Lifelong Riverhead resident Judge Thomas M. Stark, who was born in his home on Roanoke Avenue, died on April 27 of complications from cancer surgery. He was 89.
Stark was a long-serving New York State judge who presided over such notable Long Island trials as the 1974 DeFeo family murders in Amityville and the 1996 Lilco property tax challenge.
After being appointed to the County Court of Suffolk County by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1963, Stark served six years on that bench before winning election to the state’s Supreme Court, where he served for 29 years until his retirement in 1998. From 1978 to 1992, he was supervising judge of the Superior Criminal Courts of Suffolk County. From 1985 to 1998, he served as an Associate Justice of the Appellate Term, Ninth and Tenth Judicial Districts. As vice chairman of the Criminal Jury Instructions Committee of the New York State Office of Court Administration from 1972 to 1992, he helped draft uniform jury instructions for the state; he remained a member until his death. In 1984, he was named Judge of the Year by the Suffolk County Criminal Bar Association.
A graduate of Riverhead High School and the College of Holy of Cross, Stark served in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946. Slated to be part of the invasion of Japan, he was en route to his ship when the nuclear bomb was dropped on Japan in August of 1945. After the war, he attended Harvard Law School as part of the GI bill, receiving his degree in 1949. Upon graduation, he returned to his hometown of Riverhead, N.Y. and joined a private law practice.
Stark was a former Riverhead Town Attorney and Justice of the Peace and a member of the Riverhead Board of Education. For many years he was a member of the Monday Night Band and the frequent master of ceremonies for the popular Lion’s Club shows. Stark had a long history with the Suffolk County Council, Boy Scouts of America. He and his brothers Dick and Bill had the distinction of all reaching the ranks of Eagle Scout. His father John C. Stark was president of the Suffolk County National Bank, and his mother Mary Stark was an active member of the Riverhead Garden Club.
In his retirement, he wrote the local history Riverhead: The Halcyon Years 1861 to 1919 and the forthcoming Horrific Homicides, a recounting of four of his most notable criminal trials.
Stark’s most notorious trial was that of Ronald DeFeo, who was convicted of shooting six members of his family in their beds in 1974. Afterwards, the new owners of the home claimed the house was haunted, leading to the book and movie “The Amityville Horror.” In his book about the trial, the prosecuting attorney wrote of Stark: “We needed a judge who absolutely could not be pushed around. The only judge in Suffolk County who possessed that kind of total control was Thomas M. Stark, a hawk-nosed, hazel-eyed Harvard Law graduate…who came to court armed with a resonant baritone voice, an encyclopedic knowledge of the law, and the rare ability to immobilize an obstreperous attorney with a single stare over the silver framed half glasses he wore half way down his nose.”
He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Jane Crabtree Stark, his daughters Elizabeth Stark Dugan of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and Ellen Gaynor Stark of New York City; his brother William Stark of Hampton Bays, N.Y. and his grandchildren Claire Dugan and Jack Dugan of Chevy Chase, Maryland.
A wake will be held at the Reginald Tuthill Funeral Home, 406 East Main Street, Riverhead, N.Y. on Thursday, May 1 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. A funeral mass will be held at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Riverhead on May 2 at 10:30 a.m. Donations can be made in his name to the Suffolk County Historical Society, 300 West Main St., Riverhead, 11901, or Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.