‘You start thinking, what if?’ Riverhead cop on drive-by arrests

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Officer Dennis Cavanagh tracked down and made the initial arrests of the four suspects police said shot at a Third Street home Wednesday night.
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Officer Dennis Cavanagh tracked down and made the initial arrests of the four suspects police said shot at a Third Street home Wednesday night.

Police officer Dennis Cavanagh was standing near the Riverhead firehouse on Roanoke Avenue just before 9 p.m. Wednesday.

There had been a report of a woman with chest pains and Mr. Cavanagh, the highway patrolman on duty and a CPR instructor, had arrived on the scene to see if the EMTs needed any help.

The ambulance had already pulled away when Mr. Cavanagh, a 27-year-veteran of the force, and fellow officer Mike Lombardo heard the loud bangs echo in the night.

“Just before we get in the car I hear ‘pop pop pop pop pop pop’ coming from the third street area south of us,” Mr. Cavanagh said in an interview Thursday.

There was no question in his mind what the noises were: gunshots.

“I counted ’em, seven rounds. I knew it,” he said. “It’s distinctive. You can tell what’s gunfire and what’s fireworks.”

Four people — later identified by authorities as Jasmine Parsons, 19, of Mastic; Jordan Harrell, 18, of Medford; Eric Baldwin Jr., 18, of Bellport; and Jeffrey Despeines, 21, of Centereach— had fired .38-caliber rounds into a Third Street home in a drive-by shooting, cops later said.

The bullets struck the house’s siding and front door, and pierced windows; no one was hurt.

But at the time, the two officers didn’t know what had happened. Mr. Cavanagh said he looked south past the trees and the railroad tracks in the direction of the gunfire.

There, for a split second between the houses, he saw a small tan vehicle turning south onto Roanoke Avenue, driving away from the gunfire.

Mr. Cavanagh and Mr. Lombardo both jumped into their patrol cars, with Mr. Cavanagh leading the way. But when he turned onto Roanoke Avenue to follow the car, the vehicle was gone, either south toward Main Street or west on Second Street.

“I’m thinking to myself if he goes down Second Street I might lose him,” Mr. Cavanagh said. “Or did he go [south] with traffic?”

Mr. Cavanagh said he guessed.

“It was a shot in the dark,” he said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t, but for some reason I said ‘he went with traffic.’ ” Mr. Cavanagh drove down Roanoke to the traffic light on Main Street and as he turned near Peconic Avenue, his guess was proven right.

“I saw a little glimpse of a car go by,” he said. The same tan car he saw fleeing the scene.

He followed the car south on Peconic Avenue and pulled the driver over near the Valero Gas Station in Riverside. The tan car didn’t try to flee, he said.

“I was surprised they didn’t try to go,” Mr. Cavanagh said. “They usually try to go.”

A traffic stop is among the most dangerous actions an officer can take on the job, resulting in many injuries and deaths each year, according to government statistics.

Now, with his backup still on the road behind him, Mr. Cavanagh had to get the suspected shooters — who were likely armed — out of the car.

“It definitely heightens it. … you get a little tense,” he said. “You do start thinking about, what if? ”

Mr. Cavanagh started a “felony stop,” a special kind of traffic stop reserved for situations when the officer believes a person in the car committed a serious crime. He stood by his vehicle about 20 feet back and one by one, ordered the people in the car to step out of the vehicle with their hands showing.

As Mr. Cavanagh was conducting the stop, Mr. Lombardo arrived on the scene to assist. Eventually, all four people in the car were out of the vehicle and searched by police.

Mr. Cavanagh was sure police had caught the shooters.

“I look in the vehicle and said, ‘This is definitely the vehicle, we got it,’ because there were shell casings in it from expended rounds,” he said.

Officers from Riverhead and the Suffolk County Sheriff soon recovered the gun, fully loaded, that was allegedly used in the shooting from Mr. Despeines. Police also found Mr. Despeines had an empty magazine in his front right shirt pocket, Mr. Cavanagh said, adding that he suspects Mr. Despeines reloaded the weapon in the passenger seat after the shooting.

The suspects were all arrested and processed at Riverhead police headquarters that night. They were arraigned in Town Justice Court Thursday morning and held in lieu of bail at the Suffolk County jail, court officials said.

Mr. Cavanagh said he doesn’t understand why people would shoot up a residential home.

“People like that, man, they just don’t care,” he said. “It’s sad. Who would do that? Dump seven rounds into a home.”

He said he was glad the arrest was made so smoothly, crediting the hours of training the Riverhead Police Department emphasizes. In many other departments, officers will learn how to conduct a felony traffic stop during Academy but not have it drilled later in their careers.

Not so in Riverhead, he said.

“We’re fortunate to go back to those basic moves and do them with the [other officers],” Mr. Cavanagh said. “Try to reemphasize the beauty of it.”

Mr. Cavanagh had been in the area in the first place because of the increase in downtown patrols implemented late last year.

“It doesn’t hurt to have them down there, thats for sure, and it certainly paid off for me last night,” he said.

Wednesday night’s arrests were the latest in a long career in Riverhead for Mr. Cavanagh. Since he was 18 years old, he’s served others. A descendant from a long line of firefighters, he served with the U.S. Marines in the late 1970s, when he got “a good taste of the world,” he said.

After leaving the service in 1982, Mr. Cavanagh was hired by the town and has been patrolling the streets ever since.

“I guess I always had it in me to be a cop,” he said. “I never regret working here. I always loved this job.”

“I was fortunate to get hired here,” he added. “This town’s been good to me.”

Mr. Cavanagh can now add another four arrests to the over nearly three decades of repaying the favor.

[email protected]