This is Part IV in a series. To read from the beginning, go back to Part I.
Suzanne Ribando was not sure why but she was in the Westchester County Jail.
Never in trouble before the Hickeys bought the house next door in 2004, her quiet life had fallen to pieces ever since. She did not understand how things could have come to this point. Days earlier, pushed to the breaking point after two years of torment at the hands of her neighbors, Patrick and Tracey Hickey, she had put a knife to her throat and told police officers she wanted to die. She had been taken by the police to Mount Vernon hospital for psychiatric observation and released after it was determined she was not a danger to herself or others. Although the court was aware that she had been confined against her will at Mount Vernon hospital, an appearance date was scheduled during her confinement and an arrest warrant issued for her failing to appear. For reasons not clear to her, Ribando was subsequently arrested and remanded to Valhalla. When her mother, Betty Ribando, came to the jail to visit her, she told her mother that although she thought she had been sent for psychiatric observation no psychiatrists had evaluated her.
In the meantime, Betty Ribando, a frail woman with significant medical problems, had called Michael Galluzzi, a successful Manhattan attorney specializing in civil litigation. Galluzzi, born and raised in Yonkers, was no stranger to the ways of the Westchester old boys network. He grew up knowing Suzanne Ribando as the quiet, shy daughter of his godfather, Jimmy Ribando a big band trumpet player who toured the country as a professional musician.
As she related all that had happened over the past two years, Galluzzi knew that something was amiss. Being familiar with police procedure he knew that the police officers involved had likely not followed proper procedure — uncorroborated complaints should not have resulted in arrests, cross-complaints should have been accepted, there should have been referrals for mediation to resolve what amounted to a neighbor dispute. He knows that harassment arrests are usually made when the victim of the harassment produces some demonstrative evidence of repetitive intentional acts: hundreds of threatening texts, threatening voicemails, letters, stalking, video of and act or some type of audio or acts that are corroborated by witnesses, that in most cases police officers rely on a great deal more than the word of the complainant when the other party denies the claim. Although he could not put his finger on it, he knew there had to be something more behind all of this. There should be no reason for Suzanne Ribando to be arrested for harassment based solely on the word of Patrick or Tracey Hickey, Galluzzi was confident that the District Attorney would have no interest in a case like this and expected that the charges would be dismissed.
Ribando already had a criminal defense attorney, Andrew Proto, representing her. As a civil litigator there was not much Galluzzi could do beyond offering to look into the matter further and see what he could do. He advised her to stay as far away from the Hickey’s as possible and to call him if anything remotely unusual happened.
In July, Ribando called Galluzzi. She has been receiving a series of harassing phone calls, rings and hang ups. Galluzzi advised her to report the calls to the police which she did. A few days later, Ribando discovered an audio recording of gun shots left on her phone answering machine. Frightened, she called Galluzzi who again directed her to report the matter to the police which she did. To the best of her knowledge, no action was taken by the police beyond recording the incident.
In the months following the ominous phone calls there were no complaints filed by the Hickeys.
The New Rochelle court scheduled a felony hearing in the car scratching incident for December, 2008. The hearing was to determine whether Ribando would be charged with a felony based on the allegations that she scratched her neighbors car. Judge John P. Colangelo presided at the felony hearing on December 8, 2008 in the New Rochelle City Court.
At the hearing, under direct examination by Assistant District Attorney Michael Borelli, Tracey Hickey testified that Suzanne Ribando scratched her car. She testified both that she saw Ribando touch her car and later that she did not see her touch her car. Hickey went on to claim that she did not park her car in her own driveway because some men who were working on her house had parked in her driveway. Her driveway can easily accommodate two vehicles. Hickey did not provide any evidence that men were working on her house that day. She testified she could not park on the street in front of her house because cars were parked there due to a nearby tag sale. Again, she provided no evidence of a tag sale taking place that day. At no point did Hickey ever explain a rather obvious point – why she chose to park directly in front of the Ribando home. Given her supposed fear of Suzanne Ribando why didn’t she park on the street in front of her own driveway, blocking her own driveway, or ask the workers to move their car to the street so she could park in her own driveway. Hickey testified that the cost to repair the scratches on her car was $1,700. She provided no invoices for the work. She said her insurance company paid $1,200 of the cost of the repair work but provided no claim records or payment records to support her testimony.
Despite this, Judge Colangelo deemed Tracey Hickey’s testimony as sufficient reasonable cause to believe that a felony was committed and Ribando was ordered to go before a grand jury.
The Hickey’s, however, were not done.
During the hearing, Assistant District Attorney Borelli made an application to the court on behalf of the Hickeys to modify the order of protection against Suzanne Ribando. Under the proposed modification, Ribando would be banned from her residence at 106 Stephenson Boulevard and prohibited from setting foot on Stephenson Boulevard. Ribando was deeply concerned. This was her childhood home where she had lived most of her life. She was the primary caregiver to her two elderly, ill parents. Her father was in the late stages of multiple sclerosis which had ravaged his body. He was bedridden. He could not walk or move, feed or bathe himself. Ribando did everything for him including administering his medication. She was the only driver in the house, running all of the errands, doing all the grocery shopping for the family. If she was banned from her own home she would have no choice but to uproot her parents, a trauma for her family, and move somewhere else so she could continue to care for them. Despite this, Borelli asked the court that Ribando be prohibited from entering her home or the street near her home.
