Having rung in the New Year, 2008 on Tuesday, January 1, we bring you, our readers, a look back at some of the stories - many of them exclusives - that made The Queens Courier worth reading in 2007.
Since we are “All About You,” the most important stories we cover are the ones affecting the day-to-day lives of you, the residents of Queens. Below, you will find a run-down of the stories that affected you in 2007.
Our primary resolution for 2008 is to continue bringing you the same local coverage that has made us the largest and most widely read newspaper in the most diverse community in the country.
We started the year by reporting on NYPD officer John Lopez’s heroic altercation with two bank robbers. The off-duty Lopez was in his car in Elmhurst with his wife, baby daughter and mother-in-law when two men approached the car, allegedly in an attempt to use it as a getaway vehicle for a bank robbery committed moments earlier. When the thugs ordered the family out of the vehicle, Lopez identified himself as a police officer, and began chasing the men, one of whom shot Lopez in the upper left thigh during the chase. According to reports, Lopez did not want to be identified as a hero.
The Queens Courier also reported on the collective sigh of relief breathed by Queens residents after the arrest of two teens who spent over a month murdering and severely beating locals in Flushing Meadow-Corona Park. The assailants, now spending 25 years to life in prison, killed 40-year-old Carlos Flores during their rampage.
We ended the month by bringing you the exclusive and heartfelt story of Nina, a nine-year-old orphan from Russia and her search for a foster family in Queens. Nina’s mother died of cancer, leaving Nina without family to take care of her. Today, Nina lives in Queens with a foster family.
In February, The Queens Courier spoke exclusively with Caesar Borja, Jr., a young man with a message and a mission. Borja’s father died of pulmonary fibrosis, a condition his family believes he developed while volunteering to help at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 911. Borja pledged to fight for his father - and the countless others who died of similar causes - by personally asking President Bush for $1.9 billion “to go towards anyone that was at Ground Zero.” Borja, 21, felt the disease that killed his father was preventable. On January 31, 2007, Borja met with the president at Ground Zero and made his request. Bush vowed to set aside $25 million for medical coverage for others affected by the 9/11 aftermath, either through insurance or federal aid. It wasn’t quite the $1.9 billion Borja and New York Senator Hillary Clinton had asked for, but it was, at the very least, a moral victory for Borja to be able to take his case directly to the president.
Also in February, we reported on Mayor Bloomberg’s preliminary plan for a $57.1 billion city budget, as well as announced a strategic alliance with the New York Daily News, which has provided our readers with wider, deeper coverage of the issues that affect them.
Finally, we brought you the story of how, despite the chilly February weather, hundreds of intrepid swimmers warmed hearts by taking a dive into an icy Queens waterfront to raise money for cystic fibrosis. Ten-year-old Annie McMahon, a cystic fibrosis patient, and her family organized the yearly event shortly after McMahon was diagnosed with the disease as a baby.
March began with the exclusive story that major staff cuts were imminent at St. John’s Queens Hospital after hospital ownership was taken over by Caritas Health Care Inc. We reported that as many as 32 full-time employee-nursing positions were likely to be terminated or displaced. The report ultimately proved accurate, as the hospital suffered major cutbacks within weeks.
A week later, we brought you coverage of Ali, an Iraqi boy who was given the gift of life through Schneider’s Children’s Hospital. Ali, 11, was born with two holes in his heart and may not have lived long past childhood if it hadn’t been for several dedicated locals, most notably U.S. Army Reservist Captain Brian Freeman. Ali’s father, Abdul, approached Freeman while he was stationed in Iraq and told his son’s story. Freeman and his wife, Charlotte, began doing research and stumbled upon the Gift of Life program. Through it, Ali was able to obtain free surgery that saved his life.
But the month’s biggest story, unfortunately, was not as upbeat. A local thug preyed upon two elderly women, ages 85 and 101, beating them severely and stealing money and valuables from their homes. 101-year-old Rose Morat and Solange Elizee, 85, who suffered the theft of her wedding band, as well as a ring inscribed with the initials of her son, who died in 2000. The assailant was ultimately caught, but throughout the month of March, Queens residents and politicians were scared and more than a little angry.
