03/02/13 12:00pm
03/02/2013 12:00 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO  |  A view of downtown Riverhead.

It was like watching protesters shouting and arguing with one another over a police barricade.

Michael White

Michael White

You’re probably familiar with the images from nightly newscasts: “Equal Rights for Gays!” one side would yell. “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” the other would retort.

Except in this case, those who gather in Jerry Steiner’s Allied Optical store for the semi-regular “Gathering of the Misfits” lunch have all been hoping for the same result: a re-energized and revitalized downtown Riverhead.

They just disagree about whether it will ever happen.

Here’s what the skeptics — all beleaguered business owners Steiner calls The Misfits — were saying:

Downtown’s a mess. There are shootings, druggies and prostitutes in plain sight, not to mention legal users seeking treatment at the nearby methadone clinic at the County Center. People with bucks are scared of the place. The only businesses that seem to be doing well are delis and travel places catering to migrant workers. The “Arts Means Business” and “Live, Work, Play” slogans that have emerged during the latest attempt at a downtown resurgence are just a window dressing; everyone’s losing money hand over fist.

Government help, be it from the town, state or county, seems to be available for nonprofits, bigger projects and connected folks, but not for the little guy, the guy who’s been dumping his kids’ college funds into his shop for the past decade, waiting for the big turnaround. The little guys are tired of waiting and losing money and being nickel-and-dimed by the state and town at every turn.

In the meantime, they feel largely ignored by the police department — and even when there is a boost in police presence and foot patrols downtown, they say, it never lasts much longer than the initial newspaper photo-op. Things are going nowhere fast.

On the other side, for the optimists in the room who crashed the party — those Steiner calls “Men of Vision” — downtown Riverhead could be the pride and joy of the East End. Resurgences have happened in once-blighted and beleaguered areas like Patchogue Village and Bay Shore, they say. Why not here? Downtown Riverhead has even more to offer than those areas. It’s the county seat. It’s got history. It’s got a river running through it with access to the Peconic bays and beyond. Families can drive boats to downtown Riverhead, dock and then hop ashore and walk around, taking in the sights.

It’s got culture and diversity, grit yet arts, historical components yet modern structures like the Hyatt Place hotel. It’s got potential.

But guess what? Potential doesn’t pay the bills.

How can you argue with that?

If I’d sat in Jerry’s any longer my neck would have gotten sore from all the back-and-forth. Things got a little heated at times. And just like those rallies outside the Supreme Court, no one was changing anyone’s mind.

I chimed in here and there if I thought I had a nugget of information that could help someone make or finish a point, but didn’t offer much by way of opinion. I’ve always managed to remain an optimistic guy, but who was I to these business owners they should be optimistic, that everything’s going to be OK? I haven’t dumped any money into downtown.

In the couple of weeks since Steiner’s gathering I’ve figured out that good news is indeed on the way.

Experts say stress comes from uncertainty. It seems to me this argument, which has raged pretty intensely over the past decade, is coming to a head. We’re truly, finally going to get an answer.

There are now more reasons for people to visit the expanded aquarium site, three apartment projects are in the works for Main Street and the newly renovated Suffolk Theater is about to hold its first big bash tonight, Saturday. Without a doubt, we’ll be finding out in the next few years which way things are going to break. We’ll know whether downtown will re-emerge as the bustling business district it was in the ’50s and ’60s, or whether everyone’s going to lose their shirts and get out of Dodge, leaving it once again to the druggies and prostitutes.

In the meantime, what choice do we have but to be hopeful?

Most of the downtown business owners who drop in for a joke and a drink at Steiner’s have been on Main Street for a while now. Even in the last couple of years, they’ve been dumping even more money into their establishments — so I suspect hope is still alive in them, too. If things do turn around downtown and people start making money there, it will be up to the rest of us to give these guys their due.

They’ve been the true believers.

mwhite@timesreview.com

01/31/13 2:59pm
01/31/2013 2:59 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Demitri Hampon appeared on the cover of a Suffolk County Community College campus magazine in 2012.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Demitri Hampton appeared on the cover of a Suffolk County Community College campus magazine in 2012. He would have graduated this spring.

