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Last-minute disclosures about witness imperil firefighter arson trial

Justice John Collins told the prosecutors he was skeptical of what he called their "mealy-mouthed" explanation of why they didn't know of or investigate their witness' gang involvement or drug sales.

Central Islip volunteer firefighters Stephen Hernandez of Central

Central Islip volunteer firefighters Stephen Hernandez of Central Islip and Weldon Drayton Jr. of Brentwood at Suffolk County Court in Riverhead on May 8, 2019. Photo Credit: James Carbone

The arson trial of two Central Islip fireighters, which has been plagued constantly by last-minute disclosures of evidence favorable to the defense, almost came off the rails Thursday when a cooperating witness admitted dealing crack and being a member of a street gang.

Those facts, unknown to the defense until Alfredo Laureano admitted them during cross-examination by defense attorney Steve Politi of Central Islip, led Politi during a break in testimony to ask state Supreme Court Justice John Collins to end the trial. Politi argued that Collins should either declare a mistrial and bar prosecutors from bringing the case again or simply dismiss the indictment against his client, Stephen Hernandez, 25, of Central Islip, and co-defendant Weldon Drayton Jr., 35, of Brentwood.

"We have continually been forced to change our trial strategy in the middle of the trial, and sometimes in the middle of a witness," Politi said. He added of the prosecutors, "They have just called their witness a liar."

Prosecutors Andrew Weiss and Luigi Belcastro told Collins they didn't recall Laureano  ever telling them the extent of his own  criminal activity .

Collins told the prosecutors he was skeptical of what he called their "mealy-mouthed" explanation of why they didn't know of or investigate Laureano's gang involvement or drug sales.

"Somebody's lying," Colllins told them. "Now, who is it?"

He later said that to end the case, by law, he must find that prosecutors behaved improperly on purpose.

"As warped as this might sound, I think attributing intentional conduct to them is giving them too much credit," Collins said. He will rule later on the defense motions, he said.

This latest episode in the trial came the day after District Attorney Timothy Sini, while criticizing past prosecutorial misconduct that led to a wrongful murder conviction, urged lawyers to be vigilant against misconduct.

"I hope people are paying attention in the criminal justice community, including in my office," Sini said Wednesday.

Hernandez and Drayton are accused of torching abandoned houses in Central Islip so they could be among the first to respond to the fire station and the fires, to build credibility within the department. Laureano, a friend of Hernandez, testified as part of a cooperation agreement that he set one of the fires with Hernandez. In return for his testimony and guilty plea, the agreement calls for him to get probation.

Just as the trial began two weeks ago, Collins and defense lawyers  were alerted at the last minute that Laureano had violated the cooperation agreement by getting arrested on a weapons possession charge in January in Nassau County. On Friday, prosecutors sent a letter to the judge and defense attorneys, telling them Laureano now had admitted he sold drugs.

But the letter said nothing about which drugs or anything about his membership in the Official Stationary Soldier street gang.

Laureano looked increasingly uncomfortable as Politi sought details about how much crack and Xanax he sold, who his supplier was and who his customers were. Laureano expressed low regard for his customers.

"You're a crack dealer, and you're going to judge an addict?" Politi asked.

"My clients, my purchasers, were just old bums," Laureano said.

Eventually, Laureano become so worked up during Politi's questioning that he urinated on himself and the witness chair. When the trial resumed, it had to be in a different courtroom.

Weiss tried to put a stop to the questioning, saying Laureano's behavior was irrelevant. Collins overruled his objections.

"The relevance, Mr. Weiss, is the abject violation of your cooperation agreement" by Laureano, Collins said.

Laureano will resume testifying Tuesday.

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