An IRS notice saying he owed $10,000 sent an MTA electrician into a panic, spurring him to snatch tools from his job to pay the debt before taking a stolen 33-ton crane truck on a destructive pre-dawn ride through an Elmont neighborhood, according to court papers
Joel T. Grasman, 51, was ordered held on $50,000 bail or $100,000 bond at his arraignment Wednesday in First District Court in Hempstead. He was charged with criminal possession of stolen property in the second and third degree, reckless endangerment, criminal tampering and criminal mischief. Grasman's only other scrape with the law was a 1986 guilty plea to driving while intoxicated and disorderly conduct, according to prosecutors and his attorney.
A prosecutor on the case estimated the damage to several Elmont streets at close to $3 million. More than 6,000 residents briefly lost power in the area.
Grasman's attorney, Peter Menoudakos Jr., said in an interview after the hearing that he had not reviewed the court papers mentioning his client's IRS debts but said "confessions I take with a grain of salt. You think my client had a computer there, typing it up? Come on."
Menoudakos told Judge Eric Bjorneby that Grasman is married, has three children and suffers from "a traumatic syndrome" as a result of being a 9/11 first responder.
"Ever since then he's had issues," Menoudakos said, adding that Grasman takes medications for bipolar disorder and other psychological ailments.
After the hearing, Menoudakos said the dosage of one of Grasman's medications was doubled by a doctor, and that could have impaired his mental state.
Menoudakos said Grasman went on medical leave two weeks ago after injuring his back.
Grasman was arrested by Nassau police Tuesday morning as he walked away from the truck he had parked off the Southern State Parkway, about a mile from his brother's Elmont home.
In his statement, Grasman said he had been living with his brother because "me and my wife are having some marital problems."
Grasman told investigators the tax notice was a result of "my wife not reporting a pension loan."
"I started to panic and thought of a plan to steal some equipment from work and sell it for some quick cash to pay the IRS," Grasman said in the statement.
But in one of his two interviews with police, Grasman also said it was all part of a "practical joke. I took the truck from work and stopped at my brother's house. I didn't know the boom was up. I got scared. I guess I'll lose my job to say the least. It was a joke."
Grasman, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority employee for nearly 24 years, told investigators he drove his 1994 Land Rover to the MTA yard in Richmond Hill, Queens, and used his key to unlock the padlocked gate. He loaded the tools into the crane truck and drove to his brother's house, he told police.
He said he put the stolen tools in the garage and left but forgot to secure the boom crane after raising it to remove the tools.
"I started driving and then I started to see sparks of light in the sky," Grasman said in the statement. He panicked and kept driving, according to the statement.
The ensuing 1.2-mile ride left a trail of downed power poles, electrical wires and snapped trees.
Workers continued repair efforts Wednesday while a LIPA official said the crane truck knocked down 15 utility poles, including two carrying high-voltage transmission lines, 12 transformers, 20 sections of primary wire and at least 40 sections of secondary wire.
LIPA spokesman Mark Gross said insurance would probably cover their portion of the damage but "whenever our property is damaged, we attempt to recoup the cost from responsible parties."
Court records show Grasman and his wife filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in 2011, citing $284,902 in debts, including a $195,067 mortgage balance. His income that year was listed as $22,359.
Menoudakos, who requested a medical evaluation be performed on Grasman, told the court the alleged conduct of his client was "way out of his character" and said Grasman "was not in his right state of mind."
With John Valenti
and Mark Harrington