April was a busy month in Queens.
It began with the long awaited announcement of the Willets Point redevelopment project, the city’s plan to acquire 75 acres of private property in Willets Point to begin a massive private reconstruction endeavor. The plan would turn the area, referred to as the Iron Triangle, into a mixed-use facility, complete with affordable housing, office space, a first-class hotel, convention center, school and open space for the community to enjoy. The plan was met with strong opposition from owners of the 200-plus businesses that operate there, and the tedious debates and legal battles are still ongoing.
The Queens Courier updated you on the case of the ‘Granny Basher,’ the thug responsible for beating and robbing 85-year-old Solange Elizee and 101-year-old Rose Morat. The victims were honored in April for their courage and resolve during the jarring attacks. The women entered the ceremony to the theme from “Rocky,” and were escorted by State Senator Serphin Maltese. Anger among Queens residents only rose throughout the month of April, and not all of it was aimed at the thug responsible for the vicious beatings. Some locals, upset that the assailant was still at large, warned the police to “catch him before we do.”
April also marked the death of Long Island City native Brian Ritzberg, a soldier serving in Iraq. Ritzberg was 24 years old.
We told the story of Barrington Irving, a 23-year-old pilot who embarked on a journey of passion. Irving turned down a scholarship to play college football - and a legitimate shot at the pros - to pursue his passion for flying. In a plane made entirely of donated parts, Irving flew around the globe, stopping in Queens to speak with students at York College. “[The students] can look at me and realize that if I can achieve my dream, they can too,” Irving said.
April was also the month of the tragic Virginia Tech massacre, but The Courier’s Pete Davis found among the wreckage a positive story to tell. Virginia Tech freshman and Queens native Vionca Murray was supposed to be on campus when the deadliest school shooting in history rocked the lives of so many, but a last-minute trip home to Rosedale for her sister’s Sweet Sixteen party kept the college basketball star safe, and may even have saved her life.
May began on a positive note, with the announcement of the long-awaited arrest of Jack Rhodes, the alleged ‘Granny Basher.’ Seniors around the borough expressed cheer and relief, and Rhodes was charged with two counts of burglary in the first degree as a hate crime, two counts of robbery in the second degree as a hate crime, two counts of assault in the second degree as a hate crime, two counts of grand larceny in the fourth degree as a hate crime and two counts of endangering the welfare of an incompetent person.
We also spoke with Peter Aruta, the UPS Supervisor who helped pull terrified special education students from a school bus that had been in a serious accident in Douglaston. Aruta, who was filling in for a colleague and not operating on his normal delivery route, assisted police officers and EMTs in the rescue of students from the Lowell School in Bayside. None of the children were seriously injured.
Later in the month, when immigration was at the forefront of the national political debate, Courier reporter Christina Santucci reported on how immigration issues affected Queens families. Immigration advocates in Queens, like Eduardo Barahona, a Board Member of the Centro Hispano “Cuzcatlan” in Jamaica, warned that “instead of improving the situation for immigrants, we could make something worse.”
In June, our borough was rocked by the “plot to blow up Queens,” a frightening attempt to terrorize the city by bombing pipelines. The Queens Courier reported the story from multiple angles, including asking travelers at JFK Airport if they were afraid of flying - which, most reported, they were not - and speaking with residents whose homes are directly above the pipelines in the Howard Beach area. They, too, expressed confidence in the city’s ability to defend against any potential attack, and said they were largely unworried.
Still, Howard Beach residents called for more security in their neighborhood, a sentiment we reported on by speaking with civic and political leaders in the area.
We reported, too, on the congestion pricing debate - a debate still raging on today - and the flood of opposition it garnered in its earlier stages.
June marked the approval of the city’s $59 billion city budget for Fiscal Year 2009, calling for a seven percent across-the-board property tax decrease. Some homeowners in Queens were less than pleased with the cut, claiming it was canceled out by rising property taxes, yielding little or no financial savings. The budget also called for $200 million toward transit projects and environmental initiatives, and funding to keep libraries open six days a week. The budget is the fourth-largest in the United States, behind the national budget, the California state budget, and the New York state budget.
