This is Part I in a series.
Last month, in court to clear up a few parking tickets, I listened as the lawyer for a woman standing a few feet in front of me, pressed a New Rochelle jurist, Judge Anthony Carbone, to sentence his client. The Assistant District Attorney seemed remarkably disinterested in sentencing the woman. There was some discussion about a sentencing report which was to have been completed prior to the court appearance. The prosecutor said it had not been ordered. The defense attorney said it had been ordered. Regardless, the report was not in the file. The judge postponed the hearing until September. The defense attorney asked the judge to reconsider an earlier date. A new date in July was scheduled.
Why would a defense lawyer try to move up sentencing? Why would a prosecutor be content to delay sentencing? This all seemed unusual and, being naturally curious, I went to find out more. What I found was shocking.
I spoke with the woman's attorney afterwards. His client is Suzanne Ribando of 106 Stephenson Boulevard. From the attorney, I learned that the original sentencing date had been set for February 2010 based on a conviction in November 2009. It seemed incredible that a woman convicted in 2009 would still be awaiting sentencing in 2011. The lawyer offered me the chance to schedule a meeting with her so I could hear her whole story about a dispute between two neighbors.
A few days later a seemingly unrelated, unusual incident occurred. The owner of the house at 110 Stephenson Boulevard, Patrick Hickey, called police to report finding an unlit but operational molotov cocktail in his driveway. I called Captain Joseph Schaller of the New Rochelle Police Department to get additional information. As to possible motives, Schaller rattled off a few explanations like "neighborhood kids" or "pranksters" and then mentioned an ongoing dispute between two neighbors.
Patrick Hickey resides at 110 Stephenson Boulevard; Ribando resides at 106 Stephenson Boulevard. Had things escalated to the point where these two neighbors would be tossing molotov cocktails at each other? That seemed unlikely. Having spoken briefly with Suzanne Ribando at the New Rochelle City Court, a painfully shy, soft-spoken woman, it seemed less likely. Something did not seem right.
I met with Ribando at a diner in Eastchester. Over a long lunch she told a story that was shocking, incredible, painful, disheartening and, given my experience in New Rochelle, sadly plausible. It is such a long, complex story that I hardly know where to begin so I will begin at the beginning and take it in stages. This is Part I.
Suzanne Ribando told me she was in her late thirties and has lived on Stephenson Boulevard, in the home of her parents, Betty and James Ribando, since she was born. She went to school in New Rochelle, attended Holy Name Church and graduated from Iona College. She keeps two dogs. When her saga began her father was very ill and has since died. In her entire life, prior to the Hickey's moving in next store, she had never had any sort of problem with anyone, let alone her neighbors or police. That was soon to change.
Patrick Hickey and his wife, Tracey Hickey, bought the house next door in 2004.
In June 2006, the Hickey's children were bouncing a ball off a fence between the two properties. Ribando said the noise was agitating her dogs causing them to bark so she called over the fence to the kids to stop bouncing the ball on the fence. Hickey angrily ordered her not to talk to his kids and began staring at her in a menacing way. The menacing stare occurred on many subsequent occasions. After the ball bouncing incident, she says the Hickeys repeatedly taunted, threatened and harassed her and her dogs. According to Ribando, the harassment escalated when the Hickey's began calling in a series of what she says were false complaints against her starting with a complaint in December of 2006.
On December 13, 2006. Hickey, in his car, left his driveway to drive his two children to school. He entered the break in the island on Stephenson to turn left. Ribando had already exited her driveway and intended to pass through the island cut after Hickey when he suddenly stopped, jumped out of his vehicle and, according to Ribando, screamed that he was going to put his fist through her window. Fearing for her safety, Ribando says she attempted to maneuver her car to get away from him. Later that day New Rochelle Police Officer Alexander Titus appears at the side door of the Ribando home. Ribando says she was in her kitchen, watching, as Titus lightly knocked on the door and twister the door knob. Seeing a police officer at her door, Ribando opened the door and was immediately confronted by Titus who addressed her in a tone that suggested he had already determined that Hickey was to be believed and she was not. In a predatory manner, he accused her of following Hickey to the traffic island cut and trying to run him over with her car, all based on nothing more than Hickey's word. Ribando denied the accusations. According to police records, the incident is recorded as a "dispute", meaning "he-said, she said".
Over the next few months, Ribando said she was subject to continued harassment by the Hickeys.
On May 9, 2007, Tracey Hickey complained of an incident that occurred one day prior to the day of report. She claimed Ribando played music loudly and yelled at her kids while playing in their own yard. Ribando denied playing loud music. She denied yelling at the kids but admitted asking them to stop kicking a ball against the fence. According to police records, the incident is recorded as a "dispute".
