10/18/13 4:15pm
10/18/2013 4:15 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Alice Belmonte has been charged with nearly 40 felony charges. Prosecutors say she bilked investors of roughly $4 million.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Alice Belmonte has been charged with nearly 40 felony charges. Prosecutors say she bilked investors of roughly $4 million.

A disbarred Wading River attorney accused of masterminding a $4 million real estate Ponzi scheme forged contracts, faked emails from banks, and signed her victims’ names for them, going so far as to convince a close friend that her pie-in-the-sky foreclosure deals were well worth the investment while she bought new cars and took vacations to California with the stolen funds, according to court documents and sources close to the case.

Alice Belmonte began luring the victims of her scam with promises of “quick, high rates of return on their investments,” the documents state. She reportedly told victims she had contacts with banks involved in real estate owned-listings, better known as foreclosures, that failed to sell at auction and were owned by lenders.

Prosecutors allege the REO transactions never existed, and that Ms. Belmonte ended up taking the money for herself.

She was arrested on Thursday on nearly 50 charges in total, and is currently being held on $3 million bail. She faces up to 25 years in prison.

*

Ms. Belmonte, 47, was a sole practitioner attorney specializing in real estate purchases and investments, with offices in New York City and on Long Island.

The scheme started in 2011, when Ms. Belmonte told investors that all they had to do was deposit money in her escrow account as “proof of funds” to let her prove to the REO listing owners she could close the deal, according to the documents.

She reportedly stole from 10 victims in total, starting with a group of investors from Florida in late 2011. According to prosecutors, she secured contracts with each of the victims – including one family that invested $2 million with Ms. Belmonte – over the next several months, asking them to wire $3.6 million in total into her escrow account.

Within days, the invested money had been taken out, in some cases on the same day it was deposited by her victims, the documents state. The money was then held in other bank accounts run by Ms. Belmonte and later used to repay other investors lined up in the Ponzi scheme.

Not long after their business relationship started, the Florida family which fell victim to Ms. Belmonte’s pyramid scheme noticed that her malpractice insurance policy included a section that “excluded coverage for intentional acts by a lawyer,” the documents state. They asked Ms. Belmonte to remove the section, but instead of getting rid of the amendment, Ms. Belmonte allegedly faked a new contract and gave it to them.

Through the forgery, she was able to keep them invested in her scam, authorities said.

The Florida victims’ money was reportedly never returned.

*

At the end of 2011, more victims were lured into the scam, court documents state. A “close friend” and an acquaintance of Ms. Belmonte would be the next victims.

She convinced the two victims to invest $250,000 as proof of funding for another REO transaction, then bounced $615,000 in checks representing their profit and initial investment to the pair, according to the documents.

To reassure them that they would be paid soon, Ms. Belmonte faked another contract claiming she would be receiving $2 million for the sale of her companies. The supposed buyer in the deal was a Florida investment group – her original investors she was simultaneously defrauding, the documents state.

Ms. Belmonte forged the signature of one of the Florida investors to perpetuate the fraud, prosecutors said. She eventually returned $25,000 of the money, using funds stolen from Florida to make the payment, the documents state.

Meanwhile, Ms. Belmonte was stealing another $250,000 from someone else interested in buying real estate. Once the buyer deposited the money, Ms. Belmonte withdrew the funds to pay off other accounts.

In December 2012, the victim cancelled the contract and asked for a refund. Ms. Belmonte gave the client a forged wire transfer receipt a month later after “many excuses and delays,” the documents state.

The money had never been sent, prosecutors said. Instead of the multi-million account she claimed to have, Ms. Belmonte’s account balance was actually just $8.55, according to court documents.

The buyer never got the stolen funds back, the documents state.

*

Ms. Belmonte used the millions in stolen funds not only to pay off other investors in the racket, but to treat herself to new cars and hotel room stays, a source familiar with the case said.

She recently used $100,000 to purchase two cars in California, a Chrysler 300 luxury sedan and a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, the source said. She also spent $77,000 of the money on hotel rooms in California, including rooms costing up to $1,750 per night, according to the source.

But by February, Ms. Belmonte was under pressure from four allegations brought by her victims that she misused their investment money, according to court documents.

