Youths arrested for well prank; victim files claim

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A Riverhead High School student is carried into an ambulance after being rescued from a cesspool Friday morning.

Three Riverhead juveniles have been charged with assault and reckless endangerment for their roles in tricking a developmentally disabled Riverhead High School student into falling into an open septic well behind a Route 58 store last month, town police said.

The victim — described in a police report as a 19-year-old who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome — has also filed a notice of claim against Riverhead Town and Suffolk County, the News-Review has learned. A notice of claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

The claim accuses authorities of being negligent in leaving the manhole and the area unsecured.

According to police, at about 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 9, the teens opened the cover to the septic well behind the Toys R Us and put branches and leaves over the opening to conceal it.

The teens then tricked the victim into stepping over the hole, and fled the scene after he fell — leaving him trapped inside, police have said.

Investigators initially said that four teenagers were involved in tricking the victim into falling into the well. Police this week did not say if any additional arrests would be made in relation to the incident.

The 19-year-old was waist-deep in well water when authorities arrived on scene. Riverhead firefighters and a Long Island Power Authority crew helped pull him out of the well using a rope, Riverhead Fire Department Chief Anthony White said at the time.

He suffered minor scrapes and was placed on a stretcher with his lower body wrapped in a blanket to keep him warm before being taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center by Riverhead ambulance volunteers for treatment, authorities said.

Two of the teenagers were arrested last Monday and charged with third-degree assault and third-degree reckless endangerment, police said. The third juvenile was arrested last Tuesday, and faces the same charges, as well as a criminal mischief charge.

Arraignment information for the juveniles was not immediately available. Riverhead police did not release the teenagers’ names.

Riverhead School District assistant superintendent for personnel Joseph Ogeka said in an interview last month the school had suspended the students involved and held disciplinary hearings.

Mr. Ogeka said the district was waiting until the police finished its investigation before pursuing additional discipline against the students, as per school policy.

It was also never made clear why the teenagers were not in school at the time.

Riverhead school officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

The notice of claim was filed Monday by the victim, who lives in Calverton, through the work of a lawyer. A notice of claim reserves one’s right to file a lawsuit. The News-Review is witholding the victim’s name due to his developmental disorder.

The notice says that the teenage victim suffered “personal bodily injuries” that were “precipitated and/or contributed to by virtue of negligence, carelessness and recklessness” of the town and county.

It says that he “sustained personal bodily injuries, including, but not necessarily limited to, fungal rash about his entire person as well as injuries to the neck, back and left shoulder, the full nature of which have not yet been ascertained.”

The notice says he will seek monitory damages relating to “pain and suffering, hospital expenses, medical expenses and other related damages,” although the notice of claim does not specify how much is being sought in damages. Those figures are often fleshed out when an actual lawsuit is filed.

The notice accuses the town and county of failing to maintain and secure the cover so it couldn’t be opened. It also alleges that the town failed to respond to reports of graffiti in the area of the manhole cover and failed to adequately train its employees to shut the cover.

The lawsuit does not specify which government entity or agency is responsible for maintaining the well, though it accused Riverhead Town of “failing to establish a sufficient police presence within the subject area so as to prevent criminal and unlawful actions.”

It also accuses the town of failing to issue citations to the adjacent property owner for allowing the cover to remain open.

The 19-year-old is being represented by attorney Stephen Siben on the notice.

The 19-year-old is represented by attorney Stephen Siben on the notice.

Town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz said the manhole is not on town property. He suspects the attorneys filing the notice were just including everyone to cover their bases later on. Mr. Kozakiewicz said it is not necessary to name private property owners in a notice of claim, only municipalities.

Supervisor Sean Walter declined comment on the notice of claim.

Mr. Siben could not be reached for comment, as he is away on vacation, a staffer at the firm said Monday.

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