The transcript of the hearing shows an extraordinary exchange during the hearing: (1) twice referenced in the exchange is Westchester County’s Chief Assistant District Attorney Anthony Molea, one of the most powerful figures in the local justice system. Proto revealed that Patrick Hickey had been repeatedly calling Molea and that Molea was taking his calls and giving him advice; (2) told by Judge Colangelo that he would be denying the modification of the order of protection because there is no new charge against Ribando, Borelli introduces an entirely new, completely uncorroborated claim. The Hickeys had never made this claim before or filed a police report yet Borelli told the judge that Ribando had been throwing dog poop across the fence at the Hickey children and their playmates. There was no evidence of this just an assertion by the ADA that the Hickeys had made this entirely new claim to him but not to police.
MR. PROTO (RIBANDO’S LAWYER): Your Honor, this is a neighbor dispute. As Your Honor knows, in any sort of dispute between two parties there are two sides to every story, My client intends on defending this charge. She adamantly denies the recent allegations of the D.A.’ s office. She intends on testifying before the grand jury, and if the case is tried, which I’m sure it will be, she intends on testifying at trial. I don’t find any sort of basis for this order that the D .A, wishes you to issue today. There has been no new arrest. If there was some sort of issue between my client and the complaining witnesses, the police investigate. They are the ones that make the determination whether or not a crime has been committed, and an arrest would have been made. That hasn’t been done. What we have here is a complaining witness, Your Honor, who constantly calls the D.A.’s office, complains if the sun isn’t shining right. And what happens is my client is repeatedly questioned by the police, sometimes arrested, which is the case here, sometimes not. But this is so broad, this order that they are seeking right now. It’s not the purpose why we are here. I’d ask that that application be denied.
BORRELLI: Judge, just in response. This is the only court that this case is in front of so this is the proper forum. Applications to amendments to an order of protection, or clarifications to an order of protection aren’t required to be in writing. So this is the only place to do this. I have no other magical court to go to to make this sort of application, and I continual harassment since this. Judge, nothing is going to stop this woman if she’s continually around there. She is compulsive. She has no control over her actions.
THE COURT (JUDGE COLANGELO): But there is no new charge.
MR. BORRELLI: There is no new charge. Just to bring this up, I met the victim today for the first time. The D.A.’s office hasn’t spoken to this victim about any new allegations prior to today.
MR. PROTO: Your Honor, I disagree with that statement. I spoke to Mr. Malia (sic) in county court when this was on for S.C.I. conference and he told me the complaining witness is constantly calling his office in Superior (sic) Court that my client is annoying them. His response is call the police. Since May there’s been nothing, Your Honor; no arrest. If something has warranted a criminal action there would have been an arrest.
MR. BORRELLI: She hasn’t been seen actually doing it, but to throwing feces into the back yard. She’s the only individual. I’m telling you straight up, judge, right now I just received information from them that their little girl, along with her playmate, had to run into the house because the defendant was in the backyard several weeks ago cursing at them.
THE COURT: I understand, but there is no new charge. I am not inclined at this point to change the order of protection. I continue to remind Miss Ribando that she is bound by three different orders of protection that have been issued and she is subject to further charges of criminal contempt should she violate them.
The message from Judge Colangelo was clear: without some new charge against Ribando the court will not accede to the Hickey’s demand that Suzanne Ribando be removed from her home. Before the day is out there will be a new charge.
Hours after the felony hearing, Patrick Hickey called the police, claiming that Suzanne Ribando had been banging on the fence separating the Hickey and Ribando property. When three New Rochelle police officers responded to the scene Ribando was inside her home. She looked outside and seeing the police outside her house she called Galluzzi.
The three officers had not witnessed anything. They had no way to verify Hickey’s claim. Patrick Hickey claimed that Ribando’s banging on the fence had damaged it. He pointed out to the officers a tiny corner of the fence where the plastic panel had separated from the frame, a flaw typical of that type of fence. There was no way for the officers to determine how the panel had separated, or when, why or how, and certainly nothing connecting Ribando to the flaw in the fence.
Not sure what to do, one of the officers called Detective Jeff Wilson who they knew has been the point person on the Hickey-Ribando dispute from the beginning. Over the telephone, without visiting the scene, talking to the two parties or inspecting the fence, Wilson instructed the officers to arrest Ribando.
Betty Ribando went outside to talk to the police officers. One of the officers told Suzanne’s mother that the officers just wanted to talk to Suzanne. One of the officers, seeing Suzanne Ribando looking at the window, motioned for her to come outside and speak with them. Her mother waived too. Ribando told Galluzzi the police wanted to talk to her. She put down the phone and walked outside. She could not hear Galluzzi on the telephone instructing her to remain in her home, that she is not required to go outside. The ruse worked. Ribando exited her home and was arrested. She was handcuffed, put in the back of a police car and taken to police headquarters. She was locked in jail and remained there overnight.
The following day ADA Borelli again appeared before the New Rochelle City Court. This time Judge Gail Rice, the mother of District 3 Council Member Jared Rice, was presiding. Borelli again sought a modification to the order of protection to ban Ribando from her own home. Judge Rice granted a modification that ordered Ribando not to exit her home from the back door or side door of her house. Under the order, which is still in effect to this day, Ribando is prohibited from entering the backyard or side of the house and may only leave the house from the front door. When she leaves her house, under the order, she is required to walk quickly from the front door. She is not allowed to linger or spend time in her front yard and may not turn left, crossing in front of the Hickey house at 110 Stephenson Boulevard.
Judge Rice had just made it a crime for Suzanne Ribando to go in her own backyard.
This is Part IV in a series. Read Part V.
[NOTE: This account has been presented as a narrative based on a long lunch at a diner; while the lunch at the diner did take place, further research and fact-checking was done later. To make the story a better read for my audience, I am using the meeting at the diner as a rhetorical device. Within that framework, this is an accurate account of the story as it was told to me by Ribando and then confirmed through public records and follow-up interviews]