Thursday, January 8, 2009

This Week's Forum South and West

Boy Struck and Killed by Campaign RV


By Patricia Adams

Nine-year-old Ibrihim Ahmed of Ozone Park was struck and killed at the intersection of Cross Bay Boulevard and Liberty Avenue just after 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon. The vehicle that hit him was an RV being used in the City Council campaign of candidate Mike Ricatto.

The driver of the vehicle , Alexander Aponte, 22, was arrested and charged for driving with a suspended license. On Wednesday morning, Aponte, of 166 East 61 Street in Manhattan, was arraigned before Queens Criminal Court Judge Suzanne Melendez on a misdemeanor charge of driving without a license. Bail was set at $5,000 and Aponte is due back in court on January 14th.

Witnesses looked on in horror as the boy, a fourth-grader at PS 63 in Ozone Park, was racing to his house on nearby 79th Street. One witness to the accident said it looked like the vehicle sped up to make a light "and smacked into the kid" at the busy intersection. "The kid had the light and was trying to run faster, but he didn't make it," said Raymond Sierra.

According to police sources, the RV swerved to avoid the boy but caught him with the back wheels of the vehicle, leaving him unconscious and mortally wounded. Emergency Medical Technicians pronounced him dead at the scene shortly afterward.

Ricatto addressed the issue through a press release issued after the incident. "This evening I am deeply saddened that a heartrending accident occurred involving my campaign bus and driver. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the child whose life was taken in this tragic accident. I have children of my own and can't imagine the pain of losing a child in an accident like the one that occurred today. Respectfully, I have suspended all campaign activities until further notice because the reverence for family loss comes before any politics."

On Wednesday, a Forum reporter stopped by Ricatto’s Cross Bay Boulevard campaign offices but was told nobody was available to discuss the incident. A staff member ordered the reporter to leave the office, and refused to provide her name. She also refused to say whether the campaign is merely suspended or cancelled outright.

One hour later, staff member James McClelland contacted the Forum to apologize for the woman’s behavior. He said that the campaign is currently suspended, but Ricatto hasn’t decided yet whether he will drop out of the race completely. Ricatto is, however, the only candidate in the race thus far reported to have already filed petition signatures with the Board of Elections.

“I can’t tell if it’s going forward at this point or canceled,” McClelland said. “Everybody is still distraught over what happened.”

McClelland did confirm reports from police sources that personal items belonging to female staffers were found on the RV following the accident, but stressed that the driver was the only person aboard at the time. He added that neither the campaign nor the driver realized the license was suspended. “At this point we don’t know exactly why it was suspended, initial reports are that it was due to unpaid tickets,” he said.

Ricatto was not in the area at the time of the accident and “immediately stopped what he was doing when he found out and went to his house,” said McClelland, who added that the candidate wanted to allow emergency personnel to do their job and “didn’t want to add to the scene.”

The driver is distraught as a result of the accident, said McClelland, who said he had somebody stop by to check on him Wednesday morning. “I don’t think he is going to recover quickly. He’s not in good shape… We’re still awaiting the findings of the investigation, but from what I overhead at the scene, it was just an accident, and we’re going to take it day by day.”

Photos and additional reporting by Conor Greene

Residents Protest Cell Tower Proposal

By Conor Greene

Residents and elected officials rallied this week in Manhattan to protest the city’s decision to allow Omnipoint Communications to place a cellular tower on top of a two-family home in Maspeth.

Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) residents and civic leaders gathered on Monday morning outside the offices of the Board of Standards and Appeals in Lower Manhattan. The protest came weeks after the city agency granted Omnipoint a variance allowing a 13-foot cellular tower on top of a two-story house at 53-20 72nd Place.

“With this approval, the BSA has now set a very dangerous precedent allowing a 13-foot tower on a two-family house,” said Avella, who has recently called for the city to either reform or abolish the BSA. “This is now a huge precedent, which is scary to be honest, that we can have these things in quiet, low-density neighborhood.”

