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The top stories of the decade

Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers pull down a

Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad, on April 9, 2003. Photo Credit: AP

When the millennium dawned in 2000 we were worried about Y2K, William Jefferson Clinton was president and the dot-com bubble was just starting to burst. In Lower Manhattan, the World Trade Center stood tall, and America’s was a peacetime army. Barack Obama was an Illinois state legislator.

During this decade on Long Island, property values peaked — and then dropped. Democrats won big wins in Nassau County for the first time in 30 years, and then lost again. Public officials betrayed our trust, and some were punished. Drunk driving and heroin abuse were scourges that stole the lives of young and old. And Long Islanders, as Americans did across the land, adapted to their roles in two long wars. The economy went into a hole not seen since the Great Depression.

It was a decade that brings to mind the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

Here, year by year, are 10 stories that rocked Long Island.

On Sept. 17, 2000, two white men lured two undocumented Mexican immigrants from Farmingville to an abandoned warehouse in Shirley with a promise of work. Once inside, the Mexican men were attacked from behind by the white men with tools and a knife. Both were seriously injured.

And so erupted long-simmering tensions between immigrants streaming onto Long Island and the communities which - sometimes reluctantly - housed them. The Latinos, mostly men, angered some longtime residents when they gathered on street corners and hiring halls, looking for work. Some complained they overcrowded apartments, creating unsafe conditions; others felt they contributed to rising crime. At the same time, the immigrants filled a growing need for inexpensive labor fueled by relentless growth and development, especially out East.

The attackers were convicted of attempted murder and are now in prison. The victims left Long Island, one for Mexico, the other for California. Ten years later, the fight still isn’t over. Five teens have been charged in connection with the slaying of Marcelo Lucero, who hailed from Ecuador, and police say the group made a sport of beating Hispanic men.

Following Lucero’s murder, and several reports by Latinos that the Suffolk County Police were not aggressively investigating crimes against them, the federal government is probing the actions of local authorities.

George W. Bush beat Al Gore to become president — five weeks after Election Day when the Supreme Court ruled to halt the Florida recount, capping a legal battle that made history. New York elected first lady Hillary Clinton as U.S. senator. And the Mets made the World Series, but lost to the Yankees.

It was a perfectly ordinary Tuesday morning — until two hijacked jets shot out of the bright blue sky and slammed into the World Trade Center.

The attacks, which included a downed jet in Pennsylvania and a fourth plane crashed into the Pentagon, had a devastating death toll: 2,975. In Nassau County, 344 people were lost; 178 were from Suffolk. Rockville Centre alone lost 20 people; 19 of those killed were from Garden City; 17 from Manhasset.

The towers collapsed, sending thousands of people running for their lives down Manhattan’s streets.

For days, posters of the missing flapped in the wind, and the death toll climbed. Funerals became a daily occurence.

Metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and military personnel in camouflage carrying machine guns became commonplace sights in subway stations and building atriums. Rebuilding at the World Trade Center site has chugged at a slow pace, and Ground Zero is still mostly a reminder of what happened there. Osama bin Laden remains at large. American military are still in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama Administration recently announced that accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will face trial in New York, perhaps providing, if not closure, justice.

Two months after 9/11, a plane bound for the Dominican Republic crashed on the Rockaways, killing all 260 aboard and five on the ground. Billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg won a longshot bid to become mayor of New York City. A series of anthrax attacks, wrought through the mail, killed five people and terrorized millions more.

On Jan. 1, 2002, a 39-year-old mayor named Thomas Richard Suozzi was sworn in as Nassau’s 7th county executive, the first Democrat elected to the post in three decades and only the second in the postwar era.

Suozzi’s ascencion marked the end of what had seemed like a permanent Republican stronghold on Long Island. He was elected with two-thirds of the vote. At the same time, the Nassau County Legislature shifted to Democratic control by a one-person margin.

Suozzi, formerly the mayor of Glen Cove, had big ambitions, but he also had big problems. The county was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and staring down state takeover. He faced a $700 million backlog of tax challenges, skyrocketing labor costs, the threat of insolvency at Nassau University Medical Center, and the task of rebuilding a county that a Syracuse University report had just named the worst-run in the nation.

Did he pull it off? The county was never taken over by the state and regained its fiscal footing, in part through a nearly 20 percent property tax hike soon after Suozzi took office.

But eight years later, in a surprise upset, Suozzi lost his post to Republican legislator Ed Mangano by just under 400 votes. The legislature is back under Republican control. Homeowners are again incensed, by shrinking state aid, lost services and ballooning property taxes.

