03/28/2007

Four officers charged in assault on tourist in N.Y. vacation town

By FRANK ELTMAN, Associated Press Writer

RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — The acting chief police chief of a small New York tourist village pleaded not guilty to charges he viciously beat a vacationer who had been picked up for littering. Three part-time officers were charged in the cover-up

Fire Island's Ocean Beach is a popular tourist destination whose population swells from 138 year-round residents to more than 6,000 summer renters and day-trippers. The village is nicknamed the "Land of No" because of unusual ordinances like the banning of cookie-eating on public walkways. It was also the setting for a recent ABC reality show.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota promised that the indictments were the first phase of an investigation into police in Ocean Beach.

"It was a police department gone wild. There was no control at all," Spota said.

Acting Ocean Beach Police Chief George Hesse pleaded not guilty Tuesday after being indicted on felony gang assault charges in the 2005 beating of tourist Samuel Gilberd, who was then a Manhattan software executive. Hesse was released on $100,000 (euro74,923) bail.

A bouncer at a bar across the street from the police department accused Gilberd of littering and took him over to be cited. The officers dragged him into a room and kicked him in the stomach, said D. Carl Lustig III, the lawyer representing Gilberd in his federal lawsuit seeking $22 million (euro16.5 million) from the village and the department.

Gilberd, 34, suffered severe internal injuries, including a ruptured bladder that required 10 days in a hospital, Assistant District Attorney Bob Biancavilla said.

The officers "acted as thugs in police uniforms," Spota said.

Hesse's lawyer, William Keahon, contended Gilberd was intoxicated and suggested he hurt himself in a fall.

"This is about a fellow that was drunk, on drugs, injured himself and now wants to sue," Keahon contended.

Lustig did not dispute that his client had been drinking, but said medical reports showed his client had no drugs in his system.

Three other part-time officers were charged with unlawful imprisonment, reckless endangerment and hindering prosecution. Officers Paul Carollo, Arnold Hardman, and William Emburey are accused of filing a false report about the incident and failing to get prompt medical attention for the victim. Each posted $10,000 (euro7,492) bail.

All four defendants, who displayed no visible emotion, were ordered to return to court April 20.

"This indictment means nothing," Hesse's lawyer, William Keahon, said. "The presumption is my client is innocent."

A week after the alleged beating, Gilberd was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, allegations the district attorney subsequently dismissed.

Ocean Beach Mayor Joseph Loeffler declined to comment.

The 24-member Ocean Beach police department had been the subject of a county grand jury probe since December.

Last week, five former police officers claimed they were wrongfully fired by Hesse, who they said associated with a drug dealer, had sex in department headquarters and covered up cases of brutality. In an interview with Newsday, Hesse would not say why he fired the five officers.

"This is an acting police chief who is running the police department like a fraternity house," said the fired officers' attorney Doug Wigdor.

Village and police officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit. The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court seeks millions in damages _ an exact amount will be determined at trial _ and the restoration of their jobs.

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