School board member Laurie Downs at the July 6, 2021 meeting. Photo: Denise Civiletti

At Saturday’s meeting of the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association, while Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller fielded questions about downtown crime and quality of life issues, Riverhead school board member Laurie Downs caused a stir with comments about crimes targeting students.

“We have an enormous amount of children, when they’re walking home from school, getting jumped and getting robbed,” Downs said.

Her statement set off a buzz among the two dozen or so residents gathered in a meeting room at the library for the civic group meeting.

The police chief, too, was taken aback by Downs’ statement and said police department records do not back up that claim.

“What schools? High school and middle school?” he asked. “Who’s having the problem?”

“The last one was just the other day. Two boys got jumped by a group,” Downs replied. “They got robbed of money and cell phones,” she said.

Members of the audience called out questions, asking where, when and how many incidents had taken place.

“These events — is it in that strip from Pulaski to the junior high to the senior night is that the most active criminal area going on?” asked downtown resident Noreen LeCann.

“What’s the area?” civic association cofounder Cindy Clifford asked.

“It’s 58. It’s Pulaski Street. It’s coming downtown. It’s Polish Town, it’s —

“Walking down Roanoke?” a woman asked.

“On Roanoke?” a man repeated.

“Of course, of course,” Downs said. “This is — it’s ongoing” on the local roads around the schools downtown, Downs said, responding to audience comments.

The police department is not receiving reports that correspond to Downs’ statements, Hegermiller interjected.

“The one on the football field is the last event that I know about,” he said, referring to a recent fight among students on school property that resulted in a call to police.

Downs said she heard that the incident last week was reported to police by a parent of one of the victims.

“We heard about the other day, because the parent of the one kid called the school. That’s how we heard about it,” Downs said.

It turns out that what Downs said she heard about that incident was not the account reported to police.

On Tuesday, the police chief provided RiverheadLOCAL with a police department incident report about fight among five high school students that started at the high school on Thursday, March 16 and continued late that afternoon outside the Dunkin’ Donuts on Route 58.

The report states that a group of three youths were fighting with two other youths at the Dunkin’ Donuts. The report also said the incident was reported via a 911 call from Riverhead school district’s director of security Terrance Culhane. The responding officer, after documenting the disturbance on Route 58, then went to the high school to interview one of the students with his mother present, according to the report.

“Before they fought, the subject in the group of two laid down the property listed, which turned up missing after the fight,” Hegermiller said in an email Tuesday. The items listed in the police report were an iPhone 12 and AirPods. “It is still under investigation at this time,” Hegermiller said in the email.

Hegermiller said in a phone interview Tuesday he is confounded by the school board member’s statements Saturday about children being jumped and robbed as they walked home from school. Police records absolutely do not support those allegations, he said.

“I understand that kids may not report fights with other kids to their parents, and that some members of the community might not report all criminal incidents to police,” the chief said in the interview. But if children were being jumped and robbed on a regular basis, as Downs said, there would have to be at least some incidents reported to police, Hegermiller said.

In an interview Wednesday, Downs could not point to other specific incidents, but stood by her comments. She said she’s heard about the incidents from community members and read about them on Facebook.

“I hear this from parents. I hear this around town,” Downs said. “That one particular one [the incident last week she mentioned at the civic meeting], we were told as a board. I was told that there was a group jumped two kids, and the police were called. A group jumped — on their way, after school, on their way home. A group of kids jumped two kids. That’s what we were told,” Downs said.

Downs, current vice president and past president of the Riverhead Board of Education said School Superintendent Augustine Tornatore relayed the circumstances of the incident — which in Downs’ recounting, do not conform to the narrative in the police report — to the school board.

Tornatore did not return an email sent Wednesday requesting comment.

Downs said in the interview she has witnessed kids “getting jumped and getting robbed” herself.

“You know how many times I had to call PD when I lived on Pulaski Street because of kids getting jumped and getting robbed? Bicycles being stomped and pulled apart? Kids being on my front lawn, rolling around in the cemetery, groups of kids? I constantly — I was always calling the cops,” she said. Downs said she moved from her house on Pulaski Street, located next to Riverhead Cemetery, about five years ago.

“The thing I know for a fact is what I said [Saturday] is the truth. The thing is, what we were told about that incident, we were given wrong information. Wrong information was given to the superintendent,” Downs said, “because he passes on what’s told to him.”

Downs said Riverhead Police should have a heightened presence in the areas where students are walking after school is dismissed. She said she’s previously brought this up to the police chief and to a police department representative at a recent school district health and safety committee meeting.

“I want our kids to be protected and watched when they’re coming and going from the school grounds,” Downs said. The school district needs the police, she said.

“I’m afraid,” Downs said. “Look, we got a lot of Latino kids. We do have those gangs in our school. They haven’t started up yet. But if they do, as I said at the meeting, I don’t want us becoming a Brentwood,” Downs said.

She said “those gangs” she referred to are gangs like MS-13.

“These are not kids like Doctors Path and Flanders,” she said, referring to reputed neighborhood street gangs. “They just beat each other up. These are kids that chop off heads and shit,” she said. “And that scares me.”

Downs said she was never fearful of “the other kids.”

“I’m fearful of these groups, because they’re not ours,” Downs said. She said she has real fears about serious gang violence, though she said she hasn’t seen it happening here and hasn’t heard threats of it.

Violent gangs like MS-13 are in the local community, Downs said, and that means they are in the schools too, she said. “Anything that’s outside is inside. If it’s out there, it’s here,” she said, referring to the school district.

MS-13 is a transnational criminal gang formed in California by Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s. It is known to operate in Suffolk County, where its members have been responsible for notorious violent crimes.

Rival gangs, such as the the 18th Street, also operate in Suffolk.

The gangs have been the target of law enforcement efforts across the county for decades.

Their presence has been felt on the East End as well, including in Riverhead and Southold. In October 2014, five members of MS-13 were charged in a shooting and machete attack in Southold. The two male victims were members of the 18th Street, police said. One of the shooters in the Southold attack was subsequently charged in a shooting on Maple Avenue in Riverhead four days before the Southold attack. The following month, Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, who was talking with then-Supervisor Sean Walter about starting a Guardian Angel patrol in town, labeled Riverhead the “epicenter” of Latino gang activity on the East End. Hegermiller forcefully denied Sliwa’s allegation, pointing to gang awareness programs in schools, the Council for Unity programs in the schools and the county jail, and an East End Gang Task Force.

“We’ve done a lot in Riverhead,” Hegermiller said at the time. “We’ve had a lot of good success.”

This week the chief said Riverhead Police “keep a watchful eye” on all possible gang activity, including graffiti tags used by gang members to mark their territories. Police want to know about new graffiti when it turns up. Hegermiller asked residents to report graffiti to police at 631-727-4500.

Editor’s note: This story has been amended for clarification resulting from an editing error prior to initial publication. The caption on the file photo has also been corrected. The photo, taken in 2021, referred to Downs as school board president, an office she held at the time it was taken. She is currently the board vice president.

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