The first call was routine.
Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato was on his way to meet his longtime card-playing buddy Gary Melius for lunch Monday at a local steakhouse when Melius phoned to say he'd be a bit late.
Shortly after, however, came the jarring news from Melius' daughter: the gregarious and well-connected Oheka Castle owner had been shot in the head as he went to his car.
"Total surprise. Gary's reaction was, 'Why would somebody do this?' " D'Amato said in an interview Monday after leaving Melius' bedside at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, where he spent several hours with Melius' family.
D'Amato simultaneously updated political figures of both parties on the condition of one of Long Island's most-influential power brokers. "I cannot imagine what kind of dispute would trigger this kind of maniacal attack," D'Amato added.
Befitting someone who has spread the nearly $1 million he's given politicians during the last two decades between parties, Melius' well-wishers included D'Amato, a Republican; Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat; Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican; and former Freeport Mayor Andrew Hardwick, a Democrat.
D'Amato is the political figure closest to Melius. The two go back more than 30 years, to when D'Amato was rising from Nassau politics to the U.S. Senate, and Melius was transitioning from an aide to local police unions to a real estate powerhouse, with Oheka Castle his centerpiece.
"To know him is to love him," D'Amato said. "He's a terrific person and this is a terrible, horrific thing."
But as is fitting for a survivor -- Melius has previously acknowledged that he is fortunate to be where he is now, after a youth spent in trouble with the law -- D'Amato said his friend will surely recover.
"He's very lucky, and we're all very lucky that we're going to have him for a long time."