Former Bay Shore teacher is at the center of 45 lawsuits against the school district under the Child Victims Act. NewsdayTV's Macy Egeland reports. Credit: Anthony Florio; File Footage; Photo Credit: Newsday / James Carbone, Erin Geismar; Islip Bulletin

Suffolk prosecutors have identified 11 additional former students they believe a retired Bay Shore elementary school teacher abused, an assistant district attorney said at his arraignment on a grand jury indictment Wednesday.

Thomas Bernagozzi, 75, of Babylon, was arrested in December and is charged with two counts of sodomy and sexual conduct against a child involving two students. He faces up to 25 years in prison on each count if convicted.

The additional former students were among witnesses interviewed since the arrest, Assistant District Attorney Dana Castaldo said.

Castaldo revealed that a search warrant executed at his home produced “substantial corroborating evidence” in the investigation.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Suffolk prosecutors said in court Wednesday they have identified 11 additional former students they believe a retired Bay Shore elementary school teacher abused.
  • Thomas Bernagozzi, 75, of Babylon, was arrested in December and is charged with two counts of sodomy and sexual conduct against a child involving two students. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
  • The additional former students were among witnesses interviewed since the arrest, Assistant District Attorney Dana Castaldo said.

Bernagozzi, who retired in 2000, denied the allegations in court papers, and both he and defense attorney Samuel DiMeglio have declined to speak with reporters.

The prosecutor said interviews with 30 additional witnesses have also helped “significantly grow the investigation” into the retired teacher, whose alleged conduct led to 45 lawsuits against the Bay Shore school district under the Child Victims Act. Some of the newly identified victims are not among the dozens who filed civil claims, and police only learned of their abuse after Bernagozzi's arrest, Castaldo said.

“These interviews further established that the defendant maintained the same common scheme or plan for 30 years,” Castaldo told acting State Supreme Court Justice Karen Wilutis. “When detailing the alleged abuse, victims from the 1970s have articulated the same manner in which this defendant perpetrated this conduct as victims from the 1980s and the 1990s. Not only do these individuals not know one another, but the pattern of abuse spans generations, as some of the victims were not even born at the time the defendant was abusing prior victims.”

Wilutis ordered Bernagozzi, who had previously been released from custody with GPS monitoring conditions, to be held on $300,000 cash bail or $600,000 insurance bond. Prosecutors had sought $1 million cash bail or $2.5 million insurance bond, but DiMeglio said his client could not secure a bond greater than $750,000.

“Millions of dollars is not reasonable,” argued DiMeglio, who told the judge his client, who was ushered away from the courtroom in handcuffs and taken to the Suffolk County jail in Yaphank, intended to post bond Wednesday.

Castaldo explained to the court that while the statute of limitations against child sexual abuse was expanded when the Child Victims Act was signed into law on Feb. 14, 2019, there is still only a narrow window for bringing criminal charges against Bernagozzi from his 30-year tenure as a third grade teacher in Bay Shore schools. For example, the charge of course of sexual conduct against a child was not enacted in the penal law until Aug. 1, 1996, she said.

The charges represent only “a fraction” of the alleged abuse endured by the two complainants in the criminal case, said Castaldo, who added the alleged abuse overall spans “scores of children who were under his care.”

Prosecutors intend to seek hearings that would allow other alleged victims to testify at Bernagozzi's trial, Castaldo said.

“It’s also alleged in the lawsuits that the Bay Shore school district was aware of the ongoing systemic abuse [Bernagozzi] was inflicting upon their students and did nothing to stop it,” Castaldo told the court.

Bay Shore Superintendent Steven Maloney and school board p President Jennifer Brownyard declined to comment, citing “pending and ongoing” litigation.

The search warrant on Bernagozzi’s home, in which he was raised and later inherited from his father, turned up “thousands of images in all different formats, including printed photos, negatives and videos via an SD card,” Castaldo said. Some of the evidence in older formats is still being processed, she said, but other images showed the two complainants in the criminal case and “corroborate their accounts of where and when the abuse took place.”

“The photos also depicted additional known victims and hundreds of other students,” the prosecutor said.

Playbills of Broadway productions the students told investigators Bernagozzi attended with them were also found in his home, Castaldo said.

Newsday first reported in November that 45 of Bernagozzi's former students said in separate lawsuits he sexually abused them as youngsters in his class and accused the Bay Shore district of failing to protect them. The lawsuits were filed under the Child Victims Act, which opened a temporary window beginning in 2019 for anyone who suffered sexual abuse as a child to file claims. That window closed in August 2021.

Bernagozzi taught third grade at two Bay Shore elementary schools from 1970 to 2000, court records show. One alleged victim in the criminal case said he was abused by him between 1997 and 2000, while another victim said he was were abused between 1989 and 1991.

In both incidents, the child was not a student in Bernagozzi’s class, Castaldo said.

The 1989 student was a 4-year-old enrolled in pre-K, whose brother was a third grade student of Bernagozzi. The child from 1997 was in a different third grade class, but spent extracurricular time with Bernagozzi, the prosecutor said.

Both youths are alleged to have also spent time outside of school for a period of several years with Bernagozzi, who Castaldo said took children from the school to beaches, public pools and Broadway plays.

Bernagozzi repeatedly exposed himself and molested students from ages 5 to 13, the lawsuits state. The allegations span nearly every year of his teaching career, according to the lawsuits filed in Suffolk Supreme Court.

In all 45 cases, the Bay Shore district filed a counter suit against Bernagozzi, arguing he should be held responsible instead of the district. The district’s court papers said if a jury rules in favor of a former student, “It will be by the virtue of the actions, omissions, recklessness, carelessness, and negligence” of Bernagozzi.

The lawsuits, filed between July 2020 and August 2021, accused the district of condoning Bernagozzi’s behavior.

 Jenny Rossman, an attorney with Herman Law representing 43 plaintiffs with cases against Bay Shore, said her clients were disturbed by the photos found in Bernagozzi's home. She expressed disappointment he was granted bail.

“Each of these hearings is hopefully a step to a conviction, which is justice that our clients seek,” Rossman said. “The arrest was meaningful, but they want a conviction.”  

In court Wednesday, DiMeglio said his client “understands the severity of the charges.” The Huntington-based attorney told Wilutis it was important that his client be kept out of jail as they prepare for the civil cases, including trials in two cases he said are currently scheduled for April.

“He has animals he needs to care for,” DiMeglio also said.

Bernagozzi is due back in court for a conference March 19.

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