The extended family had already suffered a big blow two years ago, when grandma died. She was the rock who for so long seemed to hold everything together. But during those trying times of late 2011, as the first holidays without her approached and a long winter set in, everyone had Demitri to lift their spirits

Michael White

Michael White

Never too far away, the then-teenager could make for a moment of levity during any time of despair, and by any means necessary. That meant he wasn’t above donning a wig or a skirt, or randomly spraying himself with air freshener. He was also prone to rolling on the floor in fits of laughter. With Demitri around, you couldn’t help but smile and forget whatever pain you might feel.

“I don’t think I would have been able to get through Grandma’s passing without Demitri,” said one of his cousin’s, Fawn Gettling.

“He always lived on a positive note” and was never in a bad mood, explained another cousin, Latisha Diego.

That’s the cruel irony behind Demitri Hampton’s death during a home invasion early Sunday in Flanders. His personality and positive outlook is exactly what his family and the rest of his loved ones need most right now.

And they are at an utter loss to imagine how, exactly, they will manage without him.

Demitri had the misfortune of being awake and playing video games when two armed men broke through the front door of the Priscilla Avenue house at 3 a.m. Determined to protect his sleeping girlfriend and family, he had fought with the intruders before he was shot in his chest and later died at Peconic Bay Medical Center. No one else was hurt before the suspects fled.

“He will forever be a hero,” said his sister, Jennifer Davis. “There won’t ever be a time when I won’t miss my little brother.”

For Ms. Gettling, she believes her loss is the gain of her grandfather, who died in 2004, and grandmother.

“The thing that I keep saying to my brother, and I keep in my brain, is that he was always doing whatever he could to keep my grandma laughing,” she said. “I believe that he’s in heaven making my grandma and my grandfather laugh hysterically, so they’re up there cracking up.

“So that helps a little bit.”

Demitri was hardly a do-nothing prankster though; he had big dreams and he was working toward achieving them.

Whether it was going to be through acting, modeling, comedy, a college degree or the Air Force, the charismatic young man had been intent on becoming “somebody,” as his relatives said. Just the type of person who usually makes it in this world.

But he wanted to help others just as much as he wanted to help himself, performing small, heroic acts long before his death.

“He was very encouraging,” said Ms. Diego, recalling the hours before his death, as the two shared some of their hopes and plans for the future as they watched movies on her king-sized bed. “He was saying, ‘It’s gonna be OK. It’s gonna be OK. I know you’re going to do it.’ ”

“He had that ‘no man left behind’ type of mentality,” added his cousin Neko Gettling. “He believed that if he could make it, everybody else could too.”

That showed through his extracurricular activities at Riverhead High School and the middle school, where he volunteered for seven years with the Council for Unity anti-gang group. Then, at Suffolk County Community College, he served as a mentor and role model through the Black Male Network, a newly founded student club devoted to encouraging high school students to go to college.

Basically, his family and friends explained, he had a simple message to high school kids: “I’m going to college; and so can you.”

That’s the other irony in Demitri Hampton’s tragic death. What’s almost certain is that these killers — whose race or ethnicity is unknown — were at some point the type of at-risk youths Demitri had always sought to help through his volunteer work. Had they all met in another time and place, Demitri might have taken them under his wing to get them on the right track.

In killing him, they not only brought unspeakable grief upon his friends and family, but theirs as well, as they will surely be caught and wind up spending decades in prison. During that time, they’ll get to reflect not only Demitri and his shortened life, but the lives of all those other souls he never got the chance to help.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-298-3200, ext. 152 or mwhite@timesreview.com.

12/07/12 7:30am
12/07/2012 7:30 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Reko, a 5-year-old male American Staffordshire Terrier, when he was in the shelter in 2010.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Reko, an American Staffordshire Terrier, at the dog shelter in 2010. He was later sent to the Kent Animal Shelter for adoption.

Animal lovers. Animal activists. Cat ladies. Dog zealots. Nut-jobs.

