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Cops seek witnesses in attack on Fla. utility worker

Utility worker John Applewhite of Florida, shown after

Utility worker John Applewhite of Florida, shown after he was sucker-punched while on Long Island to help restore the storm-damaged power grid, a police spokesman said. (Nov. 9, 2012) Credit: Handout

Nassau detectives are looking for witnesses to an attack on a Florida utility worker who was on Long Island helping to restore the storm-damaged power grid, a police spokesman said Tuesday.

In the Friday evening assault, a stranger got out of a BMW sedan in an East Meadow restaurant parking lot, then walked up and sucker-punched the lineman, John Applewhite, 34, of Lakeland, Fla., police and his family said.

The blow injured Applewhite so badly that he underwent surgery Tuesday in a Florida hospital. He may need metal plates to repair his broken jaw, broken cheekbone and facial fractures, his family said.

"This guy was up here trying to help Long Islanders after we went through Hurricane Sandy, and to have someone commit this kind of assault is completely unjustified," Nassau Police Det. Michael Bitsko said.

Applewhite and his co-workers from Florida had been repairing electric lines for more than 12 hours and had just gotten out of their trucks in the parking lot at the Texas Roadhouse restaurant on Hempstead Turnpike, Applewhite's family said.

The assailant arrived in the BMW, got out and walked directly toward the group of Florida linemen, punched Applewhite and got back in the car and drove off, the family said.

There is no indication of a motive, but investigators will look at all possibilities.

"We wouldn't disregard anything," Bitsko said. He asked any witnesses to come forward with information.

The Lakeland Electric worker, speaking in television interviews from his hospital bed, said the punch was so damaging he suspects his attacker had some hard or heavy object in his hand. Responding to the victim's comment, Bitsko said, "If it is the case, the charges will be upgraded."

Applewhite could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but his sister, Mary Anne Geiger, of Lakeland, Fla., said surgeons may insert metal plates to support the bone structure of her brother's face.

"It was shocking to hear about what happened to John -- I mean, these days, nothing is shocking, but this was my brother. He's such a nice, tender, happy, outgoing guy," she said.

An ABC-TV affiliate in Tampa interviewed Applewhite in his hospital room.

"Just as I got about an arm's length from him, he popped me," Applewhite said. "I don't know if he had anything in his hands. It seems like he did. He did quite a bit of damage."

Applewhite said he doesn't know why he was assaulted, but he understands some people were upset because they had no power for so long.

"It just kind of hit us by surprise, really," he said. "I didn't know if I was going to be robbed or if he was just upset. He was in a nice vehicle, so I kind of let my guard down a little bit. It's unfortunate. It really is."

His father, Morris Applewhite, told several Tampa TV stations that the family will probably have to put Thanksgiving dinner in a blender and his son will have to sip it through a straw.

Nassau police detectives said anyone with information about the assault can contact Nassau County Crime Stoppers at 800-244-TIPS.

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