Gary Melius, a major political fundraiser and owner of Oheka Castle in Huntington, was shot in the head Monday on the grounds of his Gold Coast estate-turned-wedding-venue by a masked gunman who drove off, Suffolk police said.
Melius, 69, was shot about 12:30 p.m. in the Castle's valet parking area as he was entering his vehicle, police said. The shooter wore a mask and a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, police said, and video footage showed the suspect fled the scene in a four-door SUV-type vehicle.
From the initial investigation, "it appears Mr. Melius was the target," said Det. Sgt. John O'Sullivan.
Police did not say how many shots were fired or what kind of weapon was used.
On Monday night, Melius was in stable condition after undergoing surgery, police said. Suffolk officers have been stationed at the hospital as a protective measure, police said.
Friends, who were shocked at the shooting, said Melius was being treated at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.
"It was not a robbery. It was an attempt at assassination," said former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a close friend who was supposed to meet Melius for lunch but instead rushed to the hospital. "He was at the Castle, outside. Nobody put a gun to him or said, 'We want your money.' They just shot him. The guy had a mask on."
Before going into surgery, Melius was alert but "he wasn't able to describe who shot him," O'Sullivan said.
A bullet hit Melius in the forehead, a wound that is "not superficial," said a high-ranking law enforcement source familiar with the investigation.
"He will make it. He's very lucky," the source said.
Investigators had no motive for the shooting on the grounds of the historic estate that Melius purchased in 1984 and has now made his home. There were no immediate witnesses, police said.
By the time 911 had been called and police arrived, a family member had taken Melius to a hospital, police said.
Patrol officers, police dogs and a police helicopter "immediately saturated" the area, O'Sullivan said.
A surveillance camera could be seen at the entry gate to the grounds, and O'Sullivan said experts were looking at all the surveillance video from the Castle.
Late last year, Melius found himself in a post-election controversy involving Nassau police Commissioner Thomas Dale, triggering the events that led to the top cop's ouster in December. He had called Dale to say he wanted to file perjury charges against a campaign worker who had raised allegations of election impropriety against county executive candidate Andrew Hardwick, who Melius supported.
In recent years, Oheka has faced financial struggles and Melius negotiated a modification of Oheka's $27.9 million mortgage loan in August, according to public records. A year earlier, he had defaulted on the loan.
The law enforcement source said investigators looking into Melius' background "are learning a lot about him. There are many deals he was involved in. But this is all very early and the effort now is to find the shooter and the car."
Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs, who has clashed with Melius over candidate endorsements and the Dale case, called the shooting "surreal."
"We've had our differences," Jacobs said, "but I've known Gary a long time and to have this happen to someone as important and influential as him is a tremendous shock."
Melius has frequently opened his own wallet for political candidates of all parties. In the past decade, he and his wife Pam have donated more than $700,000 to local and state committees, elections board records show. Since the late 1990s, about $170,000 to federal campaigns, according to records. State records show that Melius typically donates to officials in power at the time, regardless of party.
Melius has said that his development business took off after he borrowed $10,000 in 1979, just before one of the Island's real estate booms, to build a Great Neck office complex.
His company at one point owned more than a million square feet of building space but hit hard times in the early 1990s, when Melius recalled "rolling quarters" just to pay bills.
Melius' attorney, his close friend Ronald Rosenberg, also saw him in the emergency room and called the shooting victim "indomitable."
He "looked at me, cracked a joke at my expense and said he was sorry he was putting so many people through a tough day," Rosenberg said in a statement.
"There is an extreme sense of relief here because you know he is going to recover. His spirit is strong, his sense of humor is just as off-color as ever."
Anyone with information may call detectives at 631-854-8252.