On December 16, the BSA voted 4-0 in favor of granting the application, despite overwhelming opposition from residents, elected officials and local community board members since it was first proposed in November 2007. The 13-foot tower will be mounted on the roof of the house, extending nearly 43 feet above street level.

The proposal initially called for a 25 foot pole rising nearly 55 feet above the street. In addition, the pole’s diameter has been reduced from 36 inches to 32 inches, and the structure will no longer be designed to resemble a flag pole.

After several public hearings, the BSA determined that “the proposed pole and related equipment will be located, designed and operated so that there will be no detrimental effect on the privacy, quiet, light and air of the neighborhood,” the board determined in its resolution affirming the decision. “The board further finds that the subject use will not alter the essential character of the surrounding neighborhood nor will it impair the future use and development of the surrounding area.”

However, many residents worry the tower will negatively impact their property values and could pose longterm health risks. “We’ve never seen anything like it, and are concerned that it doesn’t belong on top of a two-family building… in a residential neighborhood,” Peggy Vitalo told NY1 news. Her neighbor, June Osman, said her family is considering moving after 69 years in the neighborhood if the tower is built.

Federal law prohibits the BSA from rejecting the cell tower application because of potential health risks, and the BSA resolution affirming its decision notes that antidotal evidence from residents suggesting that there already is adequate coverage in the area also can’t be taken into consideration.

One of the few options left for residents is to challenge the city’s decision in court, which amounts to an expensive long-shot. Still, Avella said he is committed to assisting residents and civic groups if they go that route. “There are some legal aspects we can review as it relates to the application,” he said.

Avella noted that while “it’s a done deal as far as the city is concerned, there are always avenues we can pursue, adding that “the power of public opinion may be the best strategy we have when it comes to [fighting] these cell towers.” He said that after a two-year battle, residents in his district were successful in convincing a local church take down 23 antennas it had placed on top of its elementary school.

“Certainly, we can’t rely on the city,” said Avella, who is challenging Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his seat this fall. “Unfortunately, it’s typical.” Since taking office in 2002, he has pushed to reform the agency and provide residents with a way to appeal BSA decisions to the City Council, or scrap the agency entirely.

Some residents have suggested that there is another course of action available in this case. The house at 53-20 72nd Place is owned by Joseph Wroblewski, whose family owns Frank’s Deli in the adjacent building. In exchange for allowing Omnipoint to place the antenna on the house, which is rented out, Wroblewski will receive an undisclosed monthly rental fee.

Angry about the impact the project might have on the neighborhood, some individuals posting on online blogs have called for a protest of his family’s business.

“Everyone, and I mean everyone should boycott this deli,” wrote an anonymous poster on the local blog Queens Crap. “Show this guy who built his business on the backs of people in this community that he no longer has a business. Let his business dry up, just like the real estate in this neighborhood will… Wroblewski can just hop in his expensive truck and hightail it out to his lavish Long Island community. He’s laughing at the people of Maspeth… all the way to the bank.”

Wrote another poster: “It’s not bad enough that we all deal with the crap that surrounds the operation of that deli (early morning deliveries, 2 a.m. garbage pick ups, cars double parked or parked in crosswalks/fire hydrants and the garbage that blows [on] our streets. Now they can go home to LI and we can stare at our new cancer emitting flag pole.”

On Tuesday, Wroblewski refused to discuss the project, or comment on the residents’ calls for a boycott of his family’s business. “It is what it is,” he said. When asked how much he is receiving from Omnipoint, he first said, “I have no idea,” before adding, “I don’t think it’s anybody’s business.”

For residents living near the tower, it is a simple case of a large corporation with deep pockets disrupting the area’s quality of life, and an absentee landlord benefiting as a result. “Quite obviously, he [Wroblewski] bought this house to make money and doesn’t care about the community,” said Manny Caruana, a member of the Juniper Park Civic Association, following last month’s BSA ruling. “Anybody who does certainly wouldn't do this."

Oliva Steps Down as CTK Coach


By Conor Greene

Nine months after he revealed he was accused of sexually abusing a family friend, Christ the King High School head boys’ basketball coach Bob Oliva has announced his retirement.

