Joseph Demma, a former Newsday reporter and editor who supervised the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on police disability fraud, has died from injuries received in a motorcycle accident. He was 73.
Demma, who lived in West Palm Beach, Florida, lost control of his motorcycle and crashed Sunday on U.S. 441 in Osceola County, said his daughter Samantha Beaulieu, of Tampa, Florida. He was pronounced dead Sunday at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne, she said.
During a career that spanned 40 years, Demma left an indelible mark at Newsday, where he was the paper’s national editor and later led the investigations team. At the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he was investigations editor until he retired about eight years ago.
“Joe was, for a long, long time, one of the key people at Newsday,” retired Newsday editor Anthony Marro said Monday. “He was a terrific reporter. He was a terrific editor. He never had an inflated sense of his own importance.”
Demma, who grew up in Babylon, was first hired by Newsday as an editorial clerk and quickly became a reporter. One of his early assignments had him dressing as a Native American to recreate a canoe ride taken by early Long Islanders across Long Island Sound, former Newsday editor Howard Schneider recalled.
Later, Demma covered the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the saga of Tawana Brawley, an upstate teenager whose rape claims were debunked by local authorities.
Schneider said Demma was loyal to his colleagues, but competitive and “tough as nails” as a journalist.
“Joey was rough around the edges,” Schneider said. “He had a swagger that was earned.”
In 1994, Demma spearheaded a Newsday series that found police playing golf and hang-gliding while on disability leave. The stories won the 1995 Pulitzer for investigative reporting.
A decade later, the Sun-Sentinel was a Pulitzer finalist for a series supervised by Demma that showed the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid millions of taxpayer dollars for damage allegedly caused in 2004 by Hurricane Frances — 100 miles away from the storm.
Sun-Sentinel database editor John Maines, a reporter on that series, said Demma taught his staff: “Go for it. We are going to do an investigation. We don’t care how much it costs, we don’t care how long it takes. We are going to get this story.”
In addition to Beaulieu, Demma is survived by three other daughters, Christine McGuire, Cheryl Nolin and Cara Gitto, all of upstate Queensbury; a son, Joseph Michael Demma, of Utah; a sister, Barbara White, of Reno, Nevada, and six grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete on Monday.