Featured Story

Southold Democrats call for state Attorney General to investigate police complaints

The Southold Town Democratic Committee is calling on the New York State Attorney General to investigate the local police department following a pair of incidents that have raised concerns in recent months.

The call for an inquiry, made in a Facebook post Sunday, comes on the heels of a press conference in which a pair of attorneys for families involved in a fatal July 2015 limousine crash in Cutchogue accused a town Republican committee official of hindering the investigation at the scene of the incident that led to criminal charges for limo driver Carlos Pino and Steven Romeo, whose truck crashed into the limo at the Route 48 intersection with Depot Lane. The Southold Town Board also recently hired outside counsel to investigate its police department’s response to resident complains over a May retirement party honoring one of its officers.

“Over the past months, a growing number of allegations indicate a troubling trend within the Southold Town Police Department,” the Town Democrats wrote on social media. “We call for an immediate investigation by the Attorney General into these matters. It is abundantly clear this requires action beyond the investigation recently approved solely by the GOP members of the town board, especially considering the Southold Town GOP’s involvement with this most recent allegation.”

The majority of people want an effective, accountable police force that they know they can trust.

Kathryn Casey Quigley

In an interview Monday afternoon, Southold Democratic Chair Kathryn Casey Quigley said the committee is currently exploring the process of filing a public complaint. She said the action is about restoring public faith in the local police department.

Ms. Quigley said considering there has been more than one recent complaint regarding actions of the police department, the scope of the current investigation into the response to the retirement party is not enough.

“Let’s go through a really rigorous, appropriate response,” she said of a possible AG investigation. “Address a problem if there is one; if not, clear it.”

In a statement, Southold Town Republican Committee chair Peter McGreevy called the Democrats’ request an attack on police.

“Sadly, at a time when we should be striving to come together as a community, the Southold Democrats, in attacking our police, have instead chosen to engage in the divisive politics of the New York City de Blasio liberals,” Mr. McGreevy wrote. “Any claims of a ‘trend’ are clearly fiction and unsupported by fact, and any allegations of GOP involvement are made solely to exploit recent events and five-year-old news to further their own liberal political agenda. Crying ‘conspiracy’ and ‘cover up’ when prior investigations have been completed and found nothing, and before new investigations have even commenced, is an affront to all those involved with our police, our political system and our legal system.” 

Ms. Casey Quigley said she is concerned that town residents might consider her or the Democratic committee as anti-police, but said that would be “disingenuous.”

“Political attacks are disingenuous,” she said. “The majority of people want an effective, accountable police force that they know they can trust.”

“There are excellent police serving this community every day,” she added. “Doesn’t it serve everyone’s best interest [to restore trust]?”

Investigators at the crash scene that evening. (Credit: Stringer News)

Many of the allegations raised at last Thursday’s press conference relate to a 2016 lawsuit filed by former Southold Town police officer Garrett Lake.

Attorney Frank Laine, who represents the family of deceased limo crash victim Amy Grabina in a lawsuit against the town, county, the limo company and both drivers in the crash, said at the press conference that Mr. Romeo’s first phone call from the scene was to personal friend John Helf Sr., the vice chair of the Southold Town Republican Committee. Mr. Laine said that as Mr. Helf visited Mr. Romeo at the scene of the crash, his friend consumed five bottles of water before police tested his blood alcohol about two hours later. Mr. Laine said Mr. Romeo also attempted to flee the scene before he was “brought back with force by police.” 

“And he was never charged with leaving the scene of the accident,” Mr. Laine said.

Garrett Lake, the officer who returned Mr. Romeo to the scene, alleged in a 2016 court filing that his arrest of Mr. Romeo on a driving while intoxicated charge and political pressure from Mr. Helf and others helped lead to his firing from the town department that year. Mr. Lake’s lawsuit, which sought his reinstatement, was dismissed by a Suffolk County judge.

Mr. Helf, a volunteer with the Southold Fire Department and a retired corrections officer, declined comment Monday.

Steven Romeo in a 2016 court appearance. (Suffolk Times file photo)

Summarizing Mr. Lake’s claim in his decision, Judge William Ford wrote that he “argues that his arrest of Romeo angered Helf, prompting Helf to intercede and advocate on Romeo’s behalf, interfere and obstruct an ongoing DWl investigation at the accident scene, and to criticize his performance and call for his termination before the police department and the Town Board.”

In a sworn affidavit provided in response to Mr. Lake’s complaint, Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said the officer’s probationary employment was terminated days before it was set to expire for “overaggressive and overzealous in his use of police tactics in conducting vehicle traffics stops, searches and arrests,” Judge Ford wrote in his decision, which is publicly available online. The chief said he had to review arrest footage of multiple arrests made by Mr. Lake after public complaints, including an allegation of harassment. The chief testified that he found performance issues in those arrests, including not turning on his body microphone, as per department procedure, according to Judge Ford’s decision.

In a deposition for the limo case last June, also publicly available online, Mr. Romeo described Mr. Lake as “overzealous” on the evening of the crash. Mr. Romeo said he was having a difficult time being treated for injuries and was emotional following the crash when he walked about 500 feet away from where he had been standing and positioned himself on the other side of a fence. He said fire police at the scene encouraged him to walk away. That’s when he said Mr. Lake spotted him, according to the deposition.

“He drew his gun on me,” Mr. Romeo said. “Then he got on top of me. He said ‘Stop,’ and I wasn’t going anywhere. I was just standing there.”

He said Mr. Lake told him to get down on the ground and climbed on his back.

Mr. Romeo also said in his deposition that his girlfriend called Mr. Helf to the scene, not him. He described Mr. Helf as a long-time friend.

Michelle Canberg, at right, in a Suffolk Times photo showing her in her Deep Water Bar and Grille uniform at the scene of the crash. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

At last Thursday’s press conference, attorneys also raised allegations that Mr. Romeo was not alone at the time of the crash. Michelle Canberg, the woman who was accused of being a passenger in his red pickup truck after an ambulance report stated that she told an EMT she was in the vehicle, denied ever meeting Mr. Romeo in an interview last week. She said she was with her stepdaughter, Rhyliegh, on their way to work in Greenport when she drove past the crash site and stopped to lend a hand. On Sunday, The Suffolk Times found a photo it had taken the evening of the crash that shows Ms. Canberg at the scene wearing the waitress uniform she said she was wearing that evening. In the photo, taken at 6:01 p.m., the same time another photo shows a police helicopter landing in the street, Ms. Canberg can be seen standing with fire police in the intersection, looking in the direction of the crash. Mr. Romeo, who testified that he was alone and could not recall knowing Ms. Canberg, said the moment he walked away from the scene occurred around when the helicopter landed.

In a telephone interview Friday, Ryleigh told a similar story as her stepmom about the evening of the crash. She spoke of how traumatized her stepmom was from seeing the dead women in the limousine and how it led her to sell the black Hyundai Elantra she was driving that day.

“It reminded her of the accident and how she saw those young girls dying,” said Ryleigh, who is now 19 years old.

She said her stepmom had someone she knew from high school drive her to the restaurant for her shift and her stepmom joined her a couple of hours later.

Asked about the ambulance report and a deposition given by a Southold EMT placing Michelle Canberg in Mr. Romeo’s truck, the younger Ms. Canberg said “she must be twisting it.”

Rebecca Devlin, an attorney for Mr. Romeo, did not respond to requests for comment this week.