Completely Legal

A closer look at the courts and cases in the Lower Hudson Valley.


Archive for November, 2010

Dentist gets break in fraud case11.30.10

Dr. Joanne Baker, (left) who pleaded guilty to theft and fraud charges months ago, may evade going to state prison, even though a judge promised to send her there if she failed to turn in her state dental license.

Two weeks ago, Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli had given Baker 48 hours to relinquish her license or go to prison. Baker refused. But today, Zambelli said she would allow Baker to surrender her license only as a condition of probation. If she successfully completed her five-year probation sentence, she could reapply for a new dental license.

Assistant District Attorney Gwen Galef said she would have to check with the state to see if Baker would give up her right automatically to reapply for a dental license by surrendering it. Both sides will return to court on Dec. 7.

Baker had been sentenced Nov. 16 to five years’ “shock” probation with six months in jail. She will get credit for the 12 weeks she has been at the Valhalla lockup after her bail was revoked.

The 51-year-old Scarsdale resident pleaded guilty in May to third-degree grand larceny and insurance fraud. Prosecutors say she ran a two-year scam from her office at 1 Bryant Crescent in which she sent phony bills to Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and created phony patient records from 2006 to 2009.

Baker had been called back into court Tuesday for a “declaration of delinquency” hearing because she had not relinquished her dental license as ordered. Her lawyer, Peter Tilem, asked the judge to send Baker to a mental health care facility, noting she was under psychiatric care earlierr this year.

“She’s not OK,” he said. “She has psychiatric issues that need to be addressed. Let her get some help.”

Zambelli refused to believe that Baker was incompetent, saying she filed at least one court document, a pro se motion, on her own behalf. The judge called Baker stubborn and “extremely difficult.”

Baker had stopped the paperwork to revoke her dental licence and changed lawyers several times, causing delays in the case. She was sent to jail in September after refusing to meet with the county Probation Department for a presentencing report, mandatory for all defendants upon conviction. She’d been free on $10,000 bail before that.

She has repaid MetLife $8,920 and paid an additional $50,000 in what is known as a “stipulation of settlement.”

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Scarsdale baseball project promoter charged with theft11.24.10

WHITE PLAINS — A financially-troubled Scarsdale man is accused of bilking an investor out of $50,000 for a baseball training center that was never built and for misrepresenting himself to get more money.

Frank Schwall, (left) a former member of the Scarsdale Little League board of directors, also is accused of not paying taxes connected to his failed venture, Big Apple Baseball.

Schwall, 46, was arraigned in Westchester County Court this morning on a eight-count indictment charging him with second- and third-degree grand larceny, two counts of possession of forged pay stubs and falsifying business records, all felonies.

He also was charged with misdemeanor counts of failing to file a tax return and filing a false tax return.

His attorney, Andrew Proto of the White Plains firm Riebling, Proto & Sachs, said Schwall maintains his innocence despite the allegations.

“He absolutely denies doing anything criminal in nature with respect to Big Apple Basewball or otherwise,” Proto said.

According to the Westchester County District Attorney’s office, Schwall created Big Apple Baseball, LLC in 2006 to raise funds for a state-of-the-art indoor training center for little league-aged children.

He promoted the training facility and sought donations from several wealthy Scarsdale residents. But by October 2007, prosecutors said, Big Apple Baseball was insolvent and the donations were in Schwall’s personal bank account.

Still, Schwall kept looking for donations. Another investor gave him $50,000 after Schwall allegedly said he had personally invested $200,000 in the venture and that a location in Port Chester was available for construction.

None of it was true, prosecutors allege, and say Schwall of using the $50,000 for mortgage payments.

Additionally, Schwall is accused of not claiming more than $175,000 from Big Apple Baseball on his 2006 state income tax return and not filing a return in 2007, even though prosecutors say he took in nearly $160,000 from Big Apple Baseball’s investors.

Schwall, who was arrested last year but not indicted until last week, is free on $10,000 bail. He is due back before County Judge Barry Warhit on Feb. 18.

Schwall faces up to 15 years in state prison if convicted on the top grand larceny charge, which prosecutors said is connected to a 2005 transaction in which he misrepresented his work status to get a home equity line of credit.

