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Former group home worker pleads guilty, says disabled residents were goaded into fighting

From left, Stephen Komara, Rosemary Vanni, and Erin

From left, Stephen Komara, Rosemary Vanni, and Erin McHenry, appeared at Riverhead Criminal Court Tuesday, May 20, 2014, where they were arraigned on felony counts of endangering the welfare of an physically disabled person. Komara, Vanni and McHenry, health care workers at the Independent Group Home Living Program in Southampton, are accused of instigating two disabled people to fight. Credit: James Carbone

A former Southampton group home worker accused of videoing his co-workers goading two developmentally disabled men under their care to assault each other pleaded guilty Tuesday and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Justin McDonald, 19, of Lindenhurst, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person for his role in what prosecutors have called a "developmentally disabled fight club."

McDonald, in court with his mother and father, a New York City police officer, testified that the incident occurred between Oct. 15 and Nov. 18, 2013, on a night shift.

Questioned by Jacqueline Kagan, deputy special prosecutor for the Albany-based Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, McDonald acknowledged that he and two other workers, Stephen Komara, 58, of East Moriches, and Rosemary Vanni, 45, of Brookhaven, "had the opportunity to intervene" but didn't, Kagan said.

McDonald also acknowledged a third worker, Erin McHenry, 29, of Brookhaven, had encouraged the two men to fight.

The co-workers pleaded not guilty to two counts each of the same felony charge during their arraignments Tuesday.

McDonald is expected to be sentenced in July to 5 years' probation and 90 days in jail, said state Supreme Court Justice William Condon.

He said he's "likely" to grant youthful offender status to McDonald, who was 18 at the time, at sentencing. That will expunge McDonald's criminal record.

He will also be prohibited from ever working with "vulnerable persons," Kagan said.

McDonald's attorney, Richard Lovell, said of his client: "It is now behind him."

A grand jury indicted Komara, Vanni and McHenry on April 25 for their roles in inciting the fight, which involved two men with the mental capacity of toddlers striking each other until one fell to the floor in his wheelchair, according to prosecutors.

Condon released the three on their own recognizance, citing their lack of prior criminal records. The three -- who worked with McDonald at the Independent Group Home Living Program in Southampton -- are due in court June 18.

Kagan said McDonald's plea deal was appropriate because of his relative youth, short time on the job and because "he was extremely remorseful" and was "willing to take responsibility."

Lawyers for McHenry, Vanni and Komara criticized Kagan for not yet turning over the video, which they said will exonerate their clients. The judge told Kagan to provide it before the next court hearing. Kagan said under the court's discovery process, which dictates sharing of evidence, they were "not entitled to it yet."

Eileen Powers, Komara's attorney, told the judge: "My client is not on that video engaging in any disreputable conduct."

Vanni's attorney, Daniel G. Rodgers, called the prosecution's case "shameful," saying the newly established Justice Center was "trying to make a celebrity case on the backs of people like my client."

Tor Jacob Worsoe, McHenry's defense attorney, called the recorded fight "an unfortunate incident between two handicapped individuals" and said his client did nothing to incite them.

"It doesn't rise to the level of criminality," Worsoe said. "This new agency . . . I think, unfortunately, they're testing the water and they should test it with actual malicious conduct."

Kagan responded that before the Justice Center came into being less than a year ago, oversight for conduct of those working with the developmentally disabled was lacking. She said it will ensure defendants are "appropriately held accountable."


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