Fight on the 19th floor: the details

It took a few days, but I finally found out what happened during the “altercation” in Westchester County Surrogate Court last week. This is what Westchester County Police told me:

A former Surrogate’s Court employee named Charmain Smalls had a beef with Deupty Chief Clerk Johanna O’Brien (her former boss?) and confronted her in a courtroom. The argument escalated, and Smalls threw an umbrella,  hitting O’Brien in the chest.

Smalls, 31, of Queens, was originally charged with aggravated harassment, which is either a misdemeanor or a low-level felony, depending on the degree. But county police said she was incorrectly charged and changed it to second-degree harassment, a violation.
She was released on her own recognizance and ordered to appear in White Plains City Court on July 10.

State Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scarpino Jr., who heads the Surrogate Court, directed all questions about the confrontation to David Bookstaver, spokesman for the New York State Office of Court Administration.

Bookstaver identified Smalls today (which allowed me to get the details from police), but he declined to offer further details about the incident, saying it was an “internal dispute.”

Click here to read the original blog post about the fracas.

For Schorr: PBA of Westchester endorsement

This morning, the Police Benevolent Association of Westchester endorsed Republican challenger Dan Schorr in his bid to upset Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore,  who was recently endorsed by the Westchester County Chiefs of Police Association.

The PBA of Westchester is a fraternal organization and is not affiliated with the Westchester County PBA, which is the PBA for county police officers. Each police department has its own PBA as well.

This is the statement released by the Schorr campaign:

“The PBA of Westchester endorsement means a great deal to me and I am honored to be running for district attorney with its support,” Mr. Schorr said. “Police officers in Westchester risk their lives to protect the public from dangerous criminals, but their arrests need to be backed up in court with vigorous prosecutions.  Violent felons receive lenient sentences in easy plea-bargain deals way too often in this county.  I am going to change that the day I take office. Public safety requires toughness and vigilance.”

And here’s the statement from the PBA of Westchester:

“The PBA of Westchester endorses Dan Schorr because of his deep prosecutorial experience and his commitment to fully charging violent felons for their crimes,” said Joseph Giustino, Chairman of the PBA of Westchester Endorsement Committee. “The PBA of Westchester is also impressed by Mr. Schorr’s commitment to crack down on sexual predators in Westchester and provide essential services and protections to victims of domestic violence. The PBA of Westchester is confident that Mr. Schorr will back up the police work of our members and make an outstanding DA.”

Fight on the 19th Floor

So there I was, in the third-floor hallway of the Westchester County County when 8 uniformed court officers run past me. And I mean RUN. Of course, I run after them. They won’t let me on the elevator, so I wait, and the next elevator is packed with MORE court officers.

I find out they’re going to the 19th floor — Surrogate Court — so I hop on a free elevator and go to the top floor. The doors open, and it’s quiet, except for a couple of court officers behind the help desk. I ask one of the women at the help desk what happened. She smiled a tight smile and said, without moving her jaw, “This is really not a good time.”

Turns out two employees got into a fight, or “altercation” as the lingo goes. Apparently one of the employees wasn’t supposed to be there. No one got arrested and no one was hurt. That’s all I got from those willing to talk with me.

I left a message with the law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scarpino, the head of the Surrogate Court.  No word yet from them.

Meanwhile, if you know more about what happened up on 19, feel free to email me confidentially at

Belton Lee Brims Back in Rockland Court

Written atop the judge’s calendar of cases today was a blast from Rockland’s homicidal past – Belton Lee Brims. Next to the notorious criminal’s name were the words “vacate judgment.”

Brims currently is finishing out a New Jersey prison sentence of 35 years for robbing a supermarket with a shotgun. He could be released  by New Jersey  anytime between December 2009 and April 2018.

He then would serve a  New York sentence of 50 years to life for murdering a Spring Valley couple in 1980 and a separate 25 years for first-degree escape.

Brims is seeking to cut down his sentence in New York.

His motion to vacate claims he spent prison time in New York before starting his New Jersey sentence, so his New York sentence started nearly 28 years ago and continues today. He essential is claiming his New York prison time should run concurrent with his New Jersey sentence.

