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Queens Chronicle

Crime, Construction Big News In 2005 For Western Queens

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Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2005 12:00 am

The year 2005 will be remembered as the year that Iraq got a new constitution, the Bush Administration got caught spying on its own people, and New Yorkers got saddled with the cost of a massive transit strike.

And there were plenty of riveting local stories, too. As the year draws to a close, we look back on the people and issues that made headlines in Western Queens.

In January, the temporary bridge at the Steinway Street overpass of the Grand Central Parkway in Astoria opened with little fanfare on the first Monday of the month, two months behind schedule. The permanent Steinway Street overpass is undergoing a major reconstruction, which was supposed to be finished this winter.

The city Department of Transportation would later announce that the contractor for the work—Cal-Tran Associates of New Jersey—was in default, pushing the completion date for the project back to at least 2007.

Attendance at the New Visions Democratic Club in Jackson Heights nearly doubled, a month after the club amended its constitution to allow immigrants who have not yet become citizens to join. But a bill to let legal immigrants vote in municipal elections that was later introduced in the City Council got nowhere.

The first major snowfall of winter hit Queens at the end of the month. Residents spent the week digging out from 15.5 inches of the white stuff as temperatures hovered at or below the freezing mark, setting a new Con Edison record for winter energy use. Saturday, January 22nd, topped January 2003’s record—until Sunday, January 23rd, when a new record high in usage topped that.

Tensions in Community Board 4 exploded into a power struggle during its first meeting after the death of District Manager Rose Rothschild, in February.

In her 18-year tenure, profound demographic changes took place within the board’s confines—changes that had yet to be reflected in the makeup of the board’s executive committee.

Board elections had been suspended since 1998 and an election for new executive committee members scheduled for January was postponed until April, when it was presided over by Borough President Helen Marshall and 15 police officers. Former board chairman Richard Italiano won election as district manager.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel elementary school in Astoria was included in the list of 22 Catholic elementary schools the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens said it would close due to low enrollment.

In a letter issued during the parents meeting on February 10th, Monsignor Paul Sanchez stated that in spite of admirable fund-raising efforts, “fund raising can never make up for shortfalls due to declining enrollment.”

In Queensbridge Houses, an 11-month sting operation involving local and federal law enforcement, culminated in the arrest of 37 suspected drug dealers, with warrants out for 18 more.

The Dream Team, which had ties to the Bloods street gang, presided over drug sales in Queensbridge for at least three years, keeping peace with a pact that allowed independent dealers to operate if they bought their drugs from the Dream Team, police said.

Residents said there was so much crack cocaine-dealing at the hub of the complex, known as “The Hill,” that school children had to navigate through dealers on their way home.

Mayor Bloomberg announced in March that the city would pay millions of dollars to Astoria residents whose homes were damaged when a water main beneath 70th Street and Ditmars Boulevard broke in February.

A backhoe operator ruptured a 20-inch water main while digging a trench for new homes. More than 1 million gallons of water flooded up to 50 residences before the city shut off the water main. Residents and local officials accused the city Department of Environmental Protection of reacting slowly to the break and ignoring previous 311 calls.

As of press time, homeowners have filed $4.5 million in claims, but the city has paid less than one-tenth that amount.

Nextel removed 12 cell phone antennas installed across the street from PS 122 in Astoria. Residents worried that radiation from the towers, located on the corner of Ditmars Boulevard and 21st Street, posed a health risk.

The Queens West Development was causing a stink in Long Island City—and it wasn’t due to the rising rents or displaced manufacturing jobs.

Residents in the Citilights residential tower complained for a second time of headaches and sore throats after developers started digging contaminated dirt out of sites that once housed petroleum refineries.

Others in the area said they were more concerned about losing their leases on apartments and warehouses as developers rush to take advantage of the hot real estate market.

Scaffolding covered the four iconic smokestacks this April on the Schwartz Chemical Factory, which had defined the Long Island City cityscape for nearly a century.

Developer Cheskel Schwimmer of CGS Builders is turning the former power plant into luxury condominiums, and wanted the smokestacks gone so that he could take advantage of the extra floor-to-area ratio. Getting a variance to build within them, he said, was not feasible.

The flatiron Eagle Electric building at Thomson Avenue and Court Square similarly will be converted into high-end living spaces. A few blocks away, in the shadow of the Riverview tower, an old warehouse on the corner of 5th Street and 49th Avenue was torn down for a condominium.

