From scandals to celebrations, the year 2008 rocked south Queens like a ferry on rough waters. And, while things had calmed down by the end of December, a buzz of excitement was still in the air, as the residents of Howard Beach, Ozone Park, South Ozone Park, Woodhaven, Richmond Hill and South Richmond Hill anticipated the changes still to come and developments soon to unfold.
One of the first events ahead is the 32nd Council District special election, scheduled for the first or second Tuesday in February. When City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) defeated 20-year veteran state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale) in the race for the 15th Senatorial District seat on Nov. 4, he opened his soon-to-be vacated council seat to seven potential candidates.
During Addabbo’s vigorous and highly publicized campaign, which officially began in mid-July, the contenders laid low, ensuring their own campaigns would not distract from the major Senate race. But once the seven-year councilman won, the contenders hit the trail, holding press conferences and sending out campaign literature.
Among the declared candidates are Democratic District Leaders Frank Gulluscio of Howard Beach and Lew Simon of Rockaway, Ozone Park Republican District Leader Eric Ulrich, Rockaway resident and former NYPD lieutenant Glenn DiResto, Howard Beach independent Sal DiBernardo and Republican Mike Ricatto. Rockaway Democratic District Leader Geraldine Chapey has not officially announced her candidacy, but is a likely contender.
Jockeying also took place earlier this year when three competitors emerged in the race for a contract to operate a video lottery terminal at Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park. Delaware North Companies beat out Capital Play Limited and SL Green Realty Corp. on Oct. 23 when Gov. David Paterson awarded it the franchise for the racino.
Within the next two years, residents of south Queens will have access to Aqueduct’s new 328,000-square-foot gaming and entertainment facility with 4,500 video slot machines. By 2013, people from all over the city will come to the race track for other amenities, which include a 300- to 500-room hotel, a spa, a 60,000-foot conference center, a 3,000-seat event center and up to 30,000 square feet of retail space. Aqueduct’s costly make-over is expected to create more than 2,000 union jobs in the community and bring to it about 10,000 people a day.
The last time tens of thousands of people came down to southern Queens was the morning of April 19, when Pope Benedict XVI arrived at Kennedy International Airport. The pontiff’s visit was a major event for the entire nation and his mere presence touched many supporters, but for two south Queens kids, his touch went beyond spirituality.
Kaitlin Karcher, 13, and Christopher Jordan, 10, felt literally blessed when they shook hands with a world renowned religious leader. Both were chosen by their Catholic school principals to greet the pope upon his arrival and hand him a bouquet of flowers.
The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came with a “thrill” for Kaitlin, an eighth-grader at Our Lady of Grace School in Howard Beach: after she presented him the bouquet, the pope grabbed her hand and blessed her. For Christopher, however, the event was accompanied by some rule-breaking. The fifth-grader, who attends Devine Mercy Academy in Ozone Park, handed the pope flowers and then, despite being explicitly told not to, he shook the pope’s hand.
Among other Ozone Park rule-breakers, there was “Sum Z,” a graffiti vandal who committed acts that were less innocuous than hand-shaking. The elusive defacer was the 106th Precinct’s “Most Wanted” graffiti vandal: he was sought by police for defacing at least 50 locations in Ozone Park and an additional 160 sites that spread throughout the jurisdictions of the 102nd, 104th and 112th Precincts in Queens and the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn.
Police got a break on Aug. 29, when, at 4:30 a.m., a local man spotted Sum Z in the act and called police, who arrived minutes later with an arrest warrant. The notorious Sum Z turned out to be two perpetrators: “Sum” was 35-year-old John Colasanti and “Z” was his girlfriend, 22-year-old Zolina Lindo. Both were of 107th Avenue in Ozone Park.
Relieved to finally have the vandals in custody, officers and community members honored Scott Jordan, the resident who spotted the pair as they spray painted their tags on the side of a large truck.
Two other borough communities — residents of Richmond Hill and historical preservationists — honored a revered member of their own following her sudden death in the fall. At only 55 years old, Richmond Hill Historical Society President Nancy Cataldi died on Oct. 29 after suffering a brain aneurism. She received words of praise from local elected officials, community leaders, friends and family members who said her death was “a loss for Queens.”
