Thomas Stark, influential Suffolk judge, dies

Thomas M. Stark, the long-serving New York State Thomas M. Stark, the long-serving New York State judge who presided over notable Long Island trials as the 1974 DeFeo family murders in Amityville and the 1996 Lilco property tax challenge, died on April 27 of complications from cancer surgery. He was 89.

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Thomas Stark, the influential Suffolk judge who presided over cases as diverse as the "Amityville Horror" murders and a major property tax challenge by the former Long Island Lighting Co., died Sunday of complications from cancer surgery. He was 89.

"Judge Stark was really a legal giant out here in Suffolk County," said defense attorney Paul Gianelli of Hauppauge. "He was respected for being a legal scholar. He was very fair, and very educated on the law."

Lawyers who practiced before him remembered a stern authority figure who held them to high standards.

"For many years I was assigned to prosecute homicide cases in Justice Stark's court," said Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota. "He was a tough, fair-minded judge who was unquestionably one of the finest trial jurists that ever took the bench in Suffolk County. He ran a tight ship, and I know I evolved as a homicide prosecutor because of his exacting standards."

Steven Wilutis, a Miller Place defense attorney who once headed the major offense bureau for the district attorney's office, said young prosecutors were sent to Stark's courtroom to see how lawyers should behave.

"You had to know your stuff," Wilutis said, noting that Stark often required lawyers to cite the legal basis for their objections. "He demanded respect from the lawyers, litigants, everyone."

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Stark served in Suffolk County Court, State Supreme Court and the Appellate Division until he retired in 1998.

Stark, a Navy veteran who served during World War II, graduated from Harvard Law School. He helped draft the standard instructions on the law that judges throughout the state read to juries at the end of every trial.

One of his daughters, Ellen Gay-nor Stark of New York City, said her father also loved Long Island history and wrote a history of Riverhead, the town he lived in his entire life.

Stark also was a cornet player and hosted a regular music revue for the town's Lion's Club, she said.

His best-known case was the murder trial of Ronald DeFeo, who shot six family members to death in their Amityville home. Later owners of the house claimed it was haunted -- the basis of the "Amityville Horror" book and movie.

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Ellen Stark said her father avidly followed the story through the years, but said he "didn't believe in the haunting."

Stark ruled in 1996 that Suffolk County, Brookhaven Town and the Shoreham-Wading River School District had overcharged LILCO more than $1 billion in property taxes. The Long Island Power Authority inherited the judgment when it took over LILCO's assets and later dropped the case.

In addition to Ellen Stark, he is survived by his wife of 59 years, Jane Crabtree Stark; another daughter, Elizabeth Stark Dugan of Chevy Chase, Md.; a brother, William Stark of Hampton Bays; and two grandchildren.

A wake will be held Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. at Reginald Tuthill Funeral Home in Riverhead. A funeral Mass will be conducted at 10:30 a.m. Friday at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, Riverhead.Contributions may be made to the Suffolk County Historical Society or to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in Manhattan.

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