Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was back in Huntington Station Friday, four weeks after a police officer miraculously survived being shot twice by a suspected gang member after a traffic stop nearby.
The officer, Mark Collins, is in good spirits and continuing to recover, Bellone said in an interview, as he and other county, police, Huntington Town officials, business leaders and community residents gathered in the local jobs opportunity center.
The group was there to announce a pilot program that will mark property with DNA derived from plants as well as a computer registry to deter burglaries, and to reunite victims with stolen property. With the program, which awaits county legislative approval, the kits would go to 500 Huntington homes at no cost.
As for Collins, who was shot in a cul-de-sac a few blocks away from Friday's gathering, "his head is in a good place," James Burke, Suffolk's chief of department, said in an interview.
"He's itching to come back to work," he said.
The officer continues to have what Burke called a "strong survival mindset" -- which kicked in immediately after Collins was shot by a suspect who bolted after officers stopped a car in which he was a backseat passenger.
Surviving that night
Collins, Burke said, as an officer, EMT and volunteer firefighter, knew he had to protect himself from the potential of further injury that night -- while at the same time managing to quickly get medical attention.
He accomplished both by dragging himself from where he was shot -- near the back fence of a house on Mercer Court -- toward a stoop closer to the front yard.
"He turned himself over from his stomach to his back, like an upside-down turtle, to get more protection from his vest," Burke said. "And he elbowed his way out to where he thought his partners could find him."
As he waited, Collins, Burke said, "had the presence of mind to ask his fellow officers if they had called for aviation" -- a helicopter, which eventually would fly him out to Stony Brook University Hospital.
Collins was found quickly by Officer Damien Torres -- but Torres didn't know exactly where they were. The officer quickly asked dispatch to run the license plate of a car parked outside the house, which gave rescuers the address, Burke said.
Once at Stony Brook, Collins recognized the doctor who would be his surgeon. And the surgeon told Collins that he would be all right, before the officer was put under for surgery.
Collins, a Second Precinct gang unit officer, was released from the hospital a few days after the shooting. The suspect, Sheldon Leftenant, 22, of Mastic Beach, has pleaded not guilty to charges in connection with the shooting.
This week, Second Precinct police officials are slated to update Huntington Station residents -- at the monthly community meeting -- for the first time since Collins' shooting.
Some of the anger that characterized earlier meetings between police and residents -- especially after the October slaying of a local teenager, Maggie Rosales -- appears to be redirecting itself toward a common quest to make Huntington Station better.
'The town is trying'
One result: a series of meetings between community members and officials that has evolved into a Huntington Station leadership council, which is vetting different ideas on what the community needs to move forward.
"I think things are getting better," James McGoldrick, a council member spurred to action after Rosales' body was found outside his home, said Friday. "The community is partaking now, realizing now that if we don't participate, we are not going to have a better community."
McGoldrick, who has not been shy about lambasting officials at public meetings, called police helpful, and said residents were pleased to see more town cars in the neighborhood, presumably checking on housing code violation reports.
"We can see that the town is trying," he said.
Meanwhile, his family and the Rosales family keep growing closer. He saw the teenager's parents Friday, right before the news conference. And McGoldrick's wife, Mary, is planning a spring garden.
"It's in our yard," McGoldrick said. "But it's really Maggie's garden."