After 27 years at the Middle Village parochial school – a perennial city basketball powerhouse – Oliva officially retired this week. He had not coached a game since March, when his squad lost to Holy Cross in the city Catholic High School Athletic Association championship game.

In April, Oliva informed Christ the King’s board of directors that he received a letter accusing him of sexually abusing longtime family friend Jimmy Carlino starting when the boy was 13 years old. On May 1, a Florida attorney sent Oliva a follow-up letter informing him that Carlino would drop the matter in exchange for a $750,000 payment and the coach’s resignation from CTK by the end of the 2008 school year.

While the school’s board of trustees stood by Oliva, the coach has been on a leave of absence since the team began practicing in November due to a heart ailment. According to published reports, Oliva believes the heart condition was aggravated by the allegations.

“I’m finished,” the 64-year-old coach recently told the Daily News. “I’m going to walk away from the program. It is a terrible way to go out.” Oliva finishes his career with a record of 549-181 and five city championships. Dozens of former players went on to play high-level college ball, and eight players eventually reached the NBA, including Lamar Odom – currently a star with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The school’s athletic director, Joe Arbitello, has been named the permanent coach after guiding the squad to a 9-1 record to start this season.

When the allegations first became public, attorney Thomas Ognibene, a member of the school’s board of trustees and former City Councilman, said he doubts the claims, given Oliva’s track record overseeing thousands of children over several decades coaching.

“It’s a lot of nonsense, but unfortunately he has to be subjected to this,” said Ognibene. “He used to be like a godfather to the kid, he met him when he was eight and basically took care of this kid for a number of years. The kid had gambling and drug problems, and Bob stood with him.”

Late in 2007, Oliva decided to drop Carlino from his will, which Ognibene speculated led to the accusations. “He [Oliva] said, ‘I can’t help you anymore and I’m taking you out of my will,’ which I understand was a pretty substantial sum,” said Ognibene. “As soon as that happened, he had an epiphany and said ‘Bob Oliva molested me when I was a kid.’”

Oliva met Carlino, who attended Archbishop Malloy High School, when the coach owned a bar in Ozone Park called the Short Porch. Carlino’s father was a bartender there, and Oliva sometimes paid the boy to clean the bar, according to reports.

He also coached Carlino in the Catholic Youth Organization athletic league. “It’s about time that he did the right thing,” Carlino told the Daily News. “I’m glad he won’t cause any more problems for any more children.” That paper reported that two former players have recently claimed that Oliva abused them. CTK President Michael Michel said that the school didn’t force Oliva to resign, and isn’t aware of any other allegations against the coach.

Revised Maspeth School Plans to be Unveiled

Update on Proposal at Next Week's CB 5 Meeting

By Conor Greene

The School Construction Authority is expected to provide residents and community leaders with a look at its revised plans for a school being proposed for Maspeth at next week’s Community Board 5 meeting.

The SCA is also expected to give updates on several other construction projects going on elsewhere in the area at the meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, January 14 at 7:30 p.m. in Christ the King High School in Middle Village. Details will be provided regarding additions underway at PS 49 and PS 113 and a new building going up next to PS 128, according to CB 5 District Manager Gary Giordano.

The city initially proposed building a 1,650-seat school at the site of the former Restaurant Depot warehouse at 74th Street and 57th Avenue to serve students in grades 6-12. The plan was met with opposition from residents who say the area, which already has two schools, is oversaturated with schoolchildren. While many board members concede the area needs a high school, CB 5 overwhelmingly rejected the plan in May.

At the November Community Education Council 24 meeting, Lorraine Grillo, executive director and chief of staff of the SCA said that the project has been scaled back due to “concerns we heard voiced very loudly from the community board.” It now calls for a 1,000-seat building that the SCA hopes is “both useful for the district and palatable for the community,” said Grillo.

The Department of Education did not provide information about the new proposal by deadline. However, Giordano said that according to his most recent information, the new plan calls for either one 1,000-seat building or two 500-seat buildings, both of which would only serve high school students.