The Rockland District Attorney’s Office is opposing his motion. Itamar Yeger, who handles appeals for the Rockland District Attorney’s Office, noted that the sentencing judge, Howard Miller,  sentenced Brims to separate time in New York for murder and escape.

Yeger said the laws allows for Brims to serve separate time in New Jersey and then in New York. And he says the clock stopped in New York when Brims began serving his prison time in New Jersey.

Regardless of the outcome, Brims can’t become eligible for parole until 2055 for the murder and escape convictions.

Brims’ motion to vacate is before Judge Catherine Bartlett. Miller is now on the appellate division.

For whose who don’t remember Brims, the Spring Valley man was convicted of murdering Arnold and Elaine Sohn on Dec. 29, 1980.

Brims and his co-killer, James Sheffield, were directed to the couple’s Jill Lane home by their daughter, Sheryl,  who was drug-addicted and indebted to Brims, known on the streets as Panama.

Brims and Sheffield were going to steal jewelry – especially Sheryl Sohn’s grandmother’s ring  that she wanted. No one was suppose to be home, but the Sohns came home early from a holiday party. Brims and Sheffield beat them and drowned Elaine Sohn in the bath tub.

Sheryl Sohn served 26 years of a sentence of 25 years to life, being paroled in December 2006.

Sheffield is working off a 52-year sentence for the double murder. He fled the night of the Sohn killings, and later talked his way out of police custody in New Jersey and Toronto. He was eventually captured in California and returned to Rockland.

After being arrested, Brims escaped  from the old Rockland County jail and was later caught in Selma, Ala.

Bad behavior by upstate judges

This just in from the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct: An Erie County judge and a Seneca County judge have resigned in disgrace from the bench, promising never to be judges again.

State Supreme Court Justice Joseph G. Makowski of Erie County quit the bench after a “publicly reported off-the-bench action in assisting an acquaintance.”

Stephen H. Brown, a Justice of the Junius Town Court in Seneca County, quit after he was admonished for “among other things, sending a threatening letter to the tenant in a landlord/tenant dispute after an ex parte request for assistance from the landlord.”

You can check out the full story on the Judicial Conduct Commission’s website,

Deskovic speaks out against Sotomayor

Great SCOTUS-related story from my colleague Jonathan Bandler in today’s Journal News.

Sonia Sotomayor, the federal appeals judge now nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court, is getting criticized for upholding the conviction now-exonerated prisoner Jeffrey Deskovic.

Deskovic spent nearly 16 years in prison for a Peekskill murder he did not commit.

In April 2000, Sotomayor and a colleague on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Deskovic’s appeal because his lawyer submitted the paperwork four days late in 1997. Deskovic was finally exonerated in 2006 of the 1989 murder of  15-year-old Angela Correa, after DNA tests matched inmate Stephen Cunningham, who confessed to the crime.

“She put procedure over justice,” Deskovic said. “We’re talking about a man’s life.”

Click here to read the full story on

SCOTUS: Constitution doesn’t guarantee DNA tests

Big ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court today: The Justices, in a 5-4 decision, declared that the U.S. Constitution does not give convicts the right to test DNA evidence to prove their innocence years after they’re found guilty.

This is a defeat for groups such as the Innocence Project, but it may not have a huge impact on the status quo because all but 4 states have laws on the books allowing convicts to have some access to DNA tests.

Click here to read the full story from the Associated Press.

Click here to read the majority opinion from SCOTUS

Police chiefs endorse DiFiore

This morning, police chiefs throughout Westchester publicly backed Janet DiFiore’s bid for a second term at District Attorney. The announcement was made at Half Moon Bay restaurant in Dobbs Ferry.

Here’s the official statement:


In a unanimous vote, the Westchester County Chiefs of Police Association, for only the second time in its history, has endorsed a candidate for elected office; the Association has endorsed District Attorney Janet DiFiore for re-election as Westchester County District Attorney.

The first time the Association endorsed a candidate for elected office was four years ago, when it endorsed then-Judge Janet DiFiore for District Attorney.

The Westchester County Chiefs of Police Association is comprised of law enforcement executives: commissioners and chiefs of police from forty-four local and state police agencies in Westchester County.