In a state Supreme Court proceeding tendering her resignation as an attorney after 20 years, Ms. Belmonte admitted she “could not defend herself on the merits” of the charges. Her resignation was accepted and she was disbarred.

On Thursday, she was arraigned in Supreme Court in New York City.

Ms. Belmonte was charged with 39 felonies: one count of first-degree grand larceny, seven counts of second-degree grand larceny, one count of third-degree grand larceny, 26 counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, three counts of third-degree identity theft, one count of first-degree scheme to defraud in the first degree. She was also charged with 10 misdemeanor counts of issuing a bad check.

Ms. Belmonte pleaded not guilty to the charges and was held on $3 million cash or bond bail. She is due back in court on Dec. 9, court officials said.

Her attorney, Kenneth C. Murphy of Manhattan, only said on Friday that bail was set too high, and declined to comment further about the case or Ms. Belmonte.

 

10/06/13 10:00am
10/06/2013 10:00 AM

RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | A prop in the haunted village portion of Darkside Productions’ haunted house in Wading River.

Walking through a simulated haunted house, Mike Meola says, should trigger the same conflicting emotions one feels when riding a roller coaster.

“Your body is telling you, ‘Oh my god, I shouldn’t be upside down,’ but your brain is like, ‘Yeah, this is awesome!’ ” he says.

It’s with these feelings in mind that Mr. Meola, who has operated the Darkside Productions Haunted House in Wading River for the past 16 years, continuously looks for ways to scare and excite people when he transforms an old potato barn and surrounding field on Route 25A into a haven of horrors each fall.

“You’re going to see some really cool stuff,” he says. “You’re going to get that startle and you’re going to have that adrenaline rush.”

Making all that happen, however, is no easy task.

Northforker.com: Haunted houses and trails on the North Fork

Preparations for the Halloween season at Darkside Productions, Mr. Meola says, typically begin at the end of July and include building sets and creating props, like the menacing scarecrows hanging around in a field at the site’s haunted village. Ninety percent of the props are homemade, he says. The remaining 10 percent are purchased from Halloween specialty stores.

In addition, Mr. Meola hires about 50 actors each year to terrify visitors at Darkside Productions’ 30 “scare spots.” He works closely with each actor on improvisation and timing, he says. For safety reasons, the actors are prohibited from touching visitors.

Then there are the sets. Mr. Meola, a carpenter by trade, builds new wooden structures each year for his 3,000-square-foot haunted house and 10,000-square-foot haunted village — only to have to tear them down at the end of each Halloween season, which runs from Oct. 4 to Nov. 3. Most props are bundled into a storage unit during the off-season.

“Basically we tear down 90 percent of [the sets] each season because you can’t really store them out here,” Mr. Meola says. “Then we have to put everything back, change it, tweak it. It’s a tremendous amount of work and a lot of people don’t realize it. For 16 years, this has been my life.”

But it’s one he wouldn’t change. Mr. Meola has always had a love of the macabre, beginning when he was just 6 years old and saw “The Exorcist” for the first time.

“That movie scared the crap out of me, but I liked the feeling,” he says. “It was the first movie to actually make you feel like there was something under your bed, something in your closet, things that go bump in the night.”

Oscar Gonzalez, owner of the new Voodoo Field of Horrors haunted house in Mattituck, understands that feeling well, having first seen “The Exorcist” at age 10 in his native Costa Rica. Mr. Gonazalez’ love for horror quickly grew from there, later compounded by the existence of a year-round haunted house operated in Costa Rica by his former boss.

“That’s where my passion came from,” he says.

Mr. Gonzalez, a personal trainer who lives in Hampton Bays, got his start creating his own haunted houses two years ago when he and his partner, John Sieni, a co-owner of La Maison Blanche hotel on Shelter Island, transformed the inn and restaurant into the “Haunted Mansion” for an event that raised money for breast cancer research.

This year, Mr. Gonzalez said, he opted to move the event to the mainland so more people can attend. He has created a 1,500-square-foot wooden structure on the site of Patty’s Berries and Bunches on Sound Avenue that he says cost $6,000 in materials alone. The haunted house sits on the property across the street from Harbes Family Farm. Voodoo Field of Horrors opens Oct. 11 and runs through Oct. 27.