Michael White

Call them what you want, but the people who have been condemning the town’s animal shelter are not going anywhere. This is a virtual sit-in, being waged with constant phone calls, letters and emails to the town’s elected and appointed leaders, as well as to the media.

You can also call these people bullies and ask why they’ve set up shop in Riverhead Town while demanding its taxpayers give up more of their hard-earned money to care for animals when other troubles warrant more attention. But dismissing the animal advocates won’t do any good. They’re activists, and this is their cause. Whether you deem it worthy or not.

And they can bring the heat. Just look what happened to the previous animal control officer/shelter head. He’s gone now, having resigned because he couldn’t take the constant criticism, second-guessing, name-calling and public humiliation.

But it wasn’t his fault. The town’s antiquated system of having dog catchers run the pound and answer to a police chief is what set him up to fail. It’s not the 1950s anymore and this dog pound needs to become an actual shelter — that’s basically the zealots’ demand — complete with properly trained and experienced management, an organized adoption mechanism and a community outreach program to help educate the next generation to properly care for pets, and thus prevent more abused dogs from ending up in shelters. Only then will the activists leave us all alone.

In a system of government controlled in large part by special interests, there are plenty of less worthy causes to cave to.

The pet industry is constantly evolving. (Remember when you could buy a puppy in the mall?) And today’s model shelter operation, described above, is just the latest piece of the puzzle, so to speak, as we strive as a country to treat animals more humanely. Simply put, how we treat animals is a reflection of our overall “goodness” as a society.

The philosopher might say positive treatment of animals is a good in and of itself, and thus begets more goodness, which benefits everyone.

Some have argued, through letters to the editor and our online comments section, that spending so much time and money on animal welfare is a waste because so many human beings are going hungry and homeless. Stop. Certainly a town and its people can strive to help human beings and animals alike. Some advocates prefer to help people, others are more suited to helping animals. In the end, that’s their call.

To me, the argument that we should forgo helping animals because some people are in need holds as much water as saying it’s wrong to build parks, or for someone to buy a Rolex or go skiing, when so many people are starving in this world. Many people value and care for animals.

The town should strive to do the same to the best of its ability, as other towns have done. But doing so takes money, and it all boils down to priorities. Simply put — judging by the dollar figures alone — Riverhead’s dog shelter is not a priority.

A News-Review special report in 2010, found that neighboring Southampton Town spends about $500,000 a year in taxpayer money to fund its shelter operations. Southold Town spends about $360,000, not including debt service on a fairly new building, and Riverhead spends about $200,000.

The inadequate funding here means problems keep arising, like a mauling and a sudden staff exodus that leaves the entire shelter to one part-time worker. That’s why the zealots are constantly up in arms.

Both Southold and Southampton have enlisted nonprofit groups to run their shelters. Riverhead could do the same, but town Councilman James Wooten has said it will take about $300,000 to get a group like the North Fork Animal Welfare League, which runs Southold’s shelter, to take over Riverhead’s operation. The challenge is to come up with that extra cash, and during tough times.

Here’s my idea. As was mentioned in a recent News-Review editorial, the town has been swatting down proposals from hobbyist groups looking to use some space at town land in Calverton to do things like hold autocross competitions, fly model airplanes and operate a paragliding school — to name a few.

We’ve all seen with the car-storage operation at the former Grumman property that things can happen there, and quickly, without state interference. So let’s let some of these smaller groups rent space in Calverton, then earmark the proceeds for the shelter; $20,000 here and there can add up quickly.

One way or another, there’s no doubt the town must act to get its dog shelter problems under control.

If not for the activists, then because it’s simply the right and decent thing to do.

Michael White is the News-Review editor. He can be reached at (631) 298-3200, ext. 152 or at mwhite@timesreview.com.

10/06/12 8:00am
10/06/2012 8:00 AM
Riverhead, Supreme Court, Griffing Avenue, Michael White

COURTESY SUFFOLK COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY | Griffing Avenue was once a tree-lined block that bustled with activity.

Sure, people love New York, as the slogan goes. “Greatest City in the World!” disc jockeys across the FM and AM dials proclaim daily.