We brought June to an end by closely examining the safety of theme park rides in Queens. The State Department of Buildings granted The Queens Courier an exclusive story allowing us to accompany inspectors on an assessment of an 11-ride theme park site at St. Gregory the Great in Bellerose. Reporter Pete Davis took readers step-by-step through the inspection process, bringing to life the intricacy with which city officials work to make sure the safety of our children is not compromised.
The Queens Courier began July by reporting on a funeral for an FDNY firefighter who lost his life battling a blaze in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Daniel Pujdak, 23, was climbing a ladder when he lost his balance, falling to the sidewalk below and sustaining massive head injuries. The Fresh Meadows resident and former St. Francis Prep baseball star was taken to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where he died, becoming the 1,135th New York City firefighter to lose his life in the line of duty. Thousands of firefighters from all over the country gathered at St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to say good-bye to Pujdak on Tuesday, June 26.
Late June saw torrential rain, thunder and severe lightning cause a massive power outage in parts of Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan, and in early July, we reported on the dissatisfaction of Queens leaders at power company Con Edison’s response to the problem. A year earlier, New York had suffered a 10-day blackout, and many in the city wondered if more dark days loomed ahead. “Northwestern Queens and almost every other area of the city have gone through huge phases of development, and Con Ed has not upgraded its system to keep up with that,” chided Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr.
Councilmember Dennis Gallagher made news in July, though not for his work in the City Council. Gallagher was accused of raping a woman he met at a bar on July 8, but The Queens Courier reported that many supporters stood behind Gallagher through the debacle. Bob Sarracco, 55, of Middle Village, said he suspected the victim was just “trying to cash in on a lawsuit.” One civic leader, however, told The Queens Courier that his relationship with Gallagher had suggested a “pattern of irrational and questionable behavior” as far back as 2005. The case went before a Grand Jury in August.
The Iraq War affected Queens again in July, when 18-year-old Private First Class Le Ron Wilson fell victim to an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) while on patrol in Baghdad. Wilson had emigrated to the United States from Trinidad seven years earlier.
Later in the month, The Queens Courier reporter Nick Brown reported on five contractors in Queens arrested for building fraud. The men allegedly filed fraudulent documents pertaining to 24 construction projects throughout the borough. Allegations included “plan stamping,” the act of approving architectural plans without properly reviewing them for “accuracy and adherence to the New York City Building Code,” said a statement released by the Department of Buildings and the Department of Investigation. Civic leaders throughout Queens expressed little surprise at the allegations, and many felt the arrests revealed only the tip of an iceberg of development issues facing the borough.
Councilmember Dennis Gallagher went before a Grand Jury on August 1 in an attempt to clear his name of the rape charges that made news in July. The Queens Courier reported that Gallagher testified for two hours, feeling he owed it to the public to be forthright, said his attorney. The councilmember maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal, but admitted to engaging in consensual sexual intercourse with the alleged victim, who he met at a local bar. Gallagher willingly submitted a DNA sample after police from the 104th Precinct searched his office for DNA evidence.
Later in August, we reported on the high rate of foreclosures plaguing the borough, and analyzed the reasons why so many Queens residents are getting foreclosure notices in the mail. Subprime loans, which lenders often write for people with a poor credit history and which contain high interest rates that cause borrowers to default, as well as Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARM), which have clauses allowing the interest rate to jump quickly, are two of the biggest factors in the high rates of foreclosure. In Queens, foreclosure filings skyrocketed from 6,873 in 2005 to 9,089 in 2006.
We also announced in August that we would be publishing “Caribbeat,” a weekly column written by Jared McCallister and published by the Daily News. The agreement to run McCallister’s column was a byproduct of the strategic association formed between The Queens Courier and The New York Daily News as announced in February, and stands as a prime example of how this alliance has allowed us to broaden the prism through which we present news from the most diverse county in the U.S.
