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The top 25 Long Island stories of 2019

Take a look back at some of Long Island's top stories of 2019, from the Islanders' arena groundbreaking to the Mangano and Spota trials to a fatal LIRR collision and derailment. (Credit: Newsday staff; Photo Credit: Karina Vetrano, Morris family)

This year saw the convictions of several high-profile political figures on corruption charges, the groundbreaking of a transformative arena and entertainment complex, and the death of a teenager that shook a community. Revisit some of the stories that defined Long Island in 2019.

Supermarket chains buy Long Island stores

Stop & Shop in January said it would buy King Kullen Grocery Co.’s 37 stores — 32 King Kullen supermarkets and five Wild by Nature natural food stores — all on Long Island. That same week, Lidl US, the U.S. arm of German discount grocer Lidl, closed on its purchase of Bethpage-based Best Market’s 27 stores in New York and New Jersey, including 24 on Long Island.

King Kullen closed three of its “underperforming” stores between June and September; one each in Mt. Sinai, Lake Ronkonkoma and North Babylon. Lidl’s first three Long Island stores — in West Babylon, Huntington Station and in Center Moriches — opened in December, with plans for a fourth store later in the month.

New York passes expanded abortion law

New York State legislators overwhelmingly approved a new abortion bill, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed it into law in January on the anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision.

A primary change in the 2019 law permits for a late-term abortion to preserve the health of the mother. Supporters say this conforms with Roe v. Wade; opponents say it wrongly expands access to late-term abortions. The new law also shifts the abortion law from the state’s penal code to its health code — thereby removing doctors and others from the threat of prosecution, advocates say.

The bill, dubbed the Reproductive Health Act, was first introduced by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, in 2007. It was always blocked by the Republican-controlled State Senate.

Two major developments in the last two years changed the playing field. First, President Donald Trump appointed two conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court. One replaced Anthony Kennedy, who was the swing vote in the 1992 Casey decision that reaffirmed Roe. Without Kennedy, some believe Roe could be overturned eventually by the court. Second, Democrats in New York routed the GOP in November to gain firm control of the State Senate for the first time in decades.

Opioid prescriptions, overdose deaths on LI decrease

Statistics show opioid prescriptions declined nearly 35 percent on Long Island between 2011 and 2017, a trend experts said in January is the result of a law enforcement crackdown on doctors, a state-mandated electronic prescription system, educational awareness and a shift away from opiates toward other painkillers by both patients and physicians.

At what appears to be the height of the prescription opioid epidemic, state statistics show that Long Island clinicians wrote 1,394,686 prescriptions in 2011. Prescriptions of oxycodone, hydrocodone and oxymorphone decreased more than 8 percent on the Island from 992,435 to 912,119 between 2016 and 2017, according to the most recent New York State Department of Health data. In 2017, clinicians issued 358,956 prescriptions in Nassau and 553,163 in Suffolk, records show.

In July, officials said fatal opioid overdoses in Nassau and Suffolk combined fell nearly 24 percent last year, numbers that suggest more treatment access, beefed-up enforcement and anti-drug programs have put a dent in a Long Island epidemic that has killed thousands since 2010.

Naloxone, the lifesaving drug used to reverse overdoses, also has kept alive many users who may have otherwise died from opioid abuse, officials said. Nassau officials said 147 people died as a result of overdoses in 2018, a 20.1 percent decline compared to 184 fatal overdoses in 2017. Suffolk officials reported 308 fatal overdoses last year, a 24.9 percent decrease compared to the county’s 410 fatal ODs in 2017.

Three killed in LIRR train collision

Two Long Island Rail Road trains struck a vehicle “trying to beat the gate” at a grade crossing in February in Westbury, killing the vehicle's three occupants before the westbound train derailed, forcing the evacuation of nearly 1,000 passengers and crew, authorities said. The vehicle was hit by the eastbound train, then pushed into the path of the westbound train, before it was crushed, torn into pieces and wedged between both. After the collision, the westbound train from Ronkonkoma traveled half a mile and crashed into the concrete platform at the Westbury station.

The driver had fled the scene of another crash seconds before attempting to go around a railroad gate, a witness told law enforcement at the scene. Authorities identified the victims as Miguel Angel Jimenez Luna, 36, Saul Martinez Caravantes, 28, both of Westbury, and Jesus Hernandez, 24, of Brentwood. All three worked at the Fine Fare Supermarket on Old Country Road in Westbury.

Edward, Linda Mangano convicted

A federal jury in March convicted former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and his wife, Linda, on corruption charges, completing the downfall of a Republican with blue-collar roots who rose to the top of government in one of the nation's richest counties.

