News

Retired sergeant defends ‘private family gathering;’ frustrated residents say they asked police to ‘shut the party down’

A Southold Town police officer’s retirement party that brought dozens of people out to a farm in Cutchogue during a New York State executive order banning public gatherings generated more than a half dozen complaints from town residents and a response from a patrol car, though police did not document the incident, The Suffolk Times has learned.

Cell phone call histories show at least eight calls from four local residents were placed to police headquarters during the event, which featured a DJ, multiple party tents, a roaring fire pit and what witnesses described as a professional-grade fireworks show. Town residents who said they drove past the party estimated that anywhere between 100 and 150 people attended the event, a sendoff for longtime police sergeant Steven Zuhoski at a tree farm he co-owns on Oregon Road.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, shut the party down,” Oregon Road resident Laura Solinger recalled telling a sergeant who got on the phone with her after she had already called multiple times to complain.

Ms. Solinger, a local attorney, said if not for the public health crisis she wouldn’t ordinarily call the police with a noise complaint. But after placing her first call, she drove past the property and observed a patrol car already on the scene. As the party continued, she decided to call again. 

She wasn’t alone. At least three other local residents who agreed to share their call records with a reporter, placed phone calls between 6:14 and 9:05 p.m. Friday. The calls ranged from less than a minute to as long as four minutes, the records show.

Asked Saturday if the town received any complaints about the party, town police Chief Martin Flatley responded with an email saying, “I do not see any complaints regarding a party in Cutchogue. A lot of fisherman complaints, but none regarding any parties/noise,etc,” he wrote. 

Asked to comment on the party, the chief later sent the following statement: “Our department celebrated three retirements yesterday afternoon with a traditional walkout ceremony at our headquarters. I don’t have any direct knowledge of what occurred at other celebrations after ours.”

Asked for further clarification Monday, the chief stuck to his initial statements.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell also said he had no knowledge of the party until he received complaints about the fireworks. No permits were issued for a fireworks show on that date, according to public records available on the town website. Mr. Russell also stated at a recent meeting that the town will not be granting such permits during the COVID-19 crisis.

Reached by telephone Monday, Mr. Zuhoski said reports of the party have been exaggerated online.

“It was a private family gathering on my property closed to the public, plain and simple,” he said. Asked about photographs that show large crowds, including non-family members, Mr. Zuhoski said, “as I’m sure you know I have quite a large family.” 

Many of those social media posts, including photos and videos from the party posted by people in attendance, have since been taken down. One photograph, viewed by The Suffolk Times, showed a patrol car near the entrance to the party.

Another post, a screenshot of which was sent to a reporter, showed Southold Town police officer Tim McGowan boasting about an encounter with a resident the night of the party, which featured a bagpipe band.

“Too (sic) the woman walking on Oregon Rd who busted my balls about being a cop and not social distancing I say too (sic) you again: shut the [expletive] up and go [expletive] yourself!! It was funny that your husband and partner didn’t back you. I guess he saw 10 kilts and thought better of it. Mind your busines (sic) and keep walking loudmouth!!” 

The event drew sharp criticism from town residents who objected to a police officer hosting a well-attended party while state guidelines still limit public gatherings to 10 people or fewer and require that attendees wear masks and maintain social distance. Many residents also took to social media this weekend to defend Sgt. Zuhoski and question the legality of the governor’s orders.

Southold Town Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said she asked Chief Flatley to attend Tuesday morning’s work session, at which both she and Mr. Russell said he will be present.

Ms. Nappa, who has prepared a statement to read during the work session, said she just wants to hear an explanation.

“In my opinion, I think the public needs to hear from [the chief],” she said in an interview. “The public deserves to hear what happened.”

Mr. Russell declined to discuss any possible disciplinary action that could be taken against department members, saying that’s a personnel matter.

Due to COVID-19, Tuesday’s regular Town Board meeting is closed to the public, which is allowed under another of the governor’s orders. Residents can still submit written comments to the board.