A drunk driver left a 10-year-old girl in a coma after plowing into her family’s car. The impact tore the front bumper—license plate attached—off the car driven by 36-year-old Gerard Gormley of Astoria, who was driving at more than twice the legal blood alcohol limit.

Although he fled the scene, it didn’t take long for police to find him at his home, where his mangled car was parked in the driveway. Victim Ilda Ujkaj made a miraculous recovery and Gormley got five-months’ probation.

A retired police detective pleaded guilty to reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, admitting that he accidentally shot 18-year-old Astoria deli worker Manuel Chametla.

John Malik of Astoria had been joking around with his licensed pistol, pointing it at Chametla, who he accidentally shot in the chest. Chametla died five hours later.

Critics accused the police of initially covering for one of their own. Malik was not charged until a month after the shooting, after two large protests organized by City Councilman and former NYPD officer Hiram Monserrate.

A needle exchange program was approved by Community Board 3 for the Corona/East Elmhurst area.

Despite concerns about legitimizing intravenous drug use, board members supported the idea of making clean needles available to users in order to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and help connect drug users to services, which could eventually help them quit.

The AIDS Center of Queens County opened in Long Island City four years ago, later expanding to Jamaica. This year, it added a second Jamaica location and one in Far Rockaway. As of press time, the Corona location has yet to open.

In May, a family tragedy in Corona stood out in stark relief with the death of 25-year-old Carmen Lata and her 3-year-old son, Alex Chimbo. Lata and her son were mowed down while crossing Northern Boulevard in Corona shortly before 10 p.m. on May 23rd. The vehicle that hit them, described by police as a green van with a gold stripe and gold rims, did not stop.

It was one of several hit-and-run accidents in the city that week, three of which were in Queens.

A 21-year-old woman was raped in June on the platform of the G train at the mostly deserted 21st Street station in Long Island City. Two transit workers heard her cries but did not intervene.

According to police, the woman’s attacker came up to her on the train and brushed her foot. After she moved to another seat, he followed her and then tried to lick her feet. She missed her Greenpoint Avenue stop while fending him off, and then ran out at the 21st Street station at about 3 a.m. to get help.

A token booth clerk heard the woman struggling with her attacker and called for help, but followed MTA protocol and did not leave his booth. The conductor on a passing G train saw the man dragging her into a stairwell. He called the in incident but said the train was too far out of the station to stop and help. The station has security cameras, but they were not pointed in the direction of the attack.

The victim was treated at Elmhurst Hospital and released. Police are still looking for the attacker, who they said was a light-skinned black man with a moustache, in his 20s, who stands at about 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs around 160 pounds.

Long Island City finally received its long-sought-after Business Improvement District in July. The BID includes 84 properties along Queens Plaza North and South, from 21st Street to the waterfront.

With an annual budget of $300,000, the BID will fund extra street maintenance, including street sweeping, graffiti removal, garbage bagging and the maintenance of plants and landscaping, as well as an unarmed security patrol from 4 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday. The BID will also run a marketing campaign to bring customers and new businesses into the area.

The old Jamaica Savings Bank building on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, now a North Fork Bank branch, was designated a New York City landmark. With its sloping roof and soaring windows, it has always stood out as a curious oddity among the round Macy’s building and the Queens Center Mall.

Designed by William Cann, the building was part of a centennial expansion of the Jamaica Savings Bank and was influenced by the futuristic aspirations of the 1964 World’s Fair. When finished in 1968, it won a design award from the Queens Chamber of Commerce.

The city’s Landmarks and Preservation Commission called it “a striking example of mid-20th century bank architecture.” But the City Council didn’t think so. In November, it would vote to revoke the landmark designation—only the fifth time it had revoked or altered a landmark designation.

The newly refurbished Victor Moore Arcade and Bus Depot at the Roosevelt Avenue subway station in Elmhurst opened after months of construction.

The depot allows buses to drop off and pick up passengers without clogging up traffic on congested Broadway and Roosevelt Avenue. Construction on the subway station continues.

In August, an Astoria man was arrested and charged with attacking a 9-year-old girl who was playing with her sister in Astoria Park.

Police said that 23-year-old Peter Belegrinos—on suspension from his job as a psychiatric aide at Elmhurst Hospital—dragged the girl into a wooded area of Astoria Park, near Ditmars Boulevard and Shore Boulevard, where he molested her.

A witness heard the girls’ screams and called 911. The suspect fled, but detectives spotted a 1999 Lincoln Town Car at the scene and traced it to Belegrinos, whom they arrested at his home. The girl was listed in stable condition at Elmhurst Hospital.

