Trial opens Friday for Kung Fu master charged with sex abuse

UPDATE: CLICK HERE TO READ THE STORY ABOUT OPENING STATEMENTS

Frank DeMaria (left) taught a move called the “tiger claw” so his martial arts students could defend themselves against attackers. But Westchester County prosecutors say the move, when it involved grabbing DeMaria’s groin, was an excuse to have 8- and 10-year-old girls fondle the 67-year-old kung fu grandmaster at his Croton-on-Hudson studio.

Jury selection began today for DeMaria, an Ossining resident who founded the American Center for Chinese Studies. His felony sex abuse trial will open at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow before county Judge Barbara Zambelli.

He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of second-degree course of sexual conduct against a child and two counts of first-degree sexual abuse, both felonies, and four counts of child endangerment, a misdemeanor.

He is charged with abusing four girls, all under 13 years old. Prosecutors say he would have the girls face away from him, reach around and then repeatedly grab, squeeze and pull his penis. While the girls followed instructions, she said, DeMaria would gyrate his hips. Those actions, they argue, is not a legitimate martial arts move.

DeMaria told Croton detectives that his students were taught to grab the eyes, throat and groin of their attackers. He said he taught students to grab the groin when they were in an arm-lock or choke-hold position. When police told him that some of his students complained that he enjoyed being grabbed in the groin, DeMaria reportedly said, “I can’t control what my groin does. It’s a physical reaction, it’s not on purpose.”

Defense lawyer Andrew Quinn said his client, a retired Westchester County police officer, is the third-highest ranked grandmaster of his type of martial arts in the world. He said DeMaria teaches physical street-fighting moves so people can defend themselves, and has demonstrated “tiger claw” defense moves in videos and booklets. Quinn also said the parents and students who sign up for his martial arts courses sign waivers acknowledging that there will be physical contact in the classes.

DeMaria wrote a book on Chang-style tai chi and was head instructor for self-defense at the Westchester Police Academy. He has also taught courses at the State University of New York at Purchase.

Two killers, a mayor and a dangler: an unusual day in Westchester courts

It’s going to be an interesting morning in the local judicial system on Tuesday: a county judge will hand down sentences in two high-profile homicide cases, while the ex-White Plains mayor will be in a nearby courtroom to answer probation violation charges, at the same time as the Tappan Zee bridge dangler will appear in Greenburgh Town Court.

First, the sentencings:

Francisco Acevedo (left) will be sentenced in the murders of three women in south Yonkers over a seven-year period starting in 1989. Acevedo had sex with each of them before strangling them, posing their nude bodies to face upward and fleeing the scene. Acevedo was caught after he submitted DNA in a bid to get early release from prison on a drunken driving conviction. Westchester Judge Barbara Zambelli, who has a reputation for tough sentences, may give him three consecutive prison terms of 25 to life, for a total of 75 to life.

Whatever the sentence, I expect it will be an emotional closure for the families of the women and for John T. Geiss, the dogged Yonkers detective who pursued the cold case for years.

Zambelli also will be sentencing ex-Eastchester police officer James Pileggi (right), who was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for the unintentional (but criminally reckless) shooting of his friend, Andre Everett. This is a sentencing with wide options: Pileggi could get as little as probation or as much as 15 years in state prison; it’s completely Zambelli’s call. She could rule down the middle: 4 to 7 years or perhaps 7 to 10. Pileggi’s family vowed to launch a massive letter-writing campaign begging the judge for leniency. The question is, did Everett’s family do the same, urging Zambelli to go the other way?

Down the hall from Zambelli’s court, ex-Mayor Adam Bradley (left) will appear before acting state Supreme Court Justice Susan Cacace on charges that he violated a stay-away order by calling his estranged wife, Fumiko, late last year. Bradley swears he repeatedly “pocket dialed” her by accident. Bradley had to post $10,000 bail for his smartphone snafu. We’ll see what, if anything, happens in the latest twist of this ongoing domestic violence case.

 

Finally, disgruntled Rockland County resident Michael Davitt (right) will be in Greenburgh Town Court on charges related to his November publicity stunt in which he dangled mid-span from the Tappan Zee Bridge. Davitt, an ex-county employee, is facing several misdemeanors and violations. He worked for the county for more than 27 years before being was suspended in 2008, and then became a fixture at county Legislature meetings, claiming corruption in government. No word on if or when a plea deal is coming., but I’d be surprised if this case goes to trial. My guess is that he’ll plead guilty to one or more of the charges and get a conditional discharge, with a fine, of course.

A new role for Judge Zambelli today

Westchester Judge Barbara Zambelli (left) has overseen some of the most brutal murder trials in the county. In the last five years, she was the judge for Carlos Perez-Olivo and Werner Lippe, both convicted of killing their wives; for Anne Trovato, who fatally stabbed and beat her mother; and for Robert Sepe, who beat his live-in girlfriend to death with a baseball bat.

But today, Zambelli, an Eastchester resident, will be presiding over much a more pleasant occasion. She will be one of three judges performing gay marriages at Town Hall in Greenburgh, which opens at noon for couples to get licenses. She will join state Supreme Court Justice Mary Smith and Greenburgh Town Justice Arlene Gordon-Oliver in what promises to be a festive atmosphere in Town Hall.