An unlikely father-and-son team of serial killers terrorized the Northeast. The nation grappled with the fallout of the 9/11 attacks, rounding up suspects and examining what led to the most devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history. In October, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the president to go to war in Iraq.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre had received allegations of sexual abuse against 58 of its priests, and in most cases, a Suffolk County grand jury report released in February charged, church authorities did nothing more than try to minimize the financial fallout.

The 180-page report, issued in February by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, followed explosive revelations out of Boston the year before that Cardinal Bernard Law had endangered children by shielding predatory priests.

Allegations in the report were scathing. Children were raped, molested and psychologically abused. The diocese moved molesters, silenced whistle-blowers and wilfully dragged out cass so the statute of limitations would expire.

The grand jury did not issue indictments, because of the statute of limitations, but at least three local priests have gone to jail and at least eight have been defrocked. Since then, the diocese has instituted safety measures, including a review board to oversee reports of abuse and increased training and screening for priests and lay clergy.

On Long Island, scandal rocked the Mepham High School football team.

At the United Nations in February, Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — an assertion he has since said he regrets. On March 20., a U.S.-led coalition of forces invaded Baghdad.

High property taxes, lavish salaries for superintendents and relatively high pay for teachers have, in many communities, translated to high achievement.

But in 2004, starting with an audit of Roslyn schools that eventually uncovered an $11 million embezzlement scheme, taxpayers learned that what they paid for was not always what they got.

The scandal unfolded gradually, starting in the spring with allegations that a former assistant superintendent had stolen $250,000 using credit cards and phony contractors. Residents of the high-performing school district were astonished as the amount rose into the millions.

In 2005, Roslyn’s popular superintendent, Frank Tassone, pleaded guilty to grand larceny for stealing $2.2 million for luxuries including lavish trips and a vacation home. He is now serving a 4 to 12 year sentence. Five others were also sentenced in connection with the scandal.

A few months after the Roslyn investigation began, a former treasurer of the William Floyd School District was charged with stealing $750,000 by writing checks to himself and authorizing them with his own signature. The state comptroller’s office later accused the district of wasting nearly $8 million through misspending and fraud.

In the wake of the scandals, Albany passed laws adding funding and staff to the comptroller’s office to perform audits, and requiring school board members to undergo financial oversight training.

Meanwhile, Tassone is collecting his $173,495 pension, in monthly installments of $14,457.92, while incarcerated. He’s eligible for parole in 2010.

George W. Bush fought for his political life against Democratic Sen. John Kerry — and won. Decorating diva Martha Stewart was convicted of lying to federal investigators about a stock deal, and Bernard Kerik withdrew his name as a nominee for homeland security director amid several allegations about personal and professional improprieties.

In December, more than 117,000 people were killed in a devastating tsunami that rocked Southeast Asia.

Katie Flynn, 7, and her family were heading home in a limousine from her aunt’s wedding, where she’d served as a flower girl.

Martin Heidgen, 24, was driving the wrong way up the Meadowbrook Parkway, drunk.The horrifying head-on collision killed Katie and the driver, Stanley Rabinowitz, 59. The July crash shocked and saddened Long Island, prompting prosecutors and lawmakers to seek harsher penalties and stronger laws to jail drunk drivers.

In an unusual — and risky — move by prosecutors, Heidgen was charged with second-degree murder, not the lesser but more common charge of second-degree vehicular manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of just 2 1/3 to 7 years. Heidgen was convicted the following year and is now serving a sentence of 18 years to life.

In the aftermath of the Heidgen case, state legislators in 2007 passed a law creating a new charge, aggravated vehicular homicide, a B-felony that carries a penalty of up to 25 years. This summer, Diane Schuler, of West Babylon, was driving drunk with her daughter and three nieces in the car, in the wrong direction on the Taconic Parkway when she collided with an SUV, killing everyone in both vehicles.

Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the gulf. Images of New Orleans — where entire neighborhoods were wiped out, bodies were floating in the streets and residents reported looting and violence — horrified Americans, raising questions about how this could happen in the United States. Five years later, hundreds of thousands of people dislocated by the hurricane still lack permanent homes, and New Orleans is still struggling to recover.

Natalie Smead, an 18-year-old from Northfield, Minn., visiting friends in New York City, was taking the Long Island Rail Road to a concert at Randalls Island on Aug. 5 when she fell through the gap between a train and the platform and was killed by an oncoming train.

Smead’s death — which an NTSB report later ruled was partly due to the fact that she’d been drinking and ignored a conductor’s instructions — ultimately led to a system-wide campaign to repair gaps, educate riders and reduce injuries. The LIRR settled with Smead’s family earlier this year for $1.5 million.

The incident marked the first gap-related death, but it was subsequently revealed that wide gaps across the system had caused hundreds of injuries. A Newsday investigation found that the system was riddled with such gaps, and that there were more than 800 gap-related accidents between 1995 and 2007.