A 29-year-old father of three became the 10th Queens resident to be killed in the war in Iraq—weeks before his unit’s year-long tour of duty was set to end.

Friends in Woodside remember National Guard Private Hernando Rios as a generous man who loved to make others laugh and was always looking out for the less fortunate. He was the 10th member of “The Fighting 69th” to die in the Iraq War.

An impromptu quip about the Fountain of the Planets by Borough President Helen Marshall in Flushing Meadows Park angered Mayor Bloomberg—who ordered its immediate cleanup.

Queens elected officials and the New York Jets had targeted the site for a new stadium. Local residents opposed the plan and the Jets later chose a site in New Jersey.

Bloomberg was discussing problems with replacing public parkland for a private stadium when Marshall offered her two cents: “I went to the site. This is the fountains of the something or other,” Marshall said. “It is really now just a big pool of stagnant water, with garbage thrown in.” To which Hizzoner replied: “If it’s filled with garbage there will be somebody there this afternoon.”

Fresh water circulates into the fountain via a tidal gate, but wind-blown leaves and trash collect on its surface when maintenance is neglected.

Little more than a year after Drake Business Schools declared bankruptcy and ceased operations, a former employee and her husband were charged in September with looting more than $800,000 from the institution’s coffers.

Angela Sugrim, 29, who was accounts payable supervisor at Drake’s Astoria campus, and her husband, Rafiek Yussef, 33, both of Richmond Hill, allegedly deposited more than 200 school checks into bank accounts they controlled and pocketed the money.

The 131-year-old school shut in 2004 after its CEO, David Hart, was shot in the buttocks while exiting the turnstile at the Steinway Street subway station.

The Guardian Angels resumed a permanent presence in Queens thanks a donation of office space made by the Queens Auto Driving School.

The urban crime-fighting group, known for its trademark red berets and matching jackets, began operating from its new location near the 103rd Street station on Roosevelt Avenue in Corona. Assemblyman Jose Peralta brokered the deal after noticing an increase in gang activity and hearing reports that Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, was recruiting in the neighborhood.

An Astoria hit-and-run driver was sent to prison for up to 10 years for running down a 10-year-old boy who had been riding his bike across Ditmars Boulevard in 2003.

Witnesses said Emmanuel Kanios, 21, was racing another car down Ditmars when he plowed into Stefan Trajkovski, who was on his way home from a candy store with a friend.

An auto-crash expert estimated that Kanios—who turned himself in days later—was traveling between 50 and 60 miles per hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone. Neighbors complained the stretch of Ditmars was favored by drag racers.

In October, police busted “Kiko,” the notorious graffiti vandal accused of using Western Queens as his own personal canvas. Oliver Siandre, 27, allegedly scrawled his tag “Kiko” on upwards of 50 monuments, cars and trees, including a pillar in Astoria’s Athens Square Park and the Powhatan Regular Democratic Club in Long Island City.

Siandre, who kept pictures of his work at his Upper West Side home, was accused of causing more than $100,000 in damages. He later rejected a plea agreement that would have included prison time, a sign that prosecutors are getting tough on first-time graffiti offenders.

Rocks rained from Hell Gate Bridge onto the streets below, damaging cars and angering local residents. Amtrak workers repairing a stretch of the elevated track that runs between Ditmars Boulevard and 23rd Avenue in Astoria twice dislodged hails of marble-sized railroad ballast. A few larger rocks and pieces of metal also fell.

The owners of several damaged cars expressed satisfaction with Amtrak’s prompt handling of their damage claims. The work is expected to be completed this spring.

Local City Council members won reelection by large margins in November. Democrats Helen Sears of Jackson Heights, Eric Gioia of Sunnyside, Hiram Monserrate of Corona and Peter Vallone Jr. of Astoria all defeated their opponents. Vallone also ran as a Republican. Monserrate ran uncontested.

A Brooklyn father of two arrested in October for raping a 13-year-old girl was linked to a second attack.

Police arrested 33-year-old Jofre Bautista in October just days after he allegedly raped a schoolgirl in Woodside. Police said they matched Bautista’s DNA to samples recovered from a 15-year-old victim in 2003. In both cases, Bautista allegedly drove his van up to the girls and forced them inside, where he raped them at knifepoint.

The Department of City Planning announced the official start of rezoning for Dutch Kills in December. The plan would open more of the area to residential development, while allowing existing manufacturing uses to continue in the neighborhood, which covers the area between Northern Boulevard on the south, 36th Avenue to the north, 21st Street on the west and 38th Street on the east.

Welcome to the discussion.