Drownings occurred during period of transition for local police

On March 10, 1981, the Southold Town Board gathered for its regular meeting at Town Hall. On the agenda that Tuesday evening was discussion of a matter that would have an impact on the investigation into the deaths of William and Michelle Becker, Mattituck residents who would last be seen alive later that night.

The topic was the proposed elimination of the Suffolk County Police Department’s 16-member Seventh Squad investigative unit. That night, Town Board members discussed how Southold might proceed with securing specialized resources for inquiries into crimes like murder and arson if the unit were ever disbanded.

Ten days later, it was announced that the Seventh Squad was to close by the end of the month, a cost-cutting move that records show put the investigation of the Beckers’ deaths on hold for several weeks.

The closure of the investigative unit was the result of a budget dispute between East End supervisors and former county executive Peter Fox Cohalan. The 1981 county budget more than doubled the amount of money East End police departments would be required to pay for the detective service — to a total of nearly $900,000, Southold Town records show.

No East End department would be more affected by the shutdown than Southold’s, according to contemporary news articles. The department, which then employed just one detective, called on the Seventh Squad 527 times in 1980, according to a January 1981 Newsday story. No other police force called on the unit’s investigators more than 350 times that year, and one used its services fewer than 50 times, according to the same article.

Southold Town Police Chief Carl Cataldo requested that the Town Board create three more detective positions within the town police department following the announced closure of the Seventh Squad, according to minutes from the April 7, 1981, Town Board work session. The promotion of three patrolmen to detective would be among the chief’s final acts as head of the town’s police force. In late May, he informed the board of his intention to step down, a move The Suffolk Times characterized as an “early retirement.” The change in leadership would lead to a bitter dispute between the Town Board and the chief over his unused sick time. By July, he had sold his house in Peconic and was living in Florida, according to town records and past Suffolk Times articles.

In the last quote Chief Cataldo gave The Suffolk Times about the Becker case, on April 21, 1981, he questioned the status of the investigation. He said the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office hadn’t given him much information about the case, which he said was “now more their case than mine.”

A file from the original inquiry into the Beckers’ deaths, which The Suffolk Times obtained in 2014 through Freedom of Information laws, indicates that between March 20 — the day it was announced the Seventh Squad was to shut down at the end of the month — and April 15, no interviews related to the Becker case were conducted. A new lead investigator from the county’s homicide squad would not be assigned until mid-May, according to that detective’s initial report.

The Suffolk Times reported Aug. 27, 1981, that a grand jury would be assigned to look at the case, but the Becker family says that never occurred.

“That was our family’s disappointment,” Ms. Becker’s brother, Michael Malkush, said in an interview this week. “If it did, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”