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Suspect in Hate Crime Caught In Act, D.A. Says

Tue, 12/05/2023 - 15:06
Police led Michael Nicholoulias into East Hampton Town Justice Court on Tuesday afternoon for his arraignment on 14 charges related to antisemitic vandalism in Montauk starting in late October.
Durell Godfrey

A Montauk man said to be responsible for spray-painting swastikas and antisemitic phrases in the hamlet on Oct. 30 and Nov. 11 was arrested overnight Monday, just moments after detectives witnessed him spray-paint another swastika on a bench there.

In a press conference in Riverhead on Tuesday afternoon, Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said that Michael Nicholoulias, 74, “made admissions” to law enforcement authorities after his arrest and also made “derogatory statements” with regard to the United States involvement in military conflicts in Israel and Ukraine.

Naturally Good, a health food market and cafe with a Jewish co-owner, was among the businesses targeted by the vandalism discovered on Oct. 30, along with the food trucks Blue Elm and Sweeney’s Weenies at Ditch Plain Beach, and the restrooms there. The second incident, on Nov. 11, targeted Bounce Beach Montauk, a nightclub that is closed for the season.

At the press conference Tuesday, Mr. Tierney described a coordinated effort between his agency, the Suffolk County Police Department, and the East Hampton Town Police Department, which involved sourcing surveillance-camera footage and quietly observing the suspect’s actions for several weeks after the initial antisemitic graffiti was discovered. The arrest is “an example of what we can do when we all work together,” the D.A. said.

Surveillance footage revealed a white PT Cruiser with a roof rack and window stickers, in the vicinity of each instance of the antisemitic vandalism. Only one such vehicle is registered within East Hampton Town, and it was registered to Mr. Nicholoulias. On the night of the arrest, detectives recovered a can of black spray paint in the front seat of the car.

East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo said after Tuesday’s press conference that the identification of the vehicle “narrowed down the search very quickly.”

Mr. Nicholoulias, who was arraigned Tuesday afternoon in East Hampton Town Justice Court by Justice Lisa R. Rana, is facing two counts of aggravated first-degree harassment and one count of fourth-degree criminal mischief as a hate crime, both felonies. He is also charged with 10 counts of making graffiti and one count of possession of a graffiti instrument, which are misdemeanors. The top count carries a possible sentence of one-and-a-third to four years in prison.

He appeared in court Tuesday afternoon in a long-sleeved dark green T-shirt, gray sweatpants, and sandals. He was represented by a Legal Aid attorney, Laura Gretz, who told Justice Rana that Mr. Nicholoulias was a retired “special needs teacher” who has lived in Montauk for six and a half years and in Hawaii before that.

Mr. Nicholoulias uttered only a few words in answer to questions from the judge or his attorney, and his speech was strained and difficult to understand.

Justice Rana issued an order of protection against him, on behalf of two people who were identified in court only by their initials.

While state bail laws prevent Mr. Nicholoulias from being held in custody, the assistant district attorneys in the courtroom on Tuesday, Sean Lorthioir and Patrick O’Connell, requested a supervised release

with GPS monitoring. His attorney argued that he was not a flight risk, as he had given a full written confession, and requested that he be released on his own recognizance.

Justice Rana disagreed, and granted the A.D.A.s’ request.

“We will have a GPS monitor put on you to make sure that you don’t leave the jurisdiction,” she told Mr. Nicholoulias. His next court date is today, though he is not required to appear. An attorney is scheduled to have a virtual conference with Justice Rana.

“Given the nature of what’s going on,” Mr. Tierney said in Riverhead, it was “particularly important that we bring the person responsible to justice.”

Chief Sarlo thanked Mr. Tierney and the Suffolk police for the pooling of resources in the investigation. He also complimented his own team, for “a phenomenal job with intelligence and knowledge of what goes on in Montauk, and that was instrumental.”

Mr. Tierney said Mr. Nicholoulias’s motive appeared to be “self-contained” and that he acted alone. “He wanted to send a message,” the D.A. said.

There has been a “dramatic increase” in hate crimes, and specifically antisemitic incidents, this year, especially in the last two months, said Suffolk County Chief of Detectives John Rowan, who also spoke on Tuesday.

“We’re doing outreach to the Jewish community,” Chief Rowan said, assuring all concerned that any such incident “is going to be investigated fully.”

Mr. Tierney said he will present the case to a grand jury for an indictment in Suffolk County Criminal Court.

Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney, center, detailed the arrest. East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo is pictured standing fourth from left. Christine Sampson

Mr. Tierney said detectives recovered this can of spray paint from the front seat of Mr. Nicholoulias's PT Cruiser. Christine Sampson

 

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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