‘Good Samaritan’ honored with Liberty Medal after helping carjacking victim

A heroic North Fork man who leapt into action to help a panicked carjacking victim in Greenport earlier this year was honored last Thursday with the New York State Senate’s highest civilian award, the Liberty Medal.

Retired marine engineer Bill Gorga of East Marion came to the aid of a grandmother and her grandchild after the child — and later both the baby and his grandmother — was abducted by a carjacker in a pulse-racing ordeal on Valentine’s Day morning in Greenport.

Two other men, veteran Riverhead firefighters William “J.R.” Renten and Frank Greenwood, were also honored last week for their roles in helping save the lives of two elderly women from a burning building on Pulaski Street in January. 

Numerous local political and law enforcement officials, led by state Sen. Anthony Palumbo, turned up at Riverhead Free Library last Thursday to honor the trio — though Mr. Renten was unable to attend the ceremony.

“There are certain criteria that you need to meet to even be eligible for this,” Mr. Palumbo said of the Liberty Medal. “This is the highest civilian honor that we can give in the New York State Senate to recognize them for their actions.”

Mr. Palumbo first presented the medal to Mr. Gorga, saying, “This resolution that I’m going to present to you is passed on the Senate floor and becomes part of the legislative record. So your great-great-great-grandchildren can search your name in the archives and this will be there.”

In addition to Mr. Palumbo, state Assembly members Fred Thiele and Jody Giglio, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine and Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley were on hand to salute the honorees, as were representatives of Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney and Legislator Al Krupski. Mr. Romaine said he was appearing on behalf of New York Congressman Nick LaLota, who was unable to attend.

“Not surprisingly, we’re talking about police officers and volunteers, and we’re talking about acts that actually saved peoples’ lives,” Mr. Thiele said at the ceremony. “What makes the East End great? What makes Long Island great? What makes Suffolk County such a great place? … It’s the people that are willing to serve and be in law enforcement and protect public safety.”

Mr. Thiele then turned to address Mr. Gorga directly.

“When you read what happened — it’s a story that had a grandmother, a baby, it had a car chase. I’m waiting for the movie!” he declared, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “I wonder who will get to play Bill Gorga in the movie?”

Mr. Thiele then grew solemn and said, “What an incredible act of heroism — didn’t think twice, just sprang into action. A regular citizen just going about his business on an average day. I’m proud that you’re my constituent.”

Four members of the Southold Town Police Department were also honored for their roles in the apprehension of the carjacker that Mr. Gorga initially chased down.

Detective Kenneth Richert, Sgt. Robert Haase and police officers Ryan Springer and Patrick Robbins received commendations for their actions.

“This is particularly special to me because this is my hometown police department,” said Mr. Palumbo, a former Suffolk County prosecutor and the son of a police detective.

Recipients of the Liberty Medal must be approved by the state Senate majority leader and voted on via resolution. 

“It is bestowed upon those individuals who have merited special commendation for exceptional, heroic, or humanitarian acts on behalf of their fellow New Yorkers,” Mr. Palumbo said in a press release. “For first responders, including law enforcement, it may only be awarded for going above and beyond or outside of the call of duty required for the particular job.”

The awards presentation did spark some controversy, however. Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar was caught on a “hot mic” during a Town Board work session last Thursday telling two council members that she declined an invitation to the ceremony after hearing that the two Riverhead firefighters may have exaggerated their roles in the rescue, a development first reported by the community news website RiverheadLocal, which also published the original story about the pair’s heroics.

“I’m not going to that,” Ms. Aguiar can be heard saying about the ceremony at the work session, which was videotaped. “Do you know the circumstance of that? They never — yeah, everybody was out and they made all these claims in the newspaper. So the community in Pulaski is up in arms about it.”

In a statement Monday, the supervisor said “the fire was an unfortunate incident that became gravely political. The victims of the fire should NOT have to relive the monumental loss and trauma. My personal apologies to the entire Polish community.”

A staffer in Sen. Palumbo’s office said the nomination of the firefighters was based on reading the original RiverheadLocal story.

“I’m not sure why the town supervisor would say that,” Mr. Greenwood told RiverheadLocal last week after learning about Ms. Aguiar’s comments. “It’s disappointing to hear that she is questioning myself and J.R.’s integrity and actions. However, I know what we did, and that’s all that matters to me.”

A fire department source confirmed to The Suffolk Times that Riverhead fire officials are aware that there are conflicting accounts about how the two women escaped the burning building.

After the ceremony, Mr. Gorga said the past several months of public attention have been both “surreal and wild.” He said he and his wife, Stephanie, have been in touch from time to time with the grandmother and her family.

Surrounded by grateful politicians, a proud police chief, a beaming wife and wearing a Liberty Medal around his neck, Mr. Gorga seemed most amazed by the rapid growth of the carjacked baby.

“[He] went from being in a car seat to where he’s walking now, in a few months!”