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Cops: Hempstead fire chief charged in menacing incident

Hempstead fire chief Mike Charles walks out of

Hempstead fire chief Mike Charles walks out of a church fire. (Undated) Photo Credit: Bill Kelly

The Hempstead Village fire chief and an off-duty New York City firefighter are facing criminal charges for allegedly detaining, frisking and interrogating a man at gunpoint after jumping from a fire department SUV in a case police characterized as vigilantism.

Fire Chief Michael Charles will be asked to take a leave of absence during the investigation of the Sunday altercation, and FDNY firefighter Brian Schuck has been suspended without pay for 30 days, officials said Tuesday. The victim, police said, is the stepson of a village trustee.

Village Mayor Wayne Hall, who said he would be asking Charles to take a leave of absence, said, "If it's true, this is unacceptable behavior."

The suspects made the stop after hearing gunshots nearby, police said.

Both Charles, 51, of 17 Cynthia Court in Hempstead, and Schuck, 33, of 172 Sweezy Ave., Freeport, were arraigned Tuesday in First District Court in Hempstead on second-degree menacing and fourth-degree possession of a dangerous weapon charges, both misdemeanors. A third man in the SUV at the time is expected to be arrested, police said.

Charles was released on his own recognizance, and Schuck, who was also charged in connection with an unrelated assault in Merrick on Oct. 30, was released on $3,500 bail Tuesday. Kenneth Powell, 29, of Hempstead, told authorities he was walking along Tompkins Place Sunday when three men drove up in an SUV with the fire department seal on it. He said a man pointed a gun at him as he was questioned and patted down by another.

"I was petrified," Powell said. Powell and police said he had nothing to do with the shooting incident that had occurred about five blocks from the firehouse that day. In that incident, two men exchanged gunfire and a man and a woman who were not connected to the dispute were hurt, police said.

Powell said when he told the men he was Village Trustee Perry Pettus' son, they let him go. Police call it an act of vigilantism. "He formed his own posse, went out looking for a suspect and acted in a vigilante manner," said Det. Lt. Kevin Smith, a Nassau police spokesman. "We simply can't condone people taking the law into their own hands."

But Charles' attorney, Paul Delle of Garden City, said it was the right thing to do. "Mike was acting in a lawful manner to a perceived emergency situation," said Delle, arguing that the only weapon Charles had was a knife.

Charles once detained for police a drunken driver suspected of hitting a police car, and he helped a detective arrest a drunken driver, Delle said. Delle added in court that Powell's version, though consistent with a police account, should be viewed with skepticism because Powell has a criminal record. Records indicate Powell pleaded guilty to a third-degree criminal possession of a weapon charge in connection with a 2000 incident and served 2 years. Pettus said, "When you're young, everybody makes mistakes."

With Zachary R. Dowdy

and John Valenti

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