at Central Islip Federal Court, where his wife Cara stole the limelight by showing up wearing a Batman mask. On Election Day Denenberg still wound up with 40 percent of the vote. In December he told a federal judge he’ll plead guilty to the charges and next month vacate his seat in the county legislature where he’s served his South Shore district for eight terms.

Lee Zeldin Tim Bishop

Zeldin Ousts Bishop
By conventional wisdom, six-term incumbent Congressman Tim Bishop (D- Southampton) entered the fall campaign with an arguable chance of holding onto his seat because his Republican challenger, State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), had endured a bruising primary from millionaire George Demos, who reportedly spent $3 million attacking him. More importantly, Bishop had trounced Zeldin by 16 percentage points (58-42) the other time they’d faced each other in 2008. This year the incumbent’s luck finally ran out. In November, Zeldin, a 34-year-old Iraq War Army vet, beat Bishop, a 64-year-old former college provost, by a margin of 54 percent to 45 percent, making the young Brookhaven man the first conservative Republican to represent the East End district in more than 12 years. Bishop had the wind against him. He had to defend an unpopular President Obama in an off-year election, withstand blistering ads falsely accusing him of corruption (no charges were ever filed) and counter the millions of dollars poured into the race by right-wing Super-PACs. As it turned out, even with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s name at the top of the ticket, too many Suffolk Democrats stayed away from the polls, and the Republican wave that swept the nation on Election Day washed Bishop away as well.

Nassau Police
James Carver, president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, speaks at a podium in June in defense of an officer accused of excessive force.

Nassau Cop Charged With Assault
While the tensions flared nationwide over the issue of police brutality, a Nassau County police officer was indicted on charges of assaulting a Westbury man during a traffic stop in April. Prosecutors dropped charges against the driver, 20-year-old Kyle Howell, who suffered broken bones in his face. Officer Vincent LoGiudice pleaded not guilty to felony counts of assault after a video surfaced of him allegedly kneeing Howell in the face repeatedly. Howell told reporters at a news conference later that he was reaching for his paycheck when the officer hit him, but he told investigators that he was trying to get rid of a bag of marijuana. Officers packed the court house in support of LoGiudice while Al Sharpton’s National Action Network later followed suit in support of Howell. The attorney for the family, who is suing the county, suspects prosecutors are taking a dive on the case—an allegation the Nassau District Attorney’s office has refuted. How this case will end nobody knows, but it has proven that like the rest of the country Long Island has the same concerns about police using excessive force against unarmed civilians.

Bellone’s IT Chief Booted Out
A multimillion-dollar software deal with Microsoft that was supposed to help Suffolk County’s computers run better might as well have been hacked considering all the good it did for Donald Rodgers, Suffolk County’s information technology commissioner. He was forced out over accusations he’d misled county lawmakers about the $5 million contract. For that alleged lack of candor he was charged with two misdemeanors. For failing to disclose that he owned Red Dog Design Inc., and didn’t report how much the firm had made in 2012 on his county financial disclosure form when he came to work for County Executive Steve Bellone, he was charged with a felony. His bad luck began back in February when a grand jury subpoena was served on the legislature from Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota’s office. Rodgers was arrested in May and was placed on administrative leave without pay. In August, he resigned after pleading guilty only to official misconduct, a misdemeanor, since the felony charge was dropped. The mistakes he made cost Suffolk nothing, a county spokesman later said, but they did cost Rodgers his career in public service.