Finally, we reported that the borough would require billions of dollars to repair damage caused by large-scale flooding earlier in the month. The floods sparked local politicians to call for better flood protection in Queens, and representatives from FEMA spent months appearing at civic meetings around the borough, alerting locals whose property was damaged, of the opportunity to apply for aid.
September brought with it the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, and for a group of Bayside locals, the memory carried a particular bitterness. Members of the Bayside Volunteer Ambulance Corps (BVAC) were denied their request to represent one of their own at the anniversary ceremony in Manhattan.
BVAC member Mitch Wallace was killed while assisting in rescue efforts that day, and Steve Kmiotek, BVAC President, said he wanted to represent Wallace’s memory. The city said Kmiotek, who had attended the ceremony every year prior since 2002, could not attend this year for space and safety reasons. Kmiotek vowed to attend the ceremony, even if he was relegated to the crowd outside the fence.
September also brought approval from the City Council on a massive rezoning plan for central Jamaica. The council voted 45 to 3, with all three dissensions coming from Queens councilmembers, to approve the 368-block rezoning project, which also includes down-zoning portions of that stretch to preserve the character of the neighborhood. “The potential of Jamaica to become one of New York’s premier business and residential districts has been talked about for a long time, and today we’ve taken a giant step toward making it happen,” said Mayor Bloomberg, whose administration is responsible for laying out the plans.
The Queens Courier also brought you an interview with Martha Clark, mother of Specialist Jonathan Rivadeneira, 22, who was killed in battle in Iraq. The Jackson Heights native was killed when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detonated near his vehicle in Baghdad. “My heart shook and my body shook,” said Clark, who said she knew what had happened as soon as she heard the knock at her door. Rivadeneira was only two months from coming home for the holidays.
September ended with one of the year’s most alarming stories.
The Queens Courier’s thorough coverage of a St. John’s University (SJU) student arrested for carrying a concealed .50-caliber Wolfe rifle on campus rivaled that of any daily paper. The student, Omesh Hiraman, was wearing a George Bush mask and walking across campus with the gun in a black bag. While there were no injuries, St. John’s was under lock down for three hours while officials secured the campus. The text message alert system that came about as a result of the Virginia Tech massacre was used to update SJU students on the status of the situation.
We began October by proving true to our motto, “We’re all about you.” To celebrate our 22-year anniversary, we brought you “22 Great Things about Queens,” a piece outlining the magic that makes the borough such a thriving community. From the Botanical Garden to Citi Field, from the Queens Zoo to the famed No. 7 Train, we listed 22 of Queens’ natural charms. Other items on the list included Fort Totten, the National Tennis Center, La Guardia and JFK Airports, the Unisphere, and the Queens Library.
A more somber story followed, as Queens learned of the death of Baysider Chirasak Vidhyarkorn, 32, who had been serving the country overseas. Vidhyarkorn was the 22nd Queens native to die in Iraq. His parents, who live in Thailand, traveled to New York to lay their son to rest. Vidhyarkorn was promoted to Sergeant posthumously.
We brought you the stories of youth football players Blake Hunt and Vinny Nollman and the difficult circumstances that brought them together. Hunt and Nollman each suffered spinal cord injuries on the gridiron, leaving each paralyzed and facing the challenge of regaining movement below the waist. Nollman and Hunt were hospital roommates for a time until Hunt developed an infection that necessitated his relocation, but the 17-year-olds bonded one night over a televised New York Giants football game. “It felt good that I had [met] someone with the same accident,” Nollman said. “I wish he was still in the same room as me, but they took him out because he was sick.” The pair was honored by the Giants before a home game at the Meadowlands.
Later in the month, a fundraiser for Nollman brought the Ozone Park and Howard Beach communities to Pals Oval on North Conduit Avenue for a football game between Nollman’s team, the Gladiators, and the Knights. Former NFL players, community leaders, friends and family were on hand as Nollman’s teammates gathered around him on the 50-yard line before the game to greet and pray. “He doesn’t feel sorry for himself,” said Nollman’s father. “I think I feel sorry for myself more than he does.”