“We’re in the process of preparing to vigorously defend him at trial and Mr. Schwall is confident that when evidence is heard by a jury, the charges against him will be refuted,” Proto said.

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Problems in Greenburgh Town Court11.22.10

Another state audit has found fault with the Greenburgh Town Court over its inability to keep track of its bail money and other problems.

State auditors, who studied the court in 2009, blamed the two senior town justices, Doris Friedman and Sandra Forster, as well as the entire town board for their lack of oversight.

If you’d like to read the entire report from the New York State Comptroller’s Office, click here.

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Westchester DA named to Cuomo’s transition team11.17.10

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore has been named to the public safety committee of Governor-Elect Andrew Cuomo’s transition team, which will recruit, review and recommend high-level people for posts in law enforcement, including counterterrorism.

“These appointments will affect the safety and protection of all New Yorkers on a daily basis, and come at a fiscally challenging time with terrorism a constant concern,” DiFiore said in a statement. “I look forward to the challenge and opportunity that lies ahead as the committee gets to work.”

The other committee members are New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Zachary Carter, and Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne, who is the president of the state District Attorney’s Association.

The Public Safety Committee is the second of three committees that Cuomo has announced prior to taking office on January 1.

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Pace cultural events director charged with child porn11.17.10

A Rye Brook man who is the director of cultural events at Pace University is accused of having child pornography and soliciting someone he thought was a friend — but was actually an undercover investigator — to view pornographic photos with him.

David G. Watson, 62, was charged with one count each of promoting a sexual performance by a child and possessing an obscene sexual performance by a child. Both charges are felonies.

According to the Westchester County District Attorney ‘s office, Watson began chatting online with an undercover investigator from the District Attorney’s office in February 2010, shortly after Watson posted personal ads on Craigslist soliciting a “nubile girl next door.”

Last weekend, Watson asked the investigator to meet him at the Elmsford Motel on Tarrytown Road to view some photographs together. When Watson arrived at the motel with images of children in sexually suggestive poses, he was arrested.

Authorities, using a warrant, searched his home, vehicle and a storage locker and found child pornography on his computer, as well as pornographic films and photographs showing children performing obscene acts, the DA’s office said.

Watson faces up to seven years in state prison if convicted. He was arraigned in Elmsford Justice Court this morning. He is due back in court on Dec. 8. He is free on $10,000 bail.

Officials at Pace University said they learned of Watson’s arraignment on felony child pornography charges this morning. The university has placed Watson on administrative leave pending the outcome of the case.

Watson’s attorney, Richard Portale, said he would have a statement later this afternoon.

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DWI: the impact on a New Rochelle family11.17.10

Jennifer Taylor, whose twin sister, Amy, (pictured left) was killed at 29 by a drunken driver n New Rochelle last year, gave a heartbreaking victim’s impact statement at the sentencing of the driver, Louis Nardella, in Westchester County Court on Tuesday. I was only able to use two sentences from her statement in the story that ran in today’s paper. But if you ever wondered about how devastating drunken driving can be, take a look at what Jennifer Taylor wrote about her sister, her family and the driver who tore her family apart, and what has prompted her to work with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to lobby Albany for tougher sentences for drunk drivers who kill:

Amy Maria Taylor was born just one minute before me, weighing in at about 3 and 1/2 pounds, we were premature, born 6 weeks early, but I still managed to weigh in at 7 pounds.  Though Amy was born the smaller one, she got strong and fast quick, while I became the “sicker” one. Diagnosed with Asthma at 9 months was no easy task for my mother. Not sure how she juggled twins, let alone one who was sick most of the time. As we got older, Amy absolutely took on the “big sister” role, though one minute older than me she took care of me. The nights I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t breathe was nothing abnormal. We almost had a routine, Mom would get the car, Amy would help me get dressed and off to the emergency room we went.