On a sunny afternoon last week, a sense of darkness loomed over Voodoo Field of Horrors. During a walk-through of the haunted house, Mr. Gonzalez pointed out the rooms’ various props, most of which he created, including a seven-foot-tall evil clown and a man being transformed into a frightening insect.

“I try to look for ideas on the Internet,” Mr. Gonzalez says of the inspiration behind his props. “As soon as I build a prop, I can design a scene.”

In a section of the haunted house Mr. Gonzalez refers to as “the baby’s room,” a demonic doll equipped with two bloody knives for hands waits in a shadowy corner to scare visitors. The rest of the room contains props like an old wooden rocking horse and a dilapidated antique carriage Mr. Gonzalez picked up at a thrift store. Not surprisingly, the effect is thoroughly unsettling.

“We try to target the fears of people,” Mr. Gonzalez says. “When I designed this haunted house, I designed it to target those fears — claustrophobia, darkness. I want to make you feel like you want to get out of here.”

In Wading River, Mr. Meola shares a similar vision.

“We try to put something for everybody in here because there are things that really terrify certain people,” he says. “Fear of bugs, fear of being alone, fear of dolls, fear of clowns.”

Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Meola agree that their ultimate task is to create a spooky but completely safe experience.

“As much as we want to be scary, we’re here to entertain you,” Mr. Meola says.

ryoung@timesreview.com

10/01/13 10:38am
CARRIE MILLER PHOTO |

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Rick Mascia, 21, is led into Riverhead Town Justice Court for his arraignment on a burglary charge Tuesday morning.

Two men — including a man wanted for violating probation — are being held at Suffolk County jail Tuesday afternoon after they were arrested on burglary charges Monday in Mastic Beach hours after a break-in at a Wading River home earlier that day, according to a police statement.

Ryan Mercado, 21, of Shirley and Rick Mascia, 21, were arraigned in Riverhead Town Justice Court Tuesday morning on second-degree burglary charges in connection with the theft, police said.

A resident at the targeted home on 15th Street called police at 1:19 a.m. to report her house had been “forcibly entered,” police said. The woman told police $4,000 in cash had been taken from the home.

CREDIT MAPQUEST

CREDIT MAPQUEST

“It looks like they just kicked in the front door,” said police Lt. Robert Peeker.

Detectives gathered information and found Mr. Mercado and Mr. Mascia were staying at the Smith Point Motel, arresting the men just after noon.

Some of the stolen money was recovered, police said.

A bench warrant out of county court had been issued for Mr. Mascia for violating probation in connection with a driving while intoxicated arrest in 2012, his attorney said in court.

Mr. Mascia is being held on $10,000 bail, while Mr. Mercado is being held on $2,500 bail.

“Right now I’m broke. I just have a bad habit,” Mr. Mercado said when asked how he supported himself.

psquire@timesreview.com

 

09/30/13 8:39pm
09/30/2013 8:39 PM
JOSEPH PINCIARO PHOTO | North Wading River Road was shut down for about two hours on Monday afternoon.

JOSEPH PINCIARO PHOTO | North Wading River Road was shut down for about two hours on Monday afternoon.

Update, 1 p.m. Tuesday: Stony Brook University hospital said the man who exited his brother’s car is in critical condition.

Original story: Police say a Wading River man was driving drunk when his brother exited his car and hit the pavement along North Wading River Road, sending him to Stony Brook University Hospital in a helicopter.

Riverhead police said they received a call shortly after 5 p.m. reporting a man in the roadway, between Sylvan Drive and Hulse Avenue.

The man was reportedly unconscious when authorities arrived. Though Wading River Fire Chief Jim Evans said a helicopter was called in to airlift the man to Stony Brook, he was reportedly breathing on his own when he was transported out.

Police arrested George Lamond on a DWI charge, though the incident remains under investigation.

It was unclear how or why Mr. Lamond’s brother exited the vehicle.

North Wading River Road was shut down for about two hours while police investigated.