For our October 18 issue, Courier reporter Nick Brown had an exclusive interview with Howard Beach native Sergeant Sean McCabe, a soldier who made his proud return home after serving in Iraq. McCabe’s battles were not limited to the Iraqi desert; while abroad, McCabe lost his father and grandmother, making the distance from home feel even longer than it already felt. But, upon his return, McCabe did not so much as take a moment to relax. Reunited with family, friends, and his girlfriend, McCabe announced he would be returning as soon as possible to Community Board 10, and enlisting in the FDNY. “I’ve taken enough lives,” he said. “It’s time to save a few.”
October was also the month Governor Eliot Spitzer learned of the public’s disapproval of his bill to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Nearly a month after announcing the bill, which garnered mostly-negative reviews among local politicians, polls showed that the public was just as unenthusiastic: 72 percent opposed the bill, the poll said.
We closed the month by updating you on the status of the rape accusations against Councilmember Dennis Gallagher. The councilmember’s Chief of Staff Margaret Keta, 34, a mother of two, resigned from her post to spend more time with her children, she told The Queens Courier. Keta denied that her decision was influenced in any way by Gallagher’s ongoing legal troubles, and a spokesperson for Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said the Councilmember’s lawyers had filed a motion to have the case thrown out because of weak evidence.
In November, The Queens Courier brought readers “Ghost Workers,” a four-part series chronicling the day-to-day lives of day laborers in the borough of Queens. We woke up with them in the mornings, waited with them at the Roosevelt Avenue pickup point, and wrote about their lives, from the struggles they faced in their native countries to the ones they continue to face here. We profiled individual workers, putting faces to the stories, and spoke with leaders in the city who don’t believe day laborers have earned a place in society. We received countless letters in response to the series, and are proud to have shed light on an issue that so many in Queens care about.
We also covered the racial melee in Howard Beach, and will continue to provide updates as the story unfolds. On Halloween night, eight black and Hispanic males from Brooklyn were arrested for allegedly chasing a group of white Howard Beach teens into a Cross Bay Boulevard McDonald’s and beating them with hard objects. One victim, 16-year-old Joseph Friedman, was sent to the hospital and required stitches. Many in Howard Beach pressured D.A. Brown to pursue a hate crime charge, and Brown met with civic and political leaders to discuss the investigation. Of the eight who were arrested, five were ultimately indicted on various charges, including assault. The defendants were made to stand in a police lineup, but witnesses were unable to positively identify the suspects from the lineup, thereby leading to speculation that the case could go to trial if the prosecution does not reduce or drop the charges. The Courier will continue to update readers on the ongoing case.
We began December by bringing you coverage of the one-year anniversary of the controversial death of Sean Bell, the groom-to-be who was killed in a hail of 50 police bullets when cops suspected that Bell was carrying a gun. The Courier was there when Bell’s memory was honored with an overnight vigil Saturday, November 24, followed the next morning by a memorial service led by the Reverend Al Sharpton. “I miss him with all my heart,” said Bell’s would-be bride, 23-year-old Nicole Paultre Bell. “My kids miss him. And we’re doing the best that we can do to get through this.”
In December, Queens welcomed home 21 Army National Guard soldiers at a reception at the New York State Armory in Whitestone. Once again, The Courier was there as the soldiers, members of the 7th Finance Detachment, were honored for completing a one-year tour and operating two bases just outside Baghdad. Each soldier received “Defender of Freedom” certificates, which read, “You have proven that the timeless values of loyalty, respect, duty, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage are so much more than mere words and are a living testament to the highest hopes and ideals upon which our forefathers founded a new republic, The United States of America.”
As 2007 ended, we asked our readers to help us fulfill the Christmas wishes of dozens of children from the borough. We went to the James Farley Post Office in Manhattan and collected letters to Santa Claus, some written by kids, others by parents. We asked - and received - the help of our readers, and together, we provided these children - many of whom are needy - with the presents, they desired this Christmas.
Watch slideshow above right