Life with Amy was such a privilege, she was my sister and best friend all wrapped up into one person, her smile was infectious and she just made you want to be around her.  We lived in the same place our whole lives and maintained friendships that have lasted for decades. The Taylor Twins (as were becoming known as) were inseparable. Once Amy passed I had so many people tell me that they envied our relationship, some asked how we got so close, if we ever fought cause we were always together. We worked together, Spent time together, went to school together and lived together It never got old. Yea we had our fights, but they lasted 15 minutes and we got over it. We realized early on that we rather be the best of friends then just be 2 sisters.  Amy and I were happy just being together.  I’m really having a hard time writing about the kind of person Amy was. I can not put into words what she exactly meant to me, and what Louis Nardella took from me the night he decided to get into the car high and drunk, and killed my beloved Amy. Please allow me to try and explain what life has been like since ….

It was 1 a.m. on May 23rd when my mother woke me up and said “Jenn, there’s a bad accident outside and I’m tyring to reach Amy”. I looked out the window and what I saw was a scene from a movie, fire trucks,  cop cars, ambulances, people, lights…It was crazy. But I knew Amy left the house a while ago to go meet friends, and there was no way the accident invloved Amy, There was just no way. My mom rubbed her stomach, and said “I have a bad feeling, and I want to talk to Amy.” I told mommy to go lay down and that I would call Amy just so she can reassure my mom she was fine. I called Amy about 10 times and left about 3 messages. I had no idea that my sister was dying just across the street and the phone was ringing right next to her.

At about 1:40 a.m., my cousin Danielle called me frantic, she said “Amy was in an accident and they are trying to get her out of the car”. I flew out of bed, flew is an understatement. I left the house, I didn’t have time to wait or anyone, I needed to get to Amy, cause I knew she was probably scared and looking for me. I don’t remember walking across the street, I just remembered seeing half of my sister’s Honda accord. Half of it. Papers were everywhere, Papers she had from school. I remember glass, people, cops, It didn’t dawn on me that I didn’t see Amy until an officer said he would take me to the hospital. By this time my mother came outside, dad was still getting dressed, the look on her face I can never explain, I just knew I never wanted to see it again. She asked me what happened to her baby, and I said I didn’t know, The cops asked if we were ready to go, my mother had to wait for my dad. Left to go be with Amy, in my head I knew she was probably needing me. I never thought she was dead, never. I prepared myself for broken bones, maybe unconsciousness, coma, internal bleeding, I remembered wondering if I knew my blood type in case Amy needed a blood transfusion. When I got there Danielle, Brianne and Terry who are also a Detective, Sargent and teacher for the city of New Rochelle came out from the back and told me Amy didn’t make it. It felt like someone kicked me in my throat, then my stomach, then my heart.  I stood there for about 2 minutes and said, “I don’t want to hear that” and walked out. I never saw Amy again.

Life for the Taylor family will never be the same. I didn’t sleep the first 48 hours or so, if I closed my eyes and woke up it would be real, if i stayed up maybe someone would say it was a mistake. That never happened. On May 23rd my twin sister and best friend was dead and that fact is still very hard to swallow. I was a complete wreck, and of no use to my parents who were planning Amy’s funeral. I couldn’t deal with what to dress her in, what color casket, where to have the services. My cousin Heather completely stepped in and helped Mom and Dad thru the absolute worst time in their lives. Im so grateful for her and her help. What did I do? I laid in my bed, with the blinds closed day after day. I couldn’t even take my mother to view Amy’s body, my half sister Jackie did, I can never explain to her how much that meat to me. I managed to make it through the wake and funeral. To this day I can not tell you how, I can say I don’t remember much about it. Post traumatic stress is what my therapist said happened to me. Sometimes I ask my friends and family to tell me what the wake and funeral were like, I don’t remember most of the people who came, I don’t even remember what I said at the funeral. I have it written down folded and tucked away with all of the sympathy cards and letters.  Once the floods of friends and family stopped coming by reality set in for my family. My life sentence began on May 23rd. the walls in my bedroom became a cell I couldn’t escape. Some days getting out of bed was impossible. I can’t look out my window because I see the cross that was left to mark where my sister took her last breath. I was trapped. I hear my mother cry every night. Sometimes multiple times a day, I’m helpless. I can not console her because I can not console myself.  I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child and she doesn’t know what its like to lose a twin. So our frustrations build and we argue. I lost my job a few months after Amy died, I couldn’t keep it together, images of her coming in and smiling at me were overwhelming, I spent half the day in the bathroom crying. I was sent home so many times I lost count.