Michael White, Riverhead, Suffolk County, Supreme Court

MICHAEL WHITE

There’s a certain amount of pride for us whenever we see those familiar bird’s-eye views of the NYC skyline during a premier sporting event like Monday Night Football. Movies showcase the city’s parks and architectural wonders. Rappers bestow iconic status on the city’s toughest neighborhoods.

But the reality for most on eastern Long Island is that NYC has nothing to do with us except as a place we might visit during the holidays or every so often for a play or a ballgame.

Yet that pride we feel remains directed there, at the city, and not right here at home.

Young people know this most of all. There’s a time for all Long Island teenagers when it seems their entire sense of self-worth depends on how close they live to the city. The closer one is, the cooler. No two ways about it. They’ll lie about it upon meeting other teens on vacation and exaggerate their connections to the city while away at college.

Every young person knows who the mayor of NYC is. Go ask someone under 25 to name the Suffolk County executive.

So when people talk about New York, and all this state pride we have, I just don’t buy it.

Maryland has some serious state pride. Don’t believe me? Take a five-hour ride down I-95. Those people slap their state flag on everything — HoJo’s, McDonald’s, the Baltimore Ravens, their forearms and thighs. Even you know what the Maryland state flag looks like. (Need a reminder? It’s a split pattern of yellow and black checkers and white and red crosses.)

When’s the last time you saw a New York State emblem flown or worn proudly, other than on the side of a trooper car?

All this lack of state pride trickles down to the county levels.

There are almost 1.5 million of us here in Suffolk County. Probably 1.47 million can’t name the county seat. You know, like a county capital. Where all the stuff happens. But I don’t need to tell my readers this, you people are the .03 million, the folks who are well aware where the county seat is, because you live here and every once in a while someone brings it up.

Even when Riverhead is mentioned as the county seat in any sort of literature or web entry, it’s got a sort of asterisk next to it. Take this line: “[Suffolk’s] county seat is Riverhead, though many county offices are in Hauppauge on the west side of the county where most of the population lives.”

This stupid thing appears everywhere, verbatim — Wikipedia, Newsday, even Congressman Tim Bishop’s website.

According to the National Association of Counties, there are 33 counties in 11 states that have two county seats. We’re not one of them.

Everyone who lives in Suffolk County should know where the county seat is, dammit. And be proud. Own it. Have a stake in it.

Sure, the county’s huge, but we’re more than just our school districts or our proximity to New York City. The condition of downtown Riverhead and the courts and county offices here reflects on all county residents, from Amityville to Montauk. And with the town’s emphasis on farmland and other preservation efforts, Riverhead is a reminder of what we all once were.

That’s why I’m especially excited, yet at the same time frustrated and none too confident, about the restoration work at the historic state Supreme Court buildings on Griffing Avenue, just a short walk from downtown.

The News-Review reported this week the buildings should be fully renovated by next summer. When this is accomplished, Suffolk County will finally have a historic courthouse that rivals those of the city boroughs (though obviously smaller). Exciting news indeed.

But, like most of us who live or work here, I’ve been frustrated that the renovation has already taken six years. Despite the explanations we keep getting from county officials, perfectly reasonable as those explanations might be, it still feels like we’ve been getting jerked around by “where most of the population lives.”

Why am I none too confident in the future?

The new civil courthouse that opened in 2007 behind the historic one isn’t getting the attention it deserves; it’s easy to notice with a quick walk around the building. There’s improper signage, unkept and overgrown landscaping, and a litter problem.

This new building is an investment, and so is the $50 million historic courthouse project. These are not just bones that have been thrown to appease East End politicians.

Once the renovated courthouse is open, the county executive and our other pals in Hauppauge should make a very big deal about it, then see to it that Riverhead’s entire court district is well maintained, with appealing supporting infrastructure. And maybe slap the renovated courthouse’s image on some promotional materials.

It wouldn’t hurt to boast about the county seat — and instill some pride.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com or (631) 298-3200, ext. 152.