Prosecutors had alleged Edward Mangano took bribes from restaurateur Harendra Singh that included a $454,000 “no-show” job for Linda Mangano, free meals and vacations, two luxury chairs, ash flooring for the couple’s bedroom, and a $7,300 wristwatch for one of their sons. Once the FBI began investigating, the husband and wife conspired to try to cover up the trail of Singh’s bribes, the government had charged.

The panel found Edward Mangano guilty of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery, federal program bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, honest services wire fraud, and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Jurors found Linda Mangano guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and two counts of lying to the FBI. The jury acquitted Edward Mangano of extortion and another wire fraud count, and found his wife not guilty of another count of making false statements.

A federal judge in December delayed their sentencing until March, according to court filings.

More coverage: The Politics of Corruption on Long Island: Edward Mangano

Plastic straw, Styrofoam bans

Suffolk County lawmakers passed bills in April to crack down on the use of polystyrene and plastic straws to combat plastic pollution. Straws and stirrers will be by-request-only in sit-down restaurants and will have to be biodegradable — not plastic — in food establishments and self-service beverage stations starting Jan. 1. A separate bill that also passed will ban restaurants from using polystyrene foam takeout containers — commonly referred to under the brand name Styrofoam — and polystyrene packaging "peanuts" starting next year as well.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran signed a Styrofoam ban into law in June, making it illegal to sell or distribute products made of Styrofoam beginning Jan. 1. Environmentalists and Nassau legislators marked the occasion with a mock funeral: An open coffin was set for people to pay their respects and a display was marked with well wishes. Attendees laughed at and took pictures of the body inside the coffin — a figurine with Styrofoam cups and boxes as its limbs and head.

Four LI high schools among U.S. News’ top 300 nationally

Four public high schools on Long Island were ranked in the top 300 nationally in U.S. News & World Report's annual list of "Best High Schools," released in April. Jericho High School led the way among Island schools, placing 134th nationally and 17th in the state, and is the only one on the Island in the top 200.

The other three Long Island schools in the top 300 are Garden City High School, Great Neck South High School and Manhasset High School. Garden City ranks 214th nationally and 25th in the state, while Great Neck South places 222nd in the nation and 26th in the state, and Manhasset ranks 228th in the nation and 28th in the state.

The 2019 “Best High Schools” ranking considered six indicators: college readiness; the breadth of college-level curriculum; math and reading proficiency; math and reading performance; learning outcomes and performance among underserved students; and graduation rates.

Bethpage Black hosts PGA Championship

Brooks Koepka won his second straight PGA Championship in May, shooting 8-under-par 272 for a two-stroke victory at Bethpage Black.

The Black, which is 83 years old, prevailed and ultimately starred in the event. Without having been severely expanded or “tricked up,” the course was intensely difficult. Paul Casey noted, after seeing a pet with an “emotional support dog” jacket, that “is what I feel I need after playing that golf course.” Critics complained of too little bleacher seating and food concessions and too much available beer, citing the latter in talking about fans shouting on players’ backswings.

The tournament marked the third time one of golf’s major championships was held at the course after it hosted the U.S. Open in 2002 and 2009. In 2024, it will host the Ryder Cup. Seth Waugh, the former Long Island resident and head of the PGA of America, said he would like the PGA Championship return to Bethpage, adding, “It is just a special place.”

Keith Bush conviction vacated

A Suffolk judge vacated Keith Bush’s 1976 murder and attempted sexual abuse conviction in May as a result of a joint application from his lawyer and Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini.

Bush was a 17-year-old junior at Bellport High School when Suffolk authorities charged him with killing Sherese Watson, 14, after a late-night house party in North Bellport. Watson’s body — strangled and stabbed — was later found in an empty lot full of weeds not far from the party. Despite his claims of innocence, a jury found Bush guilty of murder and attempted sexual abuse after what was then called the longest criminal deliberation in Suffolk history. Bush would spend 32 years in jail until paroled in 2007, and an additional year for a later parole violation.

The Suffolk District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau recommended Bush’s exoneration after his attorney, Adele Bernhard, argued that the prosecutor and police at Bush’s 1976 trial conspired to hide evidence of another suspect, John W. Jones Jr. Since his exoneration, Bush has filed a damages lawsuit against Suffolk County for false arrest, malicious prosecution and other alleged wrongdoing by law-enforcement authorities.

More coverage: An Innocent Man?

High school referee abuse

A Newsday report published in May found that there has been a steep drop in the number of people willing to officiate high school athletics on Long Island since 2011-12. Coaches, referees, umpires and school administrators attributed the decline to the verbal abuse of umpires, referees and other high school sports officials by parents, spectators and coaches.