My mom, dad and myself haven’t had dinner together since she died, the 3 of sitting at the table without the 4th member Amy was too much. I remembered we so happened to be eating at the table and we were in silence, I looked up and saw Daddy looking at Amy’s empty chair and tears streaming down his face. I got up and went back to my cell, the four walls that used to occupy me and myt win sister. My father was the core and strength for my mother and I. He made decisions, held back tears as he spoke at Amy’s funeral, and even to this day keeps Mom and I grounded. Then there are the nights I hear him crying, saying he misses his kid. I see his face when he looks into mine, sometimes i feel like hes searching for Amy’s face. Holidays and birthdays are no longer the same. Last year Amy and I were anticipating our 30th birthday. How did I spend my 30th? Crying, putting flowers down at the site where Amy died, and sitting in my living room. How can I ever have a happy birthday? I always shared my birthday, always had 2 names on a cake, always spent it with Amy, this year it was just my name on the cake, after 30 years of joint parties it was just my name on a cake. Mom and dad spent Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are spent at the cemetery, I haven’t been to Amy’s final resting place since she was buried. I can’t do it, not yet anyway. So mom and dad go alone and I try to be the best daughter I can be for them.

My mom isn’t the same, there’s n emptiness in her that I can’t explain, She cries all the time, everyday in fact. She worries about me from the minute I leave the house til the second I get home, holidays are coming up and its like a silent torture for us. I’m in therapy once sometimes twice a week. I don’t sleep, I have anxiety, I go into panic mode if one of my friends are out and I haven’t heard from them. I’m depressed, I’m on anxiety and antidepressant medications, I’m afraid to go into supermarkets or other public places, I don’t want people to see me, or ask me how I am, or mistakenly call me Amy. I also still have her closet the way she left it,  My mother has constant chest pain, her stress levels are through the roof, shes depressed, and stays indoors whenever she’s not working. My father throws himself into work and holds everything in. We’ve completely fallen apart as a family unit. We’re doing the best we can to keep Amy’s memory alive and her name fresh in every one’s mind.

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1 morning, 3 sentencings in Westchester courts11.16.10

Busy day in Westchester County court today. Not only did the defense opened its case in the domestic violence trial of White Plains Mayor Adam Bradley, but three high-profile felons were sentenced for crimes including murder, vehicular manslaughter, grand larceny and insurance fraud.

Acting state Supreme Court Justice Richard Molea carried out a disposition and sent Alejandro Macias Barajas to prison for 22 years in the beating and stabbing death of a Hartsdale man who he claimed made unwanted sexual advances toward him. The victim’s mother was in court and described her heartbreak over losing her only son.

Meanwhile, Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli ordered White Plains dentist Joanne Baker to jail for six months (she’ll get credit for the 10 weeks she’s been there) for bilking MetLife out of nearly $9,000 with phony patient bills. Her pre-sentencing statement was interesting. We’ll learn in two days if she’ll spent a few more months at the county jail or be sent to state prison.

Zambelli also sentenced drunken driver Louis Nardella to serve 2 to 6 years in state prison for a violent crash that killed 29-year-old Amy Taylor of New Rochelle. The victim’s twin sister, Jennifer Taylor, spoke in court and moved family members to tears. Even the prosecutor was choked up. We may be hearing of “Amy’s Law” after this.

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Bar Associations demand action in overcrowded family courts11.15.10

In July, I wrote a story about overcrowding and other problems in the family courts in Yonkers and New Rochelle. A state report criticized the buildings as “among the worst in the state” for family courts and cited insufficient space, lack of parking, security problems and accessibility violations among the problems.

County and court officials at the time said they would address the situation. Four months later, nothing has changed.

Today, the Westchester County Bar Association issued a joint statement with other legal groups calling for action to fix the “severe disrepair”‘ in those facilities. Here is the full, unedited statement:

“Local Bar Associations representing the majority of practicing lawyers in Westchester have come together to call attention to the deplorable conditions that exist in the Family Court facilities in Yonkers (and New Rochelle) and call for appropriate action to correct these conditions.”