“I don’t think they plan to put an intermediate school there,” said Giordano. “I think there was some concern [from board members] about having sixth and seventh graders in the same facility as juniors and seniors in high school.”

Giordano said that most of the concerns centered on the amount of children pouring onto neighborhood streets, especially after dismissal time, and increased traffic in the already congested area. “I think it’s going to be a problem because it is going to add congestion to the area,” he said. “The upside of it is that it would provide high school opportunities in a much less crowded setting.”

The board has advised the SCA to look at alternate sites, including the former St. Saviour’s property on Rust Street in West Maspeth, said Giordano.

In addition, many board members have suggested that they would support the project if the city zones the new school to ensure that it primarily serves children from the neighborhood.“If the school is not a specialized high school, I would think logically that a good measure of zoning is going to apply,” said Giordano.However, the SCA has said that decisions over zoning are made by the city DOE, which has refused to make any guarantees to the community about the matter.

In other school construction news, the SCA is expected to update the board on the three other projects underway in the district. Giordano noted that all three schools currently only serve students up to fifth grade, but will be expanded through eighth grade when the projects are completed.

Earlier this year, the Glendale Property Owners Association reported to CB 5 that neighbors had complained that work was taking place at PS 113 after hours, sometimes as late as 11:30 p.m. In response, the civic group and community board filed complaints with the city Department of Building and SCA. That project includes an addition to the existing building and asbestos abatement.

At the time, the board said it hadn’t received complaints regarding the projects at PS 49 and PS 128, both in Middle Village.

Rego Park Psychiatrist Convicted of Sex Assault

A Long Island psychiatrist with a practice in Rego Park has been found guilty of sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl during two therapy sessions.

An attorney for Raj Danthuluri, 40, of Hicksville, proclaimed his client’s innocence and vowed to appeal the verdict, which came following a three-day bench trial in Queens Criminal Court. Danthuluri, who has an office at 64-33 99th Street, was found guilty of endangering the welfare of a child and third-degree sexual abuse on Monday.

Danthuluri now faces up to one year in prison when he is sentenced on February 13. He will also be required to register as a sex offender and submit a DNA sample to the DNA databank.

“As a medical doctor and therapist the defendant must have been aware of how harmful his actions would be to his young patient,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. “A doctor’s office should always be a safe place for a patient, free of sexual predators – especially those treating children.”

According to testimony provided at trial, Danthuluri touched the breast of a 16-year-old female patient during a psychiatric consultation in his private offices on May 1, 2007. During a psychiatric appointment with the same patient on July 23, 2007, the doctor touched her right breast and took her left breast out of her bra and pinched her nipple. The abuse came to light when the patient told her mother about the incidents.

A message left with Danthuluri’s attorney, Joseph Hanshe of Sayville, was not immediately returned. However, Hanshe told Newsday that he “fervently” believes in his client’s innocence. “He’s obviously very upset about this. He’s got family, and he’s got children. He’s a wonderful man and a wonderful doctor, and we’re going to appeal this.”

Danthuluri was convicted by Acting Queens Supreme Court Justice Barry Kron after deciding to forego his right to a jury trial.

Editor's Note: Danthuluri's attorney, Joseph Hanshe, provided the Forum with the following statement on Wednesday evening:

In my opinion, as a Lawyer who has defended physicians for over 25 years, Dr. Danthuluri is not guilty of any criminal activity. The girl who lodged these claims is a juvenile delinquent; she had been arrested for Assault, Robbery, fighting, kicking and spitting at a police officer and is currently on Probation with the Family Court of Queens County. She was and currently is on heavy duty medications for antisocial behavior. She has been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder who are individuals known to be liars. She was involved in a homosexual affair with another young girl when she present to Dr. D. Her mother is also on very potent antipsychotic mediations. It was the mother who gave the Doctor permission to examine the girl who came into his office complaining of chest pains, shortness of breath. She is currently seeing another psychiatrist who has her on very potent antipsychotic medications. It was this type of person that a Judge thought more credible than a respected physician in the community.