BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Looking south toward the Hyatt hotel and Long Island Aquarium from the Ostrander Avenue sidewalk.
North Babylon resident Nick Galioto and his girlfriend drove to the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead Saturday to spend the day interacting with penguins as part of a Christmas gift from his mother.
But what happened after the young couple left the aquarium still has them both “shaken.”
“You see it in the movies and you see it on TV, but you never think it’ll happen to you,” Mr. Galioto said in an interview. “Out of all the days, leaving the aquarium, you think it’s a pretty safe location.”
After hours of fun at the aquarium, Mr. Galioto, 24, and his 19-year-old girlfriend were robbed at knifepoint by a man on a bike as they walked back to their parked car Saturday afternoon.
“I’ve never been in any type of situation [like this] … never of a magnitude like this, never in my life,” Mr. Galioto said.
The young couple were huddling under an umbrella to stay dry from the rain while walking north along the sidewalk of Ostrander Avenue about 4 p.m. when they heard a voice behind them mutter to get out of the way, Mr. Galioto recalled.
The two moved over to the side up against a fence when the man, wearing a jacket with the hood up, rode up close next to them on a bicycle, blocking them from moving, Mr. Galioto said.
“Give me your wallet,” the man demanded while straddling the bike.
Mr. Galioto said that when he hesitated, the man pulled a knife on the couple.
“When the knife was brought out, there’s only so much you can do,” Mr. Galioto said.
The man took Mr. Galioto’s wallet, then demanded his now-crying girlfriend’s wallet too. When the couple gave him both wallets, the robber told them to give up their cell phones, Mr. Galioto said.
Shaken, his girlfriend dropped the umbrella during the robbery. Once the man took their phones, he “backed off a bit” from the couple and told the girl, “you can pick up your umbrella now,” Mr. Galioto said.
The robber pedaled off on his bike south on Ostrander Avenue, toward East Main Street, according to the police report.
The suspect was a black man, taller than 5’9″ and most likely in his mid-20s or early 30s, Mr. Galioto said.
After the robbery, the two rushed to the parking lot, where they got the attention of a passerby in a car and called the police. An officer quickly arrived on the scene and searched for the suspect but wasn’t able to find him, Mr. Galioto said.
The victims were not injured in the mugging, police said. Detectives are investigating the incident, police said.
“If you’ve never experienced something like this, you have no idea what it’s like,” Mr. Galioto said, adding that both he and his girlfriend rarely visit Riverhead.
Mr. Galioto said he had spoken to representatives at the aquarium, but wanted to see steps taken to beef up security in the area.
“I know that this place is a major tourist attraction … To help rebuild an area you need those great attractions,” he said. “[But] it makes it very difficult when people are afraid to go there.”
He was surprised to hear that the aquarium does not provide security guards for the parking lot located blocks away.
“That’s an issue that needs to be looked into,” he said.
A Long Island Aquarium employee said Monday that the parking lot was a public lot off aquarium property and not subject to its security. Long Island Aquarium executive director Bryan DeLuca was unavailable for comment.
However, Mr. Galioto noted that the aquarium collects parking fees from the lot during the summer.
“Someone should be responsible for [safety],” he said, “Whether they should hire a security guard or have a shuttle bus, because that parking lot is pretty far away.”
Margaret Galioto, Nick’s mother, said she wanted to make sure this incident never happened again to any other visitors.
“I understand that this could happen anywhere but I do think a more proactive stance by the aquarium and the surrounding community is needed as this is supposed to be a family-friendly area of attractions,” she wrote in an email.
Mr. Galioto said the mugging is still fresh in his mind.
He said he was shocked to read news reports about a robbery at Tanger Outlets where an employee was tied up and her car stolen, as well as a fatal hit-and-run accident a few blocks from where he was mugged, all happening in less than a week.
For now, Mr. Galioto said he won’t return to Riverhead, not until he sees that something has been done to protect tourists and residents. He is focused on canceling his credit cards and getting a new driver’s license.
But now there is an added stress for him as well, he said: his mother gave the same Christmas present to his brother and his girlfriend.
They are planning to go to the Long Island Aquarium this weekend, Mr. Galioto said.
“I don’t want him going,” he said. “I don’t feel safe for them.”