 

09/30/13 5:12pm
TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO  |  A model, presented in 2011, of the Knightland development planned for Wading River.

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | A model, presented in 2011, of the Knightland development planned for Wading River.

A state panel of judges upheld a ruling on Friday that will keep construction on a Wading River retail complex on hold – at least, for now.

The New York State Appellate panel ruled to allow a restraining order on building and excavation permits to stay in place while another appellate judge rules on an appeal of a lawsuit against Riverhead Town made by the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, said Dominique Mendez, president and co-founder of the local civic group.

The Knightland plan calls for 32,500 square feet of retail space and a 4,900-square-foot restaurant in a complex comprising 24 small buildings.

Knightland LLC received site plan approval from the Riverhead Planning Board in late 2011. Members of RNPC filed a lawsuit challenging that approval the following day, claiming the project didn’t comply with zoning and that the town failed to consider the cumulative impacts of the project along with other development proposals in the area.

The case was later thrown out of court after a judge ruled the group did not have the legal standing to sue the town.

The group has filed an appeal to revive the suit, arguing that they have legal standing and that their suit should be judged on its merits.

“We just think the courts should really weigh in on this and it shouldn’t just be the bulldozers that make the decision,” Ms. Mendez said.

The restraining order prevents the Town from issuing land clearing, excavation, or building permits for the site, essentially preventing the project from moving forward until a judge reaches a decision on their appeal.

“The last thing we need is more land to be cleared,” Ms. Mendez said. “It’s not so easy to put back the trees.”

Peter Danowski, who represents the owner of the Knightland property, Kenn Barra, did not immediately return a request for comment.

09/28/13 8:00am
09/28/2013 8:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Glenn Townsend operates out of the Red Barn.

I set out to write about my vision for Wading River’s historic hamlet center, believing it has the potential to become the “hippie capital” of Long Island’s North Shore. I figured the owner of BarnStock Trading Post and Woodstock Home Improvement — right in the heart of the district — could help me in those efforts.

And I finally had Glenn Townsend on the phone.

Michael White, editor

MICHAEL WHITE

“The historic district reminds me a lot of those artsy, upstate towns, like New Paltz. It’s got the old barns and old buildings, and hills. Unlike many other Long Island downtown areas,” I said, hoping he would say that’s why he came here.

But Mr. Townsend has never been to New Paltz, I learned. He’s from Ohio.

“Well, I just ask because, some of those areas upstate have adopted the whole, y’know, hippie culture — excuse the term,” I continued. “Do you think that could be what attracted you to the area?”

He said simply that the presence of Bob Dylan probably had a lot to do with the culture up there.

“What type of items do you sell in your store, BarnStock?”

“Well,” he said. “Basically, I’ve got a lot of classical rock and roll music.”

Then he let it slip — reluctantly, but with pride in his voice — that he’d been one of the 500,000 people who had actually attended the Woodstock Festival in Bethel, N.Y., in 1969.

I congratulated him on not being an impostor, given his businesses’ namesakes.

“So … would you call yourself a hippie?”

“As they say, I’m a licensed contractor,” he said, dodging the question.

I figured Glenn Townsend has had enough of labels in his lifetime. I wouldn’t push it anymore.

What I did learn about Mr. Townsend, who operates out of the landmark Red Barn building, is that he’s also one of a few people trying to bring life back to an area that’s been suffering from a general lack of foot traffic recently. (Or, depending on your vantage point, maybe since the time of Woodstock.)

First, he’s been doing contracting work for his landlord, who owns the Red Barn and other properties, to help beautify the area.

He’s also been helping to run a weekend farm stand for the past couple months.

He even tried to plan a big farmer’s market in the hamlet center’s main parking lot, but hit a wall with Riverhead Town.

“If you want to do something like that, you have to have insurance and go through red tape as if you’re putting on a concert or something,” he said. “So unfortunately that didn’t fly.”

The smaller farm stand has been running from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Sunday, outside the Red Barn and overlooking the Duck Ponds.

“Basically, we’ve got a farm stand and a lady who does some cookies and some bakery things,” Mr. Townsend said. “Somebody that does crystal, dream-catcher things. There’s a knitting person.”

