Life can change in a split second, and for Bill Gorga and an unidentified local grandmother, that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday afternoon — when the woman’s Mercedes was carjacked on Front Street in Greenport with her 14-month-old grandson in the backseat.
Following a series of harrowing car chases by Mr. Gorga and local police, Paul Ludeman, 55, of Holtsville, was arrested and charged with a long list of felonies including third-degree grand larceny, aggravated driving while intoxicated under Leandra’s Law and multiple vehicle and traffic law infractions.
Mr. Ludeman, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, declined comment as he was led in handcuffs into Southold Town Justice Court Wednesday afternoon and his attorney Daniel Ginty did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On Wednesday, Mr. Ludeman was remanded into the custody of the Suffolk County Sheriffs’ Office by Judge Daniel Ross who cited three prior, unspecified felony charges against the suspect. His next court date is March 17.
Mr. Gorga, 68, a retired engineer, had intended to do some shopping at Greenport’s IGA supermarket on Valentine’s Day ahead of a steak and lobster dinner with his wife Stephanie, but he couldn’t find a parking space, so he continued on to a shop on Front Street.
He saw a white Mercedes with its engine idling, and waited for the car to pull out. When it didn’t, he backed into a parking space behind the car and entered a local shop. As he stepped into the shop, he told The Suffolk Times, “a lady started screaming hysterically.
“She runs right past me and I follow her out because I’m thinking there’s been a car accident, but I don’t see anybody on the ground,” Mr. Gorga said on Wednesday.
The grandmother, whom both Mr. Gorga and local police declined to identify, began screaming, “That car just left with my baby inside! They took my car with the baby!”
“Oh my God,” Mr. Gorga thought to himself. He turned to the woman and reassured her.
“’Don’t worry,’ he said he told her. ‘We’re getting this guy.’ So she jumps into my Ford Ranger truck and we take off.
“I gunned it and put my hand on the horn to draw attention and didn’t take it off for I don’t know how long,” he recalled. “As we drove towards Front Street and Third Street, I saw the light was yellow and I just hit the gas harder. My hand was on the horn the whole way.”
Mr. Gorga and his frantic passenger sped ahead until they were right on the Mercedes’ tail. He kept urging her to call 911, and though she was holding her cell phone in her hand, he said, she was “too hysterical to make the call.”
So Mr. Gorga floored the gas pedal.
“I managed to pull up beside [the Mercedes] to try and drive him off the road, and she’s freaking out,” Mr. Gorga said.
Both he and his passenger were determined to stop the car without causing a crash that could injure the child.
He raced ahead of the Mercedes and forced the car to a stop on the side of the road.
The grandmother leapt out of the truck as Mr. Gorga sized up the thief, who was holding what appeared to Mr. Gorga to be an unlit cigarette in his hand.
“He looked like a vagrant,” he said. The man was yelling something from inside the car and soon Mr. Gorga could make out the words.
“He was saying, ‘Take the baby! Take the baby! I don’t want the baby!”
The grandmother ran around to the back passenger door and jumped into the Mercedes.
“Next thing I know,” Mr. Gorga said, “the guy just pulled around me, onto the grass on the side of the road, and took off again – this time with the grandmother and the baby in the car.
“So I had to take off after him again.”
For a second time, at dangerously-high speeds, Mr. Gorga raced ahead and managed to drive the Mercedes off onto the shoulder of the road, near Silvermere Street. This time, he forced the stolen car to come to a full stop against a cyclone fence on the side of the road.
As the grandmother and the baby emerged from the Mercedes, Mr. Gorga said, the suspect “somehow managed to squeeze between my truck and the cyclone fence — and he took off again!
“I’m like, ‘What the hell?!’”
That’s when Mr. Gorga decided he’d done all he could.
“I got the people out, and now it’s a police matter,” he thought to himself. “Let them handle it from here.”
Mr. Gorga quickly dialed 911 and was recounting the incident when he glanced in his rearview mirror and saw a police cruiser. He jumped from the truck, flagged down the officer and reported the crime.
Catching his breath for the first time since the harrowing ordeal began, Mr. Gorga said he thought back on the entire episode and estimated that it had been at least a half hour since he and the grandmother leapt into his truck in pursuit of the stolen Mercedes.
“I found out afterwards that we had run out of the store at 1:59 p.m. I went back and checked my phone, and it turned out I had called 911 at 2:03 p.m. The whole thing happened in four minutes!”
Southold police confirmed that the Mr. Gorga’s call had come in at 2:03 p.m.
“You have to appreciate his courage in taking an active role in stopping this,” said Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley. “He’s to be commended, and we give him a lot of credit.”
Chief Flatley said he couldn’t recall the last time his department has dealt with a carjacking by a stranger.
“We’ve had cars stolen as part of a domestic dispute, or between family members, but I can’t remember the last time we had a car being stolen by a stranger.”
Chief Flatley said that while the investigation is ongoing, so far there no indication that the suspect drove himself to Greenport.
The chief declined to confirm, but acknowledged he had heard local rumors that the suspect was either released from or turned away from Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital’s detox program earlier that day.
A spokesperson for Eastern Long Island Hospital said he could not immediately confirm whether Mr. Luderman either sought or was recently discharged from the hospital’s Quannacut Inpatient Services program for those suffering from substance abuse.
When Mr. Gorga finally arrived home, he and his wife of 20 years got to enjoy their long-planned Valentine’s Day dinner of steak and lobster, Ms. Gorga told the Suffolk Times.
“He’s a hero,” she said on Wednesday. “He was always my hero, and now he’s a hero in the eyes of Greenport.”