09/14/12 8:00am
09/14/2012 8:00 AM
Heidi Behr, Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | The future Heidi Behr Memorial Park & Boardwalk?

It’s heroes week in the United States, as it is every year around the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

TV, newspapers and Facebook abound with images and remembrances of those lost on Sept. 11, 2001, with a spotlight on the men and women who ran to their deaths to save others.

Sept. 11 has become a sort of de facto memorial day for the country’s much-deserving emergency responders.

So there may be no better time than now to remark on one of Riverhead’s greatest fallen heroes — volunteer EMT Heidi Behr — and how we could best honor her memory.

Heidi was killed in an ambulance crash while responding to a call in May 2005. William Stone, a paramedic from Rocky Point, was also killed in the crash.

They were part of a crew rushing a heart attack victim to the hospital when their ambulance struck a tree on Main Road in Aquebogue.

Heidi, only 23 at the time, left behind a 13-month-old son, Jared, who is blind and suffers from epilepsy, cerebral palsy and brain damage. Ever since the crash, he’s been raised by Heidi’s parents, John and June, with the help of their other daughter, Dana.

The outpouring of support this family has received from fellow ambulance and fire volunteers and others since Heidi’s death has been awe-inspiring.

When it was becoming nearly impossible for the Behrs to continue raising Jared, who cannot walk, in their modest 800-square-foot house on Riverside Drive, a group of local people and businesses donated time and money to rebuild the Cutchogue home of June Behr’s late parents and make it fully handicapped accessible.

It’s now a place where Jared can grow — with plenty of room for his necessary support equipment — as his grandparents age.

And through the effort to rebuild that house, the Heidi’s Helping Angels community support group was born.

Volunteers with Heidi’s Helping Angels are at work every year now, mostly raising money for scholarships for Riverhead and Mercy high school students in Heidi’s name. In fact, next Thursday night is the group’s annual steak dinner fundraiser at Polish Hall. At last year’s event, Peconic Bay Medical Center pledged an annual $5,000 donation to the Heidi Behr Memorial Scholarship Fund.

These examples of one community’s outpouring of support are why I always tell people that if they ever, God forbid, found themselves facing some life-threatening injury or otherwise in need of help after a tragedy, they would be so lucky to live in Riverhead.

This is a community that rallies like no other I’ve witnessed on Long Island.

Which is why it’s beyond my understanding that more than seven years after her death, no government property has been named in Heidi Behr’s honor. I can’t think of a more deserving person to have a highway or bridge named after her.

In town and in the schools we have dozens of places and structures, big and small, named for people. Think of all the parks named after politicians, including Stotzky Memorial Park, Milton L. Burns Park and Lombardi Park.

Yet nothing for Heidi Behr.

Here was a volunteer, a 23-year-old single mother, who died in the line of duty trying to save another person’s life. And she wasn’t just an ambulance member; she was one of the best. Heidi had received “Top Responder” and “Corpsman of the Year” awards with the ambulance corps.

She may be the town’s greatest fallen hero outside of Medal of Honor recipient Garfield Langhorn.

While we live in a world full of complainers, young and old alike, dwelling on what they haven’t got, this young women gave herself — not only to her son and her family, but to her community.

Imagine just a playground named for Heidi. Children across Riverhead might then be asking who she was.

She was one of the best our community has ever produced, parents would answer. She was a true role model.

I’ll float one bold idea right here. The riverfront boardwalk park downtown is in need of a namesake. It should be named the Heidi Behr Memorial Park & Boardwalk. Throughout most of the year, the park is a quiet, tranquil place, with the placid Peconic River as its centerpiece. It’s a place many of us stop to sit and reflect. It would be fitting.

Heidi Behr grew up just a short walk from the Peconic River as a kid. A young hero in the making.

Michael White is the editor of the News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.

07/27/12 11:00am
07/27/2012 11:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Director Karen Testa holds a snapping turtle that came to the center with a broken jaw. Dental acrylic is holding its broken bones in place as they heal.

