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4 group home workers charged in 'fight club' for disabled

Rosemary Vanni, 44, of Eastport, left, Stephen Komara,

Rosemary Vanni, 44, of Eastport, left, Stephen Komara, 58, of East Moriches, Justin McDonald, 19, of Lindenhurst, and Erin McHenry, 28, of Brookhaven, who all worked at one of many facilities run by Independent Group Home Living Program, each face two felony endangerment counts. Credit: Southampton Police

Four group home workers in Southampton face charges they provoked two developmentally disabled men under their care to fight, a spectacle that prosecutors said was organized and watched purely for sport.

When the two residents of Independent Group Home Living Program exchanged blows last fall, one overturned the other as he sat in his wheelchair, all the while, prosecutors said, the workers erupted in "raucous laughter."

Jacqueline Kagan, a deputy special prosecutor for the state's Justice Center, said the defendants staged "what can only be described as a developmentally disabled fight club."

Three of the four defendants appeared in Southampton Town Justice Court Thursday.

Erin McHenry, 28, of Brookhaven; Stephen Komara, 58, of East Moriches; and Justin McDonald, 19, of Lindenhurst pleaded not guilty and all were sent to the Suffolk jail. Town Justice Barbara L. Wilson set bail at $10,000 each.

Wilson also issued an arrest warrant for Rosemary Vanni, 44, of Eastport, who failed to appear. Southampton Town Police arrested her later. She is scheduled for arraignment Friday. All face felony endangerment charges.

Independent Group Home Living Program, a nonprofit agency that runs several programs on Long Island dedicated to enriching the lives of people with developmental disabilities, issued a statement saying: "Our agency is outraged and offended by these alleged acts. . . . Staff who were accused of being involved were terminated."

The incident, which prosecutors said occurred in October or November, was video recorded by McDonald on his cellphone.

The workers can be heard engaging in "raucous laughter" as the two men in their 50s -- whose mental capacities were described as being that of toddlers -- struck each other, Kagan said.

Kagan said the video shows one man "knocking one over in a wheelchair," and one of the defendants, McHenry, giving him a "double high-five as praise."

McDonald sent the video to someone, Kagan said. That person alerted the group home and officials there reported the incident to Southampton Town Police and the Justice Center, as required by law. Kagan said group home officials "acted very swiftly," and immediately suspended the workers, investigated the incident and ultimately fired them. The specific group home was not identified.

McDonald told police the incident was "routine," said the judge, who called that "unacceptable." Kagan told the judge "we didn't see any indication" such incidents occurred more than once.

"These arrests should serve as a warning that the Justice Center and the district attorneys of this state will not hesitate to prosecute behavior that violates, endangers or causes injuries to vulnerable New Yorkers," special needs special prosecutor Patricia E. Gunning said.

All four of the workers were arrested and processed in the last two weeks by Southampton Town Police and issued desk appearance tickets for arraignment, in order to coordinate with the Albany-based Justice Center, Southampton Town Det. Sgt. Lisa Costa said.

McDonald, whose father is a New York City police officer, "admitted the conduct," Kagan told the judge, and "wrote an apology letter" to the victims' families.

McDonald told the judge he was studying occupational therapy at Suffolk County Community College until 2013 and was recently trying to get back into school. He's due back in court March 6.

The judge asked McDonald's parents, who were in the courtroom, "What control do you folks have over him?" McDonald's father answered: "We're his parents. We try to guide him the best we can."

McDonald's lawyer, Richard Lovell, of Ozone Park, told the judge his client had never been in trouble with the law in the past. Lovell and McDonald's parents declined to comment after the arraignment.

McHenry, who did not have an attorney, begged the judge to release her without bail. "I'm a single mom. Please. . . . Please, I'll do anything."

Kagan called McHenry's conduct "egregious." The judge said McHenry, who said she has a 3-year-old son, will be assigned a Legal Aid attorney and be back in court Friday.

Komara, who also didn't have an attorney, had worked at the facility for seven years, Kagan said, and as the senior staffer present would have been in the "best position to stop the behavior and intervene." The judge also said Komara would be assigned a court-appointed attorney and appear in court Friday.After Thursday's hearing, Patrick Stack III arrived at the courthouse, eager to register his disgust at the allegations.

Stack, 48, said he has two sons, one with cerebral palsy and the other with severe autism, who attend similar day programs.

"The staff there is phenomenal," he said. "They don't do it for the paycheck. . . . I'm afraid that all of the good people will get bad reputations due to a few people."

Stack said the allegations "really upset me" because families of people with developmental disabilities "have to trust people with the most innocent, precious human beings."

"I hope the families of these . . . [victims] that got hurt get justice," Stack said.

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