Following Newsday’s investigation, the LIRR launched a $20.7 million effort to shrink the gaps. Between 2007 and 2008, there were 33 percent fewer gap-related accidents.

Voters voiced anger in the 2006 midterm elections, giving Democrats a large majority in the House and a razor-thin edge in the Senate. Gerald Ford died, and Saddam Hussein was executed. In New York City, a small airplane piloted by Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle crashed into a Manhattan building, killing Lidle and his flight instructor.

The White House awarded the Medal of Honor — the highest military decoration bestowed by the U.S. government — posthumously to Michael Murphy of Patchogue, a Navy SEAL who died protecting his comrades in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Murphy’s recognition marked the first time a Medal of Honor was awarded for fighting in Afghanistan. It was also a reminder of the great contribution Long Islanders had made to the war effort — and the heavy toll that contribution has taken.

Murphy, 29, was leading a four-man reconnaissance mission to capture or kill a Taliban leader in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province on June 28, 2005, when they encountered a goat herder, and let him pass. Soon after, the group was surrounded by Taliban forces. Murphy was fatally shot when he ran into the open to call for help.

Two other Navy SEALS were killed, as well as the 16 people aboard the helicopter, which was shot down.

Only one man, Marcus Luttrell of Texas, survived the mission. He called Murphy “an iron-souled warrior of colossal, almost unbelievable courage.”

At Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho, an English major with a history of mental illness, killed 32 people and wounded several others before committing suicide. The housing bubble began to deflate, with increasing foreclosures among some homeowners with high-risk mortgages, a crisis that would later infect the entire financial system. Presidential candidates began jockeying for position, anticipating the earliest-ever New Hampshire primary in January 2008.

After an anonymous tip, Newsday reported in February that attorney Lawrence Reich, a private lawyer, was getting a public pension of nearly $62,000 a year, plus lifetime health benefits. And he wasn’t alone: at least 23 Long Island school districts had improperly reported private attorneys as public employees, enabling them to receive generous benefits on the taxpayer’s dime.

The revelation about the lawyers ultimately sparked investigations by the state attorney general and comptroller and Nassau County district attorney’s office, as revelations emerged about pension abuses that were far more widespread. In May, Newsday reported that at least 40 Long Island school administrators were “double-dipping” — retiring and returning to work so they could collect six-figure paychecks on top of six-figure pensions, costing the public at least $11 million a year.

In June, the state legislature passed sweeping pension reforms that increased penalties for pension fraud. Some of the lawyers who lost their pensions in the ensuing investigations sued, and in October 2009, two court rulings found that state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli acted unconstitutionally when he seized $1.5 million in pension benefits, and had to give it back. The state has vowed, however, to keep fighting.

This was also the year that financier and philanthropist Bernard Madoff’s $64 billion ponzi scheme unraveled. The losses bankrupted charitable organizations, threatened university endowments and destroyed individual investors and estates.

Of an estimated 13,500 victims, about 21 percent were from Long Island and New York City. Nearly 400 clients-turned-victims were in Great Neck alone.

Madoff is now serving a 150-year sentence in a North Carolina federal prison. The trustee representing investors has so far collected $1.5 billion to distribute as restitution, but most victims won’t see a payback anytime soon — if ever.

Barack Obama, a freshly minted Illinois senator and a gifted orator who had transfixed listeners with his eloquent keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, runs for president. Obama, the grandson of Kenyan goat herders, stunned the world when he rode a groundswell of support to become the nation’s first African-American president.

Barack Hussein Obama was sworn into office as the 44th president amid tides of goodwill, high approval ratings and a widespread desire for a fresh start. He had his work cut out for him. Obama faced gargantuan challenges: an economy in freefall; a ballooning deficit and the need to bail out the auto industry and several large banks. Not to mention two wars and a flu pandemic.

The previous year, government bailouts and bankruptcies of seemingly unflappable financial institutions astounded Wall Street. In 2009, the rippling effects of those massive bailouts, huge job losses, and a sharp curb on consumer credit, delivered that economic pain right to Main Street. On Long Island, unemployment rose as property values plummeted. Homes across the island were foreclosed and construction projects stalled. Families watched their 401ks and investments wither away and began to postpone retirements.

The continued economic bad news, in part, led to an unexpected political turnover in Nassau County, where the Democratic county executive and comptroller were voted out and the legislature switched to Republican control.

Communities rallied as overdoses, fatalities, rehab admissions and arrests associated with heroin usage on Long Island shot up. The numbers are stark: 96 fatal heroin overdoses on Long Island in 2008, a 70 percent increase from the year before.

And just last week, Long Island shoveled out from its largest snowstorm in modern history — a record 26.3 inches.


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