Although Zambelli has a reputation as being a no-nonsense judge (“Oh, come on!” is a phrase she uses with overzealous attorneys), her willingness to give up part of her Sunday to be a wedding officiant may stem from her former role in social justice. She was the executive director of Mount Vernon’s Commission of Human Rights from 1978 to 1980, and worked with Mount Vernon police, Victims Assistance Services and the District Attorney’s Office to create an advocacy program for women who were victims of violence.

We’ll be covering the first day of legalized gay marriage in New York from Greenburgh Town Hall, so check back with LoHud.com for photos and stories.

Age and the Pileggi trial

In the middle of a heated cross-examination of former Eastchester Police Officer James Pileggi this morning came this amusing moment:

Pileggi, on trial for second-degree manslaughter in the accidental shooting death of his friend, Andre Everett, was trying to explain how he and his friends greeted Everett on the night of the shooting. Assistant District Attorney Fredric Green asked Pileggi what he meant when he said they “exchanged the usual pleasantries.” Pileggi, 30, said the greetings were along the lines of ‘Hey, what’s up,’ and other words common to his “age group.”

“I’m not so old, I understand,”  replied the 50-year-old prosecutor.

County Judge Barbara Zambelli, who is in her late 50s, couldn’t let the moment pass.

“You’re ‘not so old?'” she said with a smile. The jury and the crowded courtroom had a chuckle at Green’s expense. The veteran prosecutor smiled and nodded, then continued his questioning.

Pileggi to face civil charges after criminal case

The manslaughter trial of ex-Eastchester police officer James Pileggi began yesterday, and Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli’s courtroom quickly filled with family members of both the defendant and victim, Andre Everett. The emotional trial will continue Monday with more testimony from prosecutors Fredric Green and Alexis Celestin, who are arguing that Pileggi’s decision to play with a loaded Glock on Nov. 3, 2009 was criminally reckless.

Pileggi faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

No matter the outcome of the trial, Pileggi will likely face a civil suit by the Everett family. In January 2010, the family filed a notice of claim, a precursor to filing a lawsuit, against the Eastchester Police Department of the Town of Eastchester. According to the notice, the family is claiming wrongful death, pain and suffering and negligent hiring, training and monitoring of Pileggi, among the claims.

“Respondents, through their agents, servant and employees, knew or should have known of P.O. James Pileggi Jr.’s violent and unsafe propensities and failed to act reasonably under the circumstances,” the notice states.

Typically, a lawsuit must be filed within a year of filing a notice of claim, but instead a summons was served to the town a couple of months ago. The family’s civil attorney, Jared Rice of Rice & Rice in New Rochelle, said the distraught family did not want to ensure a criminal trial and civil action at the same time and will wait until the criminal case is over to proceed with any legal action.

Convicted White Plains dentist gives up license after 7 month fight

After a bitter seven-month battle, Dr. Joanne Baker (left) quietly signed away her state dental license today and returned to jail for scamming her insurance company over three years.

Baker, whose appearances in Westchester County Court have leaned toward the dramatic, surrendered her license as a condition of her probation. County Judge Barbara Zambelli sentenced her on Nov. 16 to five years’ “shock” probation with the first six months spent at the county jail.

On Tuesday, Zambelli said Baker could reapply for her license if she successfully completes her probation sentence. If she does not, the revocation would be permanent.

Baker asked the judge if she would be able to complete her probation sentence in three years, noting that she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Zambelli told her not to get her hopes up about an early discharge, noting that her education had nothing to do with the situation.

“This is driven by how well you do on probation,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not smart.”

Baker, a 51-year-old Scarsdale resident, pleaded guilty in May to third-degree grand larceny and insurance fraud. Prosecutors said she ran a scam in which she sent phony bills to Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and created phony patient records from 2006 to 2009.

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 pre-sentencing report, mandatory for all defendants upon conviction. She had 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.”

An interesting side note: the assistant district attorney in the Baker case, Brian Fitzgerald, also prosecuted another White Plains dentist – “parking rage” defendant Dr. William Moody, whose 2007 videotaped assault of a Buchanan woman became an Internet sensation. Feel free to add your own bad puns about Fitzgerald taking a bite out of crime.

Dentist gets break in fraud case

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.”

1 morning, 3 sentencings in Westchester courts

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.

Trial begins in fatal DWI case in Westchester

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.

Jury ends day 1 of deliberations in Lippe wife-slay trial

WHITE PLAINS — A sequestered jury did not reach a verdict today in the first day of deliberations in the trial of Werner Lippe, accused of murdering his wife and burning her remains at their Cortlandt home two years ago.

The seven men and five women on the jury debated the case for nearly six hours before Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli excused them at 5 p.m.

The jury asked the court to replay Lippe’s three confessions — two to a friend wearing a police wire and one to state police — and to reshow photos from a scientific experiment showing how quickly a corpse can burn in an oil drum. They also asked to see photos of the burn barrel on Lippe’s property.

Lippe, a 68-year-old jeweler, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Faith Lippe, his wife of 18 years who was a nutritionist in the Ossining schools. She was 49 when she disappeared on Oct. 3, 2008 in the midst of a bitter divorce battle.

There is no body, no eyewitnesses and no forensic evidence in the case. Werner Lippe claims his confession was false and was the result of paranoia, fear and confusion.

This is his second trial. His first trial ended in February with a hung jury, which was unable to reach a verdict after 27 hours of deliberations. The vote was 7 to 5 for acquittal.

Lippe faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted. He has been in jail since his arrest nearly two years ago.

The jurors will resume deliberations at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow.