TODAY'S PAPER
67° Good Evening
67° Good Evening
NewsNew York

Trading His DA's Badge For A Robe / A star prosecutor takes his dogged pursuit of justice to the state Supreme Court

At a glance, the seventh-floor office overlooking Queens

Boulevard told you what its occupant, Gregory Lasak, had been doing for the

past 25 years.

In one photograph, detectives escort a handcuffed man. Below the photo

array is a yellowing article headlined "Two Guilty in Murder of Widow." Above

the photo is written "To Greg, Thank You."

In a newspaper courtroom sketch, Lasak directs a victim to pull up his

shirt and show the jury scars inflicted by police officers who used a stun gun

to torture him inside an Ozone Park station house in 1985.

A "Homicide Logbook" listing all murder cases dating back to 1991 sat on

the heating unit next to a bumper sticker reading: "But to live outside the law

you must be honest - Bob Dylan."

Last week, the keepsakes and memorabilia of the professional prosecutor who

had his hand in every major investigation in Queens for the past two decades,

were packed away. Tuesday, Lasak, 50, turned in his assistant district

attorney's badge for black robes when he was sworn in as a state Supreme Court

justice in Queens. His first day on the job is Jan. 2; he will sit in Kew

Gardens.

Lasak was sworn in by state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Demakos in trial

courtroom K-10 before more than 300 family and friends, including politicians,

lawyers and police officers. The atmosphere was like a roast. There were seven

speakers; one of them, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, presented Lasak

with a desk weight - the now-retired beeper which had summoned Lasak to crime

scenes at all times of the day and night over the last 20 years. Brown had it

mounted.

The move into robes is not easy for Lasak, a Polish kid who grew up in the

blue-collar, Irish neighborhood of Woodside dreaming of becoming a prosecutor

and not the guy in black on the raised platform. "There were a lot of cops and

firemen, and public servants in our neighborhood. There was a real tendency for

being in public service." He paused, then added, joking, "That or being bank

robbers."

"I was drawn to law enforcement, and I liked the public service aspect,

doing your lot to help keep the city safe," Lasak said.

Friends such as William Vanson, 63, say they were struck by Lasak's

diligence and drive as a kid delivering newspapers in their neighborhood.

Vanson, a lawyer, became more and more impressed as the "kid," the term he

still uses for Lasak, went on to Holy Cross High, Queens College and New York

Law School. Lasak is married, has three children and still lives in Woodside.

"Woodside was not exactly a hot bed of intellectuality," Vanson said. "It

was not exactly a neighborhood for someone who is going to make it big, but I

was struck by this kid." Years after Lasak gave up his paper route, he and

Vanson's paths crossed again in what Lasak would come to regard as the high

water mark of his career.

Lasak joined the Queens district attorney's office in 1978 and began a rise

that saw him named chief of the homicide bureau in 1984 at age 30.

In 1986, Lasak retried two suspected cop killers defended by two of the

most dogged attorneys in the business - the late William Kunstler and Randolph

Scott-McLaughlin, the latter now a professor at Pace University Law School in

White Plains. At the time, Vanson was the court clerk and was working for the

judge in the case, Jack Gallagher.

On April 16, 1981, in St. Albans, Officers John Scarangella, 42, and

Richard Rainey, 32, stopped a van fitting the description of one used in a

string of burglaries. Before the officers could get out of their patrol car,

two men jumped from the van and fired about 30 shots at them. Scarangella, a

father of four, was wounded and was in a coma for two weeks before dying on

May 1, 1981. Rainey was wounded eight times. He survived, but his injuries

ended his police career.

Police charged two ex-Black Panthers, Anthony LaBorde, who later changed

his name to Abdul Majid, and James Dixon York, who later changed his name to

Basheer Hameed, in the shootings. The first two trials ended in hung juries,

Lasak was then called on to prosecute the case.

"As a district attorney, that's the most important case you could ask for,"

Lasak said. "It was an outright execution of a uniformed police officer in a

marked police car in broad daylight. It was a brazen act of cowardice."

The trial started in March 1986, and provided high courtroom drama. "It was

a war, a three-month war," Lasak recalls. "Kunstler was his usual energetic

self. He was very charming in front of a jury, and he was very tenacious for

his clients' interest. In short, he was a pain in the butt."

The suspects' supporters and Scarangella's family members and cops filled

the courtroom. "You could cut the air in that courtroom with a knife half the

time," Lasak said. As Vanson watched from his post in the court, he couldn't

believe how well the former paperboy was faring, especially against the

renowned Kunstler. "Bill Kunstler, being a showman, did everything in his power

to put Greg Lasak down," Vanson said. "And let me tell you, Greg Lasak just

blew him away."

When the the jury came back with guilty verdicts, jurors asked if they

could speak with Lasak and Scarangella's widow, Vivian. "I never saw anything

like it before; it still takes my breath away just talking about it," Vanson

said. "When Greg and Mrs. Scarangella walked in, the jury got up and clapped

for Mrs. Scarangella. That's going to live forever in my mind. I made up my

mind after watching that kid [Lasak] try that case that I'm going to go to law

school."