“Donald Sandford, President of the WCBA, describes the current state of the facility:  ‘There is insufficient space for the most basic needs, conference space for litigants and their attorneys, storage space for court files, work space for court personnel, etc.  These problems have now been exacerbated by the fact that persons having business before the court are denied access because the facilities are so grossly overcrowded.'”

“The Law Guardian Association, the New Rochelle Bar Association,  the Yonkers Bar Association, the Westchester Black Bar Association,  the Westchester Women’s Bar Association join with the Westchester County Bar Association in calling for action. As leaders of the legal community, the combined organizations believe that it is their duty to speak out against the disgraceful conditions in order to assist those seeking access to justice. They agree that activism on the part of local bar associations is the best way to call attentions to the problem and bring about a solution to the conditions in the satellite family courts.”

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Courtroom party for adopted kids at Westchester courthouse11.12.10

Of all the sounds you expect to hear inside of a courtroom, thumpa-thumpa dance music isn’t among them.

But that was the beat that greeted dozens of families who celebrated their children today at the 9th Annual Westchester County Adoption Day.

Supervising Family Court Judge Kathie E. Davidson (right) finalized 42 adoptions for Westchster families and held the party in her courtroom. Wearing a balloon flower bracelet, she said the event should be a reminder of the benefits of adoption and the need for more families to open their homes to neglected kids.

“Children of Westchester desperately need homes,” she said. “Children desperately want a home, they desperately want to be loved.”

The Gentile family of Peekskill (right) celebrated adopting their 10-month-old daughter, Samantha Isabel, who has lived with them since she was two days old. The family found her through Bethany Christian Services. The little girl stared wide-eyed at all the activity in the courtroom and batted around the balloons while her dad held her tight in his arms.

“She came right out of the hospital and into our home,” said Joseph Gentile, who was with his wife Pam Gentile and their 14-year-old son Anthony. “Today she’s ours.”

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Trial begins in fatal DWI case in Westchester11.10.10

UPDATE: KIAHA CONVICTED OF ALL BUT ONE COUNT IN 2009 DWI DEATH

There is no discernable proof that George Kiaha (left) was drunk when he caused the head-on crash that killed a retired auto worker from Peekskill, Kiaha’s defense lawyer told a jury today.

“Respect the presumption of innocence,” attorney Ted Brundage said during his opening at Kiaha’s felony trial for vehicular manslaughter in Westchester County Court.

Kiaha, a Garrison resident, is also facing a felony charge of criminally negligent homicide and misdemeanor counts of drunken driving and assault for the Sept. 4, 2009 that killed Ralph Wood, 55, and injured his family on Route 9 in Cortlandt.

Police said Kiaha, now 25, was driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 percent that night. The legal threshold for driving while intoxicated is 0.08 percent.

Brundage suggested that sloppy police work puts the blood-alcohol report in question. He said the case had “some of the most egregious gaps in evidence in terms of a New York State police investigation” that he has seen in his 20 years as a lawyer.

But Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Strongin argued that police handled the evidence properly, and that an ambulance worker smelled alcohol on Kiaha’s breath as he was taken to Westchester Medical Center.

“Ralph Wood died on Sept, 4 because the defendant chose to drink and drive,” he said in his opening statement. Kiaha is free on $50,000 bail.

Wood, a retired General Motors assembly line worker, was headed to dinner at the Wapppingers Buffet in Dutchess County with three of his grandchildren, his daughter Gloria and her fiancee. The family usually went to dinner together every Saturday night, Strongin said, but they headed out a day earlier because they had other plans the next night.

“This would be the last time the six of them would ever be together again,” he said.

As the family approached Susan Lane on Route 9, Kiaha smashed into the silver GMC driven by Javier A. DeJesus of Cortlandt, Wood’s future son-in-law.

Everyone in the GMC was injured, and Wood’s daughter was trapped inside. Wood, unbeknownst to those at the scene, had a ruptured spleen and was bleeding internally. He went into cardiac arrest and died.

Kiaha was seriously hurt in the crash and was taken to Westchester Medical Center.

Wood was described by friends and relatives as a fun-loving man dedicated to his five children and grandchildren. Several family members were in the courtroom to show support for the family patriarch.

The trial, before Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli, will continue Friday.

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