In the 2011-12 school year, Nassau County listed 2,403 officials. This school year, the number is down to 2,100, a drop of 303. In Suffolk, the number of officials was 1,301 in the 2011-12 school year. The number fell to 1,127 in 2018-19, a drop of 174. School administrators said the decline is creating scheduling "nightmares" and that some middle school sports that usually have two officials are getting only one.

Officials recalled requesting escorts to their cars after games and breaking down in tears on the field due to the increasingly volatile abuse directed at them, behavior that is reflective of societal changes, said Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials. “Sports is life with the volume turned up,” Mano said.

A bill proposed in the State Legislature in September would stiffen penalties for spectators and coaches who abuse referees, making it a felony to physically attack a referee and carry a maximum seven-year prison term upon conviction. A person who threatens to attack a referee — or spits on them during a verbal attack — could face a misdemeanor harassment charge that carries a three-month jail sentence upon conviction.

Two killed in plane crash on North Fork farm

The pilot and a passenger were killed when their small, single-engine plane experienced engine failure in June and crashed in a North Fork farm field, bursting into flames, officials said. The Beechcraft A36 Bonanza took off from Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma and crashed at Harbes Family Farm in Mattituck, according to aviation officials.

Authorities identified the victims as Robert Mark, 66, and Susan Quagliano, 57, both of Oakdale. A dog in the plane escaped the wreckage, and a nearby farmer took the pet in, authorities said.

Mark was a very experienced pilot who had been flying for about 30 years, logging more than 10,000 hours of flying, said Scott Press, a surgeon who was part of a flying group with him. Neighbors remembered the couple as friendly and generous. “Rob and Sue were the kindest people,” said Joyce Sims, who lives down the street from their house.

More coverage: Report details last moments of fatal flight

New York ends religious exemption for vaccines in public schools

The State Legislature voted in June to abolish a religious exemption to vaccine requirements, following the worst measles outbreak in the nation in 27 years.

The State Senate and Assembly narrowly approved a bill that eliminated the exemption, which had allowed parents to cite nonmedical reasons for refusing vaccinations, which are required to enter public school. When the Assembly tally was announced, dozens of protesters in the observation gallery above the chamber shouted obscenities, called lawmakers “Murderers!” and threatened, “We’ll be back for you!”

The Centers for Disease Control reported in June that the number of measles cases had reached 1,022, the highest since a 1992 outbreak. New York accounted for more than 800 cases.

More coverage: Seven questions about NY's immunization rules

Luis Alvarez dies

Retired NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez died in June of cancer linked to his work at Ground Zero. Alvarez, 53, was cast into the national spotlight during a televised appearance on Capitol Hill about the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which offers financial support to those who were injured or developed diseases in their work responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Alvarez was a portrait of resilience and courage as he joined activist/comedian Jon Stewart in making an emotional plea to extend health care funding for first responders like himself. President Donald Trump on July 29 signed into law bipartisan legislation that ensures the fund never runs out of money.

Belmont arena plan approved

The state board responsible for economic development in August unanimously approved a $1.3 billion arena and entertainment complex to be the new Nassau County home of the New York Islanders.

New York Arena Partners, the project developers, have proposed a 19,000-seat arena, 350,000 square feet of upscale shops and restaurants, a 250-room hotel and parking on 43 acres of vacant state-owned property at Belmont Park.

The new Islanders arena, which the developers expect to cost $955 million, is anticipated to open in the fall of 2021. That would represent the end of a decadelong search by the National Hockey League franchise for a new modern arena.

Developers broke ground on the project, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said would create more than 10,000 construction jobs and about 3,200 full-time jobs, in September.

Khaseen Morris fatally stabbed

Khaseen Morris, 16, of Oceanside, died after being stabbed in September during a fight outside an Oceanside strip mall, police said. The encounter stemmed from an apparent dispute over a girl, police said. Morris, who would’ve turned 17 in October, moved with his family from Freeport over the summer and recently had begun attending Oceanside High School.

Tyler Flach, 19, of Lido Beach pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges. Seven Long Beach teens also were indicted on second-degree gang assault and misdemeanor assault charges as a result of their alleged participation in the brawl. All seven have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

More coverage: Family continues to mourn Khaseen MorrisFriends, family go for 'last ride' to honor teen killed in stabbing

Lawsuits allege sexual abuse by late Bishop John McGann

Two women and a man filed lawsuits that accuse the late Bishop John McGann of sexually abusing them when they were children, said their lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian. Each of the three lawsuits is seeking unspecified damages from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the nation's sixth-largest with 1.5 million members, and St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, the local parish where some of the abuse allegedly happened.

