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Police investigating after black employee allegedly finds noose at workplace

01/14/2016 6:00 AM |

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Riverhead Town police are investigating an alleged harassment incident involving a black employee at the Riverhead oil terminal who claims to have found a noose hanging in a break room.

According to a police report filed Dec. 5, employee George Richards says he entered the lunchroom at United Riverhead Terminal about 2 p.m. Nov. 29 and found that “unknown persons placed a hangman noose on the coat hanger.”

Mr. Richards, who said he’s worked at the oil terminal for 12 years, told the News-Review only URT employees have access to the lunchroom.

Mr. Richards said that after finding the noose, he immediately notified another employee and was told by a URT manager that the matter would be investigated further. 

“I was horrified and felt discriminated against for obvious reasons … at this sight,” he said in a written statement to the News-Review, in which he claims to have been the target of the incident. “You don’t play around with a piece of rope in that [manner].” 

One week later, Mr. Richards went to the police.

Mr. Richards told the News-Review he waited to see how the company would respond and was unhappy with its handling of the alleged harassment.

In an interview Tuesday, URT owner and billionaire John Catsimatidis said he was aware an incident had taken place, but had not spoken to management at the oil terminal about the results of a company investigation.

Mr. Catsimatidis had hired a private investigator, former FBI officer Phil Scala of Pathfinder Consultants Inc. to look into the incident. 

In an interview with the News-Review Wednesday, Mr. Scala said he found the incident was unrelated to Mr. Richards’ race.

Mr. Scala said he spoke with 12 employees at the terminal on Dec. 8 and had an in-depth interview with a Riverhead police detective about a week later. Mr. Scala said he did not speak to Mr. Richards.

Mr. Scala said his investigation found the incident was caused by an unrelated retirement joke in the lunch room earlier that day. An unnamed employee was the host of a retirement party in the lunchroom and was asked what his plans were after retirement, Mr. Scala said. The employee joked that he would “hang himself,” and his coworkers tied a crude noose and threw it at the employee, Mr. Scala’s investigation found.

The party was allegedly going on while Mr. Richards was working on the oil platform, Mr. Scala said. Asked about the findings Wednesday evening, Mr. Richards said he had no knowledge of the party, but knew of an employee that was retiring around that time.

Mr. Scala said he learned a subcontractor later entered the lunch room, saw the crude noose and tied it properly, hanging it on the coat rack. That side of the story was provided by general manager Scott Kamm, Mr. Scala noted, since the subcontractor was on vacation at the time of his investigation.

He also said no employees harbored ill will toward Mr. Richards, who Mr. Scala said was justified in his concern.

“He’s right to question that,” Mr. Scala said, but added that “all those guys have nothing but praise about him here. I didn’t see anything that substantiated what alarmed the man.”

Mr. Scala said the stories of all the employees were consistent and that the group “didn’t have time to concoct anything.”

While Mr. Scala attributed the incident to a unintended coincidence, he did criticize the company’s handling of the incident, saying he did not know if Mr. Richards had been informed of the results of the investigation.

“They should have grabbed this guy, George, right then and there and dealt with it,” the private investigator said. “They should have nipped this in the bud and that didn’t happen.”

Mr. Catsimatidis said he had been told the incident was meant as an “internal joke among employees,” but he found nothing funny about the situation.

“I don’t take it as a joke,” the owner said. “We don’t tolerate that kind of behavior.”

Mr. Catsimatidis said any employees who are found to have done something wrong by the internal investigation or the Riverhead police should be fired.

“I’ll fire them myself,” he said, though he said no employee had been disciplined as of Wednesday.

Riverhead police Detective Sgt. Ed Frost confirmed that the investigation into the incident is “still open at this point.”

“We have it and have been investigating the incident,” Sgt. Frost said.

Riverhead police Detective Frank Hernandez, who is handling the case, said this type of alleged conduct would potentially be covered under a section of New York State law forbidding aggravated harassment related to race.

The state code for first-degree aggravated harassment, a Class E felony, forbids depictions of “a noose, commonly exhibited as a symbol of racism and intimidation, on any building” or on public or private property without the permission of the property owner.

But, Mr. Hernandez explained, the law also requires proof that an individual was targeted for harassment.

“It pretty much needs to be directed towards somebody or at a specific victim,” he said, noting that his investigation had not yet concluded.

When told of the results of Mr. Scala’s investigation, Mr. Richards said he had never been told the full story of what had happened, simply that a human resources employee and security director informed him the incident wasn’t directed at him.

Mr. Richards said he would be satisfied once the police had finished their investigation to give him closure. In the meantime, no one at the company has explained their side of the story to him or apologized for any misunderstanding.

“All I want is for them to close the case,” he said. “Give me some security, because to my knowledge no one has come forward. I’m just hearing stuff, hearing stuff.”

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Editor’s Note: This version of the story includes comments by a private investigator not found in the version published in the Jan. 14 edition of the Riverhead News-Review. The investigator’s comments were made Wednesday evening, after the paper had already been sent to the printer. 

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