But Cataldi’s memory lives on through her work, they said, particularly her relentless efforts to save the landmarked 100-year-old Richmond Hill Republican Club house. The structure’s future was riddled with uncertainty from 2001 until this past June, even though it had been purchased in April 2007. After attempting to work with the new owner for about a year, Cataldi ensured that the building’s exterior would remain intact while its interior was being renovated. Although it wasn’t a complete victory for the community — which had hoped the club house would be restored and used for its original purpose — it was an accomplishment of which Cataldi was proud.
Another accomplishment of which many in south Queens were proud was the May launch of the two-year Rockaway ferry pilot program. After 15 years of fighting the city to get a ferry, residents of the Rockaways, Broad Channel and Howard Beach were ecstatic when the pilot program began on May 12. Several attempts throughout the last decade and a half to bring a ferry system to the Rockaway peninsula had failed, but area residents never lost hope. So, they were proud of their determination and success, when news of the pilot program came about.
While many great things happened in southern Queens in 2008, some events that unfolded brought with them shame, disappointment and anger. On Feb. 18, 46-year-old Howard Beach mother of two Barbara Sheehan shot and killed her husband, Raymond Sheehan, 49, in their 158th Street home. She claimed the retired NYPD sergeant had been abusing her, physically and otherwise, for the last 18 years. Sheehan told police that, fearing for her life, she shot the ex-cop in the back 11 times in self-defense.
The killing sent shock waves throughout the Howard Beach community, members of which could not imagine that such deep troubles were brewing in the household of the always pleasant church-going couple. Although there was gossip amongst neighbors of Raymond Sheehan’s alleged alcoholism, many family friends said they would never have expected Barbara Sheehan, a school secretary in Brooklyn, to snap like that.
On June 4 Sheehan was arraigned on an indictment charging her with second-degree murder and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon. Not much else happened until the Dec. 17 pre-trial court proceeding in which Sheehan’s lawyer, Michael Dowd, revealed he had evidence of Raymond Sheehan’s violent streaks. Behind closed doors, the ex-cop was a cross dresser who routinely acquired the services of transvestite hookers, Dowd said, adding that this secret life led Sheehan to take out his rage on his wife.
More rage — this time of a very different nature — spilled out in the borough this past summer when the Sikh community, led by the Sikh Coalition, held a protest outside of Richmond Hill High School. Some 200 chanting men, women and children marched through the streets of the neighborhood on June 30 before stopping in front of the high school, where earlier that month a Sikh student had been assaulted.
In what the Sikh community called a bias-based assault, Jagmohan Singh Premi, an 18-year-old freshman at the high school, was attacked by another student who attempted to forcibly remove his patka (small turban) and then punched him in the face with a key between his knuckles.
Suffering from an orbital fracture and humiliation, Premi joined forces with the Sikh Coalition and other Sikh organizations to call on the city Department of Education to implement protective measures for Sikh students. Amardeep Singh, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, at the time had expressed frustration and disappointment at what he called the DOE’s reluctance to cooperate.
More disappointment was expressed in Richmond Hill on Sept. 10 when a veteran state official immersed in a scandal was exposed. Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio (D-Richmond Hill) was arrested that morning on federal charges of corruption for allegedly taking bribes from entities doing business with the state.
Following a months-long undercover FBI sting, which included checking bank records and intercepting communications, federal agents charged Seminerio with allegedly pocketing $500,000 in bribes through a fake consulting firm he created in April of 2000.
Seminerio’s lawyer, Ira Cooper, said on Nov. 29 that he was engaged in plea negotiations to keep his 73-year-old client, who is in poor health, out of jail. Apparently, those negotiations fell through because Seminerio was indicted for fraud on Dec. 10. According to the indictment, the allegedly ailing assemblyman pocketed $1 million — double the amount initially cited — during his eight-year scheme.
Although the indictment wrapped up the year on somewhat of a discouraging note, there is much for south Queens residents to look forward to in the new year. At the very least, for the first two months of 2009, they’ll have at least a half-dozen aspirants focused solely on their needs, vying for their attention, as they seek their votes to become the next 32nd Council District representative.