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Last not-guilty plea in 'fight club' case

Rosemary Vanni, 44, of Eastport, left, Stephen Komara,

Rosemary Vanni, 44, of Eastport, left, Stephen Komara, 58, of East Moriches, Justin McDonald, 19, of Lindenhurst, and Erin McHenry, 28, of Brookhaven, who all worked at one of many facilities run by Independent Group Home Living Program, each face two felony endangerment counts. Credit: Southampton Police

The final defendant in the developmentally disabled "fight club" case pleaded not guilty Friday after her attorney chastised the judge for unnecessarily ordering his client arrested though he'd notified the court she had retained a lawyer.

"I would never expect the court to issue an apology to my client," defense attorney Daniel Rodgers of Southampton said acidly to Southampton Town Justice Barbara Wilson. He said his client, Rosemary Vanni, 44, of Eastport, didn't come to court Thursday because he told her to stay home after he had twice notified the court he couldn't be there. "She did absolutely nothing wrong, other than listen to my instruction."

Wilson said the court clerk did not relay Rodgers' communication. Because Vanni didn't show up Thursday, Wilson issued an arrest warrant and Vanni spent Thursday night in jail.

On Thursday, Wilson set bail for Vanni's three co-defendants: Justin McDonald, 19, of Lindenhurst; Erin McHenry, 28, of Brookhaven; and Stephen Komara, 58, of East Moriches. Wilson ordered them held on $10,000 bail.

The four are charged with encouraging two developmentally disabled men to fight each other while McDonald recorded it on his cellphone at a house run by the Independent Group Home Living Program in October. Special prosecutor Jacqueline Kagan identified McHenry as the instigator after defense attorney Patrick Burns of the Legal Aid Society asked Wilson to reduce her bail.

"This defendant in particular was captured on videotape committing some egregious behaviors," Kagan said. "She is leading the charge."

All four are charged with two counts each of first-degree endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person, a felony punishable by a maximum of 1 1/3 to 4 years in prison. The cases are being prosecuted by the state's newly established Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.

In signed statements taken by Southampton police, McDonald, McHenry and Vanni minimized their involvement. McDonald's statement said McHenry goaded an aggressive resident who uses a wheelchair into hitting her, knowing that another resident would defend her by attacking the man in the wheelchair.

That man hit the other in the head, knocked his wheelchair over and "then kicked [him] in the head with the heel of his foot," McDonald's statement said. "I filmed the whole thing on my phone because it's a common occurrence, sometimes not to this magnitude," his statement said. "I filmed it because sometimes it's entertaining."

While with the police, McDonald also wrote an apology letter addressed to the men's families.

"I am ashamed of what has been done here," he wrote. "I am very sorry I did not step in to help or even report the situation to proper management/authorities."

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