The plaintiffs are all now in their 60s and no longer live on Long Island. Garabedian identified the plaintiffs as Sheryn Silvestre, 64, of Thurman, New York; Joanne Jack, 63, of Eden Prairie, Minnesota; and Jack's brother, Alexander Jack Jr., 66, of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The alleged abuse took place in the 1960s and 1970s, Garabedian, said. At the time of the alleged abuse, McGann was a monsignor serving St. Agnes parish, the diocese's seat. He became the diocese's second bishop in 1976 and served until his retirement in 2000. McGann died at age 77 in 2002.

Among the three alleged victims, Garabedian said there were a total of about 20 incidents of abuse by McGann. Two lawsuits each also allege abuse by Msgr. Edward L. Melton; the Rev. Robert L. Brown, a priest at St. Agnes; and John H. Hanlon, a janitor at the church.

Long Island elections

Democrat Steve Bellone was reelected to a third term as Suffolk County executive in November, beating Republican challenger John M. Kennedy Jr. The campaign focused on county finances, water quality and proposals to attract and keep millennials in Suffolk.

In Nassau County, District Attorney Madeline Singas, a Democrat, defeated Republican Francis X. McQuade. Singas campaigned based on her track record as a veteran prosecutor in both Nassau and Queens.

In the Town of Hempstead, Republican Donald X. Clavin Jr. unseated Democratic Supervisor Laura Gillen. Clavin’s win re-established near-total Republican control of Hempstead, the largest town in the United States.

More coverage: See election results

Nassau police make largest fentanyl seizure in county history

Authorities seized 400 grams of fentanyl — the largest seizure of the deadly synthetic opioid in Nassau County history — during two investigations that led to indictments charging 11 people with drug and gun offenses, officials said.

The fentanyl, valued at $130,000, represents 150,000 potentially fatal overdoses, said Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, who announced the seizure in November in Mineola along with other law enforcement officials. Two milligrams of fentanyl is enough for a fatal overdose for most adults, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“When you talk about 150,000 people fatally overdosing on this fentanyl, that is like a weapon of mass destruction,” Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said.

Five hundred grams of cocaine valued at $50,000 and eight firearms also were seized during the probes, launched in April by Singas’ office, the FBI Long Island Gang Task Force and the ATF Long Island Firearms Task Force, to combat drug- and gun-related violence in Hempstead.

MTA aims to balance books amid increased overtime spending, LIRR improvements

MTA chief financial officer Robert Foran said in November he expects the agency will be able to balance its books through 2021, avoiding deficits that could reach nearly $1 billion in four years. That prediction assumes realizing the $1.6 billion savings goal in the MTA Transformation Plan, as well as reaching affordable contract settlements with unions, stanching some of the $300 million lost each year in unpaid fares, renegotiating a cost-sharing agreement with New York City over special transportation services for the disabled, and cutting the costs of “controllable overtime” by $176 million.

A report commissioned by the MTA blamed its rising overtime costs, which have soared more than 50 percent over the last four years, on antiquated record-keeping systems, arcane union work rules, and management’s failure to address years of warnings by auditors and watchdogs. Additionally, four Long Island Rail Road workers who ranked among the highest earners in the MTA last year padded their overtime pay by claiming more than $140,000 in “excessive and unsubstantiated” travel time for driving to and from assignments, according to the MTA’s inspector general.

In September, the MTA approved a $51 billion infrastructure spending plan that earmarks $5.7 billion for the LIRR, including for new trains, station renovations, and modernized switches and signals. Earlier that month, the LIRR rolled out its M9 trains, its first new train cars in nearly two decades. They include several amenities, including electrical outlets at every row of seats, automatic pocket doors in between train cars that open with the press of a button, and digital displays that tell riders which car they’re in.

Long Island Divided

In one of the most concentrated investigations of discrimination by real estate agents in the half century since enactment of America’s landmark fair housing law, a Newsday investigation published in November found evidence of widespread separate and unequal treatment of minority potential homebuyers and minority communities on Long Island. The three-year probe strongly indicates that house hunting in one of the nation’s most segregated suburbs poses substantial risks of discrimination, with black buyers chancing disadvantages almost half the time they enlist brokers.

The findings are the product of a paired-testing effort comparable on a local scale to once-a-decade testing performed by the federal government. Two undercover testers — for example, one black and one white — separately solicit an agent’s assistance in buying houses. They present similar financial profiles and request identical terms for houses in the same areas. The agent’s actions are then reviewed for evidence that the agent provided disparate service.