Mr. Townsend has been working with the owners of the neighboring Thrifts & Gifts store, as well as the Wading River Historical Society, he said.

“We’re just trying to revitalize,” he said. “If we can get enough artists or something to set up an art show in the fall. We’re all looking to promote the area.”

He may not have given me the hippie money-quotes I was looking for, but Mr. Townsend’s vision for the hamlet pretty much jibed with the one I was hoping to lay out. One way or the other, the area needs to become a mini mecca for small shops offering artisanal foods and crafts. That would likely require conversion of the mothballed mechanic’s garage on Sound Road into a horseshoe of small rental spaces and chasing away the inactive financial planning and accounting offices.

We also agreed that this asphalt-happy historic district needs more green space, with picnic tables and room to throw a Frisbee. Perhaps this could be achieved by clearing some space around the ponds, Mr. Townsend suggested — or if the parking lot was trimmed down. Certainly a few cars parked on the streets wouldn’t hurt; it could even help slow down traffic.

As much as he’s hoping to attract more craft-makers and artists to the area, Mr. Townsend also knows a couple of well-received eateries would be paramount to creating more of a buzz downtown. And, he assured me, things will be happening in the near future.

“Things are going to be on the upswing soon,” he said, hinting that there are people very interested in investing in the district while reminding me that he works for the area’s principal landlord.

He also believes people are yearning for that connection with the past, and with trees and nature — all offered in historic Wading River.

“As you well know, they’re trying to develop up on the hill, the main strip on 25A, and the people are up in arms,” Mr. Townsend said. “You can see what’s happening to Riverhead, everything is getting developed.

“As Joni Mitchell said, ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.’ ”

And they may just be chasing people back to historic Wading River.

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

Follow him on Twitter at @mikewhite31

09/26/13 6:00am
09/26/2013 6:00 AM
Suffolk theater opening

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | East Main Street looking west near the theater.

To the editor:

I take exception to the “downtown Riverhead” references as expressed by Mike Roth of the Wading River Chamber of Commerce in last week’s feature article about Wading River’s ailing business district. Mr. Roth’s references that after years of decline, Wading River is “all of a sudden downtown Riverhead” and that the “worst case scenario is status quo, nothing moves on and it becomes another downtown Riverhead” are way off base.

These negative connotations may have applied to Riverhead’s downtown a few short years ago, however they do not apply at all today. Our downtown is now an example of successful downtown revitalization with over 15 new businesses opened up or planning to open soon. I have been here all of my life and have seen many attempts to turn our downtown around that did not take hold, however it is unmistakable that this time, downtown Riverhead’s revitalization is for real.

It is becoming a more vibrant and safe place to live, work and play as a result of the efforts of Supervisor Sean Walter, the Town Board, the Business Improvement District, Industrial Development Agency, the town’s community development office and the residents and businesses here. I have strolled through downtown many evenings to see people fishing and eating dinner along the riverfront and enjoying Grangebel Park, once a drug haven, now a wonderful park where people say hello to each other as they walk by.

Downtown Riverhead is back, it is safe and it is becoming a successful destination that no longer deserves or is representative of its past negative perceptions similar to those expressed by Mr. Roth.

Martin Sendlewsi, Riverhead

Editor’s note: Mr. Sendlewski is a partner in the Summerwind Square complex and sits on the downtown Business Improvement District board of directors.

09/24/2013 12:02 PM

JOE WERKMEISTER FILE PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River High School.

The Shoreham-Wading River school board will vote on a resolution calling on state and federal officials to end the over-reliance on standardized testing at tonight’s Board of Education meeting. The board is also expected to vote on a resolution asking state and federal officials to re-examine New York state’s accountability systems.

Recently, both the Riverhead and Southold school boards took similar action.

The Shoreham school board is also expected to discuss a security improvement proposal at tonight’s meeting. In January, the district hired two security guards after a SWR parent raised concerns at an open forum on district security, Superintendent Steven Cohen said at the time. A head security guard was also chosen this winter to review the district’s security policies and improve them.

Tonight’s board meeting takes place at 8 p.m. in the high school library.

ryoung@timesreview.com

SWR School Board Agenda 09/24/13