On the night of May 18th, 2007, a large rock was thrown through the windshield of Ribando's car which was parked in her driveway. The following day, New Rochelle police took a report, canvassed the neighborhood and interviewed neighbors. From that point further acts of property damage occured at the Ribando home -- flowers pulled up from a garden, lawn ornaments removed, and a garden hose cut with a knife. No property damage or violence occurred on the Hickey's property.
In June, 2007, New Rochelle Police Detective Jeffrey Wilson, for no readily apparent reason appeared at the Ribando home, she said, threatened Ribando, telling her to stay away from Patrick and Tracey Hickey and their children. Ribando, at a loss to understand why Wilson was even at her home, denied harassing the Hickeys and explained that it was the Hickey's who were harassing her. Ribando says Wilson heard her but ignored her response and made one last threat against her before leaving.
On August 14th, 2007, Patrick Hickey complains that Ribando was yelling at him and accusing him of throwing the rock through her windshield in May. Hickey told the responding police officer that her actions were scaring his kids. According to police records, the incident is recorded as a "dispute".
It is important to note that all three incidents up until this point were determined to be "disputes" which means there was no basis for charging anyone or making an arrest.
On August 22nd, 2007 Suzanne Ribando received a phone call from Detective Vincent Mirabile. She says Mirabile told her he wanted to talk to her about her dispute with her neighbor. Believing that Mirabile wanted to be helpful and is willing to hear her side of the story, she readily agrees when Mirabile asks her to come to the New Rochelle Police Station. After a few minutes of answering questions, Mirabile informed her that he is arresting her.
Describing herself as in a state of shock, Ribando recounted being arrested, charged with harassment, processed and placed in a jail cell at the New Rochelle police station. As we talked, Suzanne Ribando appeared to be reliving the experience. She became quieter and more withdrawn. Sitting in jail she said she was thinking about her ailing father. She was (and still is) the primary caregiver and only driver in the home. She administeredvhis medication and ran all the errands including grocery shopping for her elderly parents. She begins to contemplate what will happen to her father if she is not there to take care of him and becomes deeply concerned.
It is only later that Ribando learns that Hickey has given a statement to Mirabile in which Hickey makes numerous, unsupported and bizarre claims going back more than a year, all but three of which were previously reported to the police. In short, Hickey says that going back to the summer of 2006, Ribando has been yelling, cursing and threatening his family. Hickey claims that Ribando routinely carries around a rock, holding it over her head, while she screams obscenities at him and his family. There is no evidence of this and no other witness besides Hickey. His wife does not give a statement even though some of the claims made in the statement involve only the wife. In his statement, Hickey is describing dozens if not hundreds of incidents, none of which he reported to police or mentioned while making other complaints. Given the brief duration of time elapsed between the report by Hickey and the arrest of Ribando by Mirabile, there would have been little or no time to investigate any of the claims. There are no police reports to support anything other than that there were three "disputes".
There is one major addition by Hickey to the original report on one of the disputes. The traffic island incident on December 13th, 2006 has now been dramatically expanded. Eight months after the incident, Hickey changed his story. He has told Mirabile that Ribando not only followed him to the cut in the traffic island but that after he says he got out of his car, got back in and drove off, she followed him all the way to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Pelham where his children attended school. He tells Mirabile that she kept following him as he turned down various side streets, on an indirect route, trying to shake her. He says he called the New Rochelle Police after observing Ribando parked in front of the school in Pelham. There is no mention of Ribando following him to Pelham in his original complaint and nothing to corroborate his new claims made eight months later.
It on the basis of Hickey's one-sided, unsupported, unsubstantiated, claims, made many months after the supposed incidents took place, that Ribando is arrested despite no investigation, no evidence, and a fantastical statement about the traffic island incident that is significantly different than what Hickey told police at the time.
Ribando is in despair. For more than a year, she says she was repeatedly harassed and subject to threats and intimidation by the Hickeys and members of the New Rochelle police department. Knowing, she says, the charges to be false, entirely contrived and without evidence, she cannot understand why no one will listen to her and why any claims by the Hickeys, no matter how baseless or ludicrous, are accepted as fact by members of the New Rochelle police department.
She gets a lawyer. He encourages her to make a plea deal. Convinced by her lawyer that the cost of mounting a defense will be prohibitive, worried what will happen to her father if she is convicted and expecting that she will have to contend with the probable false testimony of New Rochelle police officer she becomes convinced that the best way to make her problems with the Hickeys go away will be to make a deal. On this basis she pleads guilty to "non-criminal Harassment in the Second Degree" and goes home. As a result of the conviction, an order of protection is issued for the Hickeys. Knowing she has not harassed the Hickeys, Ribando sees no reason to be concerned about the order of protection.
Not appreciating the significance of the order of protection or how it could be used against her, Ribando was unaware she had just made the biggest mistake of her life and would pay for it over and over again.
This is Part I in a series. Read Part II
[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]