Newsday conducted 86 matching tests across Long Island. In 40 percent of the tests, evidence suggested that brokers subjected minority testers to disparate treatment when compared with white testers, with inequalities rising to almost half the time for black potential buyers. Black testers experienced disparate treatment 49 percent of the time — compared with 39 percent for Hispanic and 19 percent for Asian testers. In seven of Newsday’s tests — 8 percent of the total — agents accommodated white testers while imposing more stringent conditions on minorities that amounted to the denial of equal service between testers.

More coverage: Watch the Long Island Divided documentary

New NYPD commissioner takes charges as challenges loom

Dermot Shea became the NYPD’s 44th police commissioner in December, taking over for James O’Neill, who resigned to take a job in the private sector. Shea takes over the 36,000-strong force at a time when the city’s crime rates continue to drop but faces other concerns, including criminal justice reform, a rise in officer suicides and the deaths of two of its members by friendly fire.

Det. Brian Simonsen, 42, of Calverton, was killed by friendly fire during an armed robbery in Queens in February. In September, Officer Brian Mulkeen, 33, of Westchester County, was killed by friendly fire during a violent struggle with an armed suspect in the Bronx. After Mulkeen’s death, the NYPD ordered all members of its plainclothes anti-crime units to undergo firearms tactical training in teams using live fire drills and video simulators.

Thomas Spota, Christopher McPartland convicted

In December, former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and his former top aide Christopher McPartland were convicted of orchestrating a cover-up of former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke’s beating of a handcuffed prisoner in a police precinct in 2012.
The jury convicted the defendants on all counts in their 2017 indictment: conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of the civil rights of that prisoner, Christopher Loeb.

Spota and McPartland are facing up to 20 years in prison under the law but likely will receive less severe sentences.

More coverage: The Politics of Corruption on Long Island: Thomas Spota, Christopher McPartland

Driver in fatal Boy Scout crash convicted

Thomas Murphy of Holbrook was found guilty in December of driving drunk into a group of Boy Scouts hiking on the shoulder of a Manorville road and killing 12-year-old Andrew McMorris of Wading River.

The jury found Murphy guilty of all nine charges for his role in the 2018 crash, which also injured three other Scouts from Troop 161: Thomas Lane and his older brother Dennis Lane, both of Shoreham, and Kaden Lynch of Calverton.

Murphy faces a maximum sentence of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 21.

Carol Silva retires

News 12 anchor Carol Silva, a defining presence on the channel for more than 30 years, said in June that she would leave her role as morning anchor in December.

In October, she announced via social media that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Silva, who by that point had been off the air for nearly a month since first learning of her diagnosis, said she would step away from anchor duties to begin systemic treatment for cancer in her lung and radiation for tumors that had spread to her brain.

“There is no shame in this,” Silva said. “My attitude is, I have an army of support and we're incredibly lucky on Long Island and the tristate area to have world-class medical facilities in our backyard.”

She returned in December, working three more weeks until her retirement. She signed off Dec. 20, saying, "Thank you. My story has more to it. God bless you."

Nearly 100 MS-13 gang members, associates charged in LI investigation

Ninety-six MS-13 gang members and associates were charged with criminal offenses, including conspiracy to commit murder and drug trafficking in December, in the largest takedown of the dangerous street gang in the state’s history, officials said. They include nine regional leaders of the gang who were reportedly sent to New York by MS-13's El Salvadorian-based leadership, officials said.

The nearly two-year investigation thwarted seven alleged murder plots, including a special grand jury indictment charging 45 MS-13 members and 19 associates with alleged murder conspiracies, drug trafficking, weapons possession and sales, and gang violence, officials said.

Law enforcement officials in May said a crackdown on MS-13 has resulted in a sharp drop in gang-related killings on Long Island — roughly two dozen homicides in 2016-17 compared with one committed last year — but cautioned that the violent group is fighting to maintain its grip here. Investigators attributed the decrease to hundreds of arrests after a series of high-profile slayings that spotlighted the gang, and aggressive prosecutions that put some of the leaders behind bars. Despite the progress, law enforcement officials warned that MS-13 is working hard to re-establish itself and avoid police detection.

In the two years since the beginning of Operation Matador — launched in 2017 to deport those linked to violent street gangs — law enforcement officials have given conflicting figures for the number of MS-13 members on Long Island. This has raised questions about the size of the gang locally and whether its magnitude has been exaggerated at a time when President Donald Trump and his allies have been criticized for distorting the threat the gang poses for political reasons.

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