Vanson became a lawyer in 1995. Meanwhile, Majid and Hameed are serving

time at upstate jails.

When Lasak joined the Queens district attorney's office, he became a trial

partner with another newcomer, Gregory Meeks, now a Queens congressman. Meeks

is from East Harlem. The two, who hit it off, were assigned to clean up what

they called the "dog cases," the hard-to-win ones that no other prosecutors

wanted to touch. Meeks recalls that during one particularly tough stretch,

after enduring three hung jury verdicts in a row, he returned to his office to

find Lasak's handiwork: three hangman's nooses affixed over his desk.

"We call each other brothers," Meeks said. "Just like in that movie 'Twins'

[where] you have Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, well you had Greg

Lasak and Greg Meeks."

Lasak said he learned in the early days from some of the city's most

experienced detectives that the best way to make a case was to first try to

prove the suspect innocent. "Once you can't prove the suspect innocent, then

you know in your heart, as much as humanly possible, that he's guilty, and you

can commit every fiber of your being to proving that," Lasak said.

Lasak soon became known as the Queens district attorney's office's "go-to

guy," Meeks said. "He was the guy the DA went to when he had to win a case."

Cases fell to him such as the slaying of 91-year-old Dunie Lewis, who was

suffocated with a pillow in her Rochdale Village apartment in September 1982 by

men who stole cash, jewelry and her television set. Another was the murder of

Laura Ann Evelyn, 18, a City College student who was raped and thrown off the

roof of another building in Rochdale Village just days after Lewis' killing,

sending the community into a frenzy.

"The man's very, very thorough," said Lt. Phillip Panzarella, 59, who has

served the New York Police Department for 38 years and who worked both cases.

"When he gets his paws into it, and he gets the meat of it, there's no stopping

him."

By the time Lasak's beeper beckoned him to yet another crime scene on Jan.

7, 1995, his role had shifted almost exclusively to supervisory - training

assistant district attorneys and overseeing prosecutions during a time when the

crime rate in the city had hit historic highs because of a crack cocaine

epidemic that had strong roots in Queens.

But after the summons to the scene of a multiple murder in a College Point

condominium, Lasak found himself slated for court once again. Six people,

including three teenage girls, one of whom was pregnant, were tied up and

executed with guns and knives by men, one of whom allegedly owed $18,000 for

drugs to one of the men they killed. "It was like no other crime scene," Lasak

said. "There was an eerie feeling; there was still the smell of blood in the

air."

Like all of the approximately 40 felony trials he prosecuted, the outcome

was the same: guilty.

But the big trials, late-night crime scenes and daily pressure of making

decisions about the borough's biggest crimes come at a cost.

In 2001, while preparing to prosecute the murders of five people killed

inside a Wendy's restaurant in Flushing on May 24, 2000, Lasak felt a pain in

his chest. If it was up to him, he would have ignored it. But at his brother's

insistence, he went to the hospital and found out he needed a heart operation.

The operation and recovery from it knocked him off the case. "Greg had a

couple of years of trying the most serious cases in the county," Meeks said.

"He's intense, he's competitive, and he's a great lawyer, but I think it took a

lot out him."

In recent years, Lasak's role has expanded into territory where few career

prosecutors venture. He estimates that in the past five years, he has helped

get released about 20 men wrongfully imprisoned, indicted or arrested.

"He personally corrected more injustices than any prosecutor I can recall

offhand," said Barry Scheck, a defense attorney who founded the Innocence

Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully incarcerated.

"On his own, or even at the request of defense attorneys, if he thought there

was a wrongful conviction, he personally investigated it, and he got it right."

Innocent men Lasak won freedom for recently include Lee Long, who served

six years for a rape in Jackson Heights; Lazaro Burt, who served nearly 10

years for a murder in Corona; and Lambert Charles, who confessed to a murder in

Jackson Heights after being threatened by a drug gang.

"The satisfaction of obtaining justice for someone who has been sitting in

a jail for a crime they didn't commit is just as great or even greater, in some

respects, than convicting a guilty person," Lasak said. "It's not a popular

mission for prosecutors, which I feel is unfortunate because it should be part

of the job."

Lasak's election to a 14-year term with starting pay of $136,700 comes at

a time when the position and the process of electing judges in the city is

under fire following a bribery scandal in Brooklyn. Queens District Attorney

Richard Brown said that in Lasak, Queens is seeking a man "with special

qualifications for judicial office."

"Greg is a man of few words," Brown, a judge himself for 16 years, said in

an interview. "But his passion for justice and his genuine love for Queens

County and its residents will make him a valued and very special addition to

our county's judiciary."

"I had a great run here," Lasak said. "Some people can't make decisions; I

love to make decisions. I feel that will help make the transition to the bench

very easy. I don't think there will be any decisions that are tougher than the

ones I've had to make."

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

More news