Shells shattered, jaws crushed, legs and paws mangled. Karen Testa and the volunteers at Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, which opened in Jamesport in May, see it all. And, Ms. Testa freely admits, it is physically and emotionally exhausting.

They do it because nobody else does, she says.

And it never gets any better.

MICHAEL WHITE

“I foresee doom in their future, because of the pollution in the water and all the development,” Ms. Testa told me last week, not the slightest hint of exaggeration in her voice. “We had to euthanize 20 turtles in just over two months. And these are just the ones that people find. Could you imagine the ones that they don’t find? They die a slow, horrible death off in the woods. Or they drown at the bottom of the bay.”

Most turtles are injured by cars, boat propellers, tractors or  industrial lawn mowers.

If they’re fortunate enough to be found, they end up in Jamesport.

Housed in a two-story 1929 colonial that sits on a full acre, the rescue operation is currently home to about 70 turtles, 30 of which are recovering from surgeries on the building’s second floor, which is complete with an ICU, nursery and operating tables.

Ms. Testa and her two principal volunteers, Ryan Ortiz of Orient and Beth Groff of Jamesport, are available by phone 24 hours a day for emergencies. If someone can’t bring a turtle to the rescue center, the volunteers will go to the turtle, no matter where it is on Long Island or the city.

“We’ll go somewhere just to move a turtle; say a snapper turtle is on a golf course and people don’t know what to do,” said Ms. Testa, the owner of Suffolk-based K Testa Real Estate who, not surprisingly, doesn’t spend much time selling homes nowadays.

It would be easy for anyone to imagine these animals dying out in the woods after seeing the turtles being nursed back to health in Jamesport. Some have their jaws wired shut, others have their shells stapled together. Many are missing limbs. Some have deformed shells or ear abscesses due to water pollution or mis-care or malnutrition.

Just days before my visit, volunteers had to tube-feed a two-inch baby diamondback terrapin after a woman stepped on it in her garden in Sag Harbor.
“Could you believe that?” Ms. Testa added, thrilled that the little one has been doing fine lately.

The Turtle Rescue is the kind of place that’s depressing, in a way, especially seeing the more skittish turtles and wondering what they might have been through. But it also makes you proud of mankind, just knowing there are people willing to give so much to care for these venerable yet vulnerable creatures.

Not only Ms. Testa and the volunteers, but people like Sal Caliguri of Sal’s Auto Body in St. James, which purchased and donated the one-acre property. And Dr. Robert Pisciotta of North Fork Animal Hospital in Southold, a resident vet who works pro bono in his spare time to care for the turtles.

When I asked Ms. Testa just what it was about turtles that sparked such passion in her and the others, she explained that turtles “are the underdog; they need the most help.”

And many of them shouldn’t ever have been born. Red-eared sliders, for one, are farmed specifically for the many pet stores across the state, country and overseas, where anyone could buy a juvenile for just a few bucks.

These turtles aren’t indigenous to New York but instead, Ms. Testa said, get dumped by people “after junior’s been occupied for a month.”

The dozen or so sliders at the shelter will be there their entire lives, as they can’t legally be released into local woods and waters.

“Many of them will outlive me,” Ms. Testa said.

In the wild, red-eared sliders live for about 50 years. Not in someone’s house; that’s a commitment no person can keep.

But Ms. Testa said she’s too busy to lobby in Albany to outlaw the sale of turtles, because she’s at the center all day. In some of her downtime, she hands out informational cards to local landscapers, urging them to look out for turtles and, if they hit one with a mower, to call Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons.

“Tortuga, tortuga,” she’ll tell those who don’t speak English.

A man from East Islip called the center about the time I arrived last Thursday. He had found a terrapin in distress at a marina there. It was probably injured by a boat. The rescue staff told him to take it to a local animal hospital, which he did. A vet had to put it down, the staff later learned.

“Well, that’s one less turtle suffering,” said Ms. Testa.

If you spot a turtle that appears to be in distress, call Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons at 631-603-4959, 516-729-7894 or 631-779-3737. Visit http://turtlerescueofthehamptons.org/ to find out more information about the center, or how to donate or volunteer.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com.

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