District Attorney DiFiore received this year’s endorsement in recognition of “[her] nuts and bolts understanding of police operations and the unique aspects of prosecuting crimes in Westchester County”, said Association President Chief Joseph Benefico of the Pelham Police Department. “Your accomplishments in the first term of office validate our previous endorsement and warrant this one. Not only have you created many worthy crime solving and crime prevention programs, you have unfailingly displayed a fair, resolute and thorough approach to criminal prosecution.”

“Over the past three and a half years as District Attorney, I have worked very hard to enhance public safety by working closely with community and law enforcement partners, ensuring fairness and integrity in criminal prosecutions. improving crime fighting intelligence, and educating the public on crime prevention. These proactive strategies define the role of a modern prosecutor,” said District Attorney Janet DiFiore after accepting the Association’s endorsement. “To be recognized and acknowledged for this work by the professionals you work with every day is an honor and an affirmation of all that we have worked to accomplish.”

For Schorr: Pataki’s on board

Just got an e-mail from Westchester County District Attorney candidate Dan Schorr saying that he’s got the backing of former New York Gov. George Pataki in his bid to unseat Democratic DA Janet DiFiore.

In a letter that seems a wee bit heavy on capital letters, Pataki says that he knows Schorr is committed to “fighting for what’s right.”

“He understands that We Need to End Easy Plea Bargains that Don’t Properly Punish,” Pataki wrote (verbatim). “He knows that our Law Enforcement Community Deserves Better Support.”

Then Pataki urges the recipient of the letter to give money: “a contribution of $1,000, $500, $100, or $50 online.”

Liza with a “z” stuns one Tony viewer

Liza Minnelli, photo from

Liza Minnelli, photo from

So there’s Jack Garcia sitting at home watching the Tony Awards when Liza Minnelli’s win for special theatrical event is announced. She hops up onstage to accept the award accompanied by her choreographer and – this is where Garcia about falls off the couch – her manager Gary Labriola.

See, Garcia is former FBI Agent Joaquin Garcia better known as Jack “Fat Jack” Falcone, the erstwhile jewel thief who ran with Greg DePalma’s Gambino crew in Westchester a few years back. Garcia’s undercover work helped bring down the entire hierarchy of the Gambino Crime Family. He became DePalma’s right hand man, so valuable to the aging Mafioso that DePalma wanted to put him up for official membership in the crime family.

Part of the case included allegations that DePalma shook down Labriola, trying to get him to pay $12,000 for a lavish Las Vegas trip for the wives of reputed mob bosses. When Labriola balked, DePalma  was caught on an FBI bug denouncing Minnelli’s diminutive longtime handler, “He’s not a munchkin, he’s a worm.”

But when it came time to testify, Labriola was gone. DePalma’s lawyers wanted him to call him to the stand to say DePalma didn’t force him to pay for the trip, that he did it of his own volition. But federal prosecutors left open the possibility of a perjury charge if Labriola said that.  Labriola was out of the country when DePalma went to trial three years ago in federal court in Manhattan. His lawyer, Paul Bergman, said at the time he was not authorized to accept a subpoena for him.

“I wonder if he accepted the invitation to the Tonys for him,” Garcia cracked a a few minutes ago. “This weasel is willing to run out of the country then. But he’s standing there on stage for the whole world to see. Unbelievable.”

Labriola, it turns out, provided one of the hairier encounters Garcia had during his time undercover. While posing as a Florida jewel thief, he actually grew up in the Bronx and went to school at Mount Saint Michael on the Bronx – Mount Vernon border. So, too, and at the same time, it turns out, did Labriola.

But when they met while Garcia was undercover, Labriola didn’t recognize him.

Garcia, meanwhile, is working on a followup to his book about his time undercover with DePalma’s crew, “Making Jack Falcone.” This book will focus on his undercover work in police corruption cases.

In the interim, the 300-pound Garcia, whose book detailed as much of the culinary delights as criminal endeavors of the mob, is trying to take better care of his health.

“I’m looking for the doctor who is going to tell me fat is in,” he said. “But that hasn’t happened yet.”