Police on NY's Fire Island face charges

February 22, 2009 10:08:21 AM PST
It started on a hot August night with a drunk guy getting a ticket for throwing a beer glass. This week, the disorderly reveler's role will be as a witness, testifying in the trial of two village police officers accused in his vicious beating.

Testimony is expected to focus on the lifestyle and nightlife in Ocean Beach, a popular village on Fire Island, a 30-mile strip of land along the Atlantic coast off Long Island.

The defendants in the case are acting Police Chief George Hesse, accused of both assault and gang assault; and part-time Officer Arnold Hardman, charged with reckless endangerment for failing to tell paramedics that Samuel Gilberd, who was initially treated as a drug overdose, had been beaten.

When the indictment was handed up, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota contended they and two other officers "acted as thugs in police uniforms." He also said village officials were at fault for "quietly and confidentially" settling numerous lawsuits alleging police brutality in the village going back to the 1990s.

The village's mayor, Joseph Loeffler, Jr., did not return repeated telephone messages and an e-mail requesting comment.

Once nicknamed the "Land of No" because of odd ordinances intended to keep order - no eating on the beach, no dogs on the beach from May to September, bike riding only during designated hours and days - Ocean Beach remains a popular tourist destination.

Its population swells from dozens of year-round residents to more than 6,000 summer renters and day-trippers.

Because cars are banned from most of the village, visitors usually travel by ferry for the half-hour trip from Long Island south to Fire Island. Most tote their gear on the island in little red wagons. Summer rentals can start at about $10,000 a month and climb from there. ABC chose the location for a 2006 reality show "One Ocean View."

Many of the revelers fill their summer days enjoying the sun and surf, but when the sun sets the scene turns to the half-dozen or more restaurants and bars that dot the village's three-block "downtown."

Rowdy revelers can keep police officers, who travel around in motorized golf carts, on their toes. The ferry service to Fire Island even adds extra security on its Saturday night boats to deal with the exuberantly intoxicated.

The charges in this week's criminal trial stem from the August 2005 beating of Gilberd, who was then a Manhattan software executive; he has since moved to California.

Gilberd was at an Ocean Beach bar when a bouncer accused him of littering after he threw a glass onto the sidewalk. He was immediately taken by the bouncer across the street to the police department, where he was issued a ticket for littering. As he left the station, Gilberd, who admitted he was drunk at the time, kicked the door of the police station.

That's when Hesse allegedly brought Gilberd back inside for a beating. Prosecutors say the police chief stomped on Gilberd's midsection as he lay unconscious, causing a tear in his bladder.

Gilberd, who has a $22 million federal lawsuit pending against the village and police, still visits a urologist and is undergoing psychiatric care, his lawyer said. The littering summons he received that night was later dismissed by prosecutors.

Three part-time officers including Hardman were charged with a variety of offenses, including unlawful imprisonment, reckless endangerment and hindering prosecution.

Only one, Hardman, a former NYPD officer, will join Hesse at the defense table for this trial about 40 miles east of Ocean Beach in the county seat in Riverhead. His lawyer did not return a call for comment.

Prosecutors are challenging a judge's decision to drop charges because of insufficient evidence against another defendant, William Emburey. The third officer, Paul Carollo, has agreed to testify for the prosecution as part of a plea agreement, a spokesman for Spota said An attorney for Hesse, who is free on $100,000 bail, did not return several calls seeking comment. The attorney, William Keahon, has previously said Gilberd was to blame.

"This is about a fellow that was drunk, on drugs, injured himself and now wants to sue," Keahon told reporters after his client's arraignment.

Gilberd's attorney, D. Carl Lustig III, did not dispute that his client had been drinking, but said medical reports indicated his client had no drugs in his system.

Jury selection was expected to begin Tuesday afternoon, followed by opening statements later in the week.