Foil: Your right to Know.
Spring Valley firefighter John Kapral walks past a photo of Jared Lloyd at the Columbian Fire Engine Co. No. 1 firehouse June 22, 2023. Firefighters there, and around the county, are upset about Rockland DA Thomas Walsh’s decision to offer a no-jail plea to two rabbis whose actions sparked the Evergreen Court fire that killed Lloyd. Peter Carr/The Journal News
“Rockland’s NAACP leaders have ripped apart a lenient no-jail plea deal for the two men who admitted causing the 2021 fatal adult home blaze during which a firefighter and resident died.
In a letter to County Court Judge Kevin Russo, and District Attorney Thomas Walsh, the three leaders contend the no-jail deal “does not adequately address the crimes as indicated by the indictment.”
They urged Walsh to publicly defend his decision and the judge to reconsider his support for the proposed sentence.
The NAACP letter also raised the specter that historically people of color have not gotten a lenient plea deal as given to the two Monsey rabbis. Nathaniel Sommer and his son Aaron admitted causing the inferno while sanitizing the ovens and kitchens with a 20-pound blow torch for the Passover holiday at the Evergreen Court Home for Adults on March 23, 2021. Spring Valley Firefighter Second Lt. Jared Lloyd, 35, the father of two boys, and resident Oliver Hueston, 79, father of three adult sons, died in the fire. Lloyd was among dozens of firefighters evacuating 112 residents from the adult home when part of the building collapsed on him. Several other firefighters were injured, including Eric Cich, who needed to be hospitalized.
“It is the perception of many that preferential treatment was given in this horrific case since plea deals are usually confidential, and the public will not be able to find out if justice was served,” they wrote. “Therefore, we have urged District Attorney Walsh to publicly defend his decision to offer this plea bargain arrangement.”
Walsh has taken a bunker mentality, repeatedly declining to expound on details of the Evergreen Court fire prosecution and the plea agreement reached with the attorneys for the Sommers.
Walsh declined to comment on the NAACP letter written and released to The Journal News/lohud.com by Wilbur Aldridge, the director of the Mid-Hudson Westchester Region NAACP, Willie Trotman, president of the NAACP Branch in Spring Valley, and Nicole Hines, president of the NAACP Branch in Nyack.
His chief spokesman, Chief of Detectives Peter Walker, supplied a statement on Thursday afternoon.
“The people’s position was set forth on the record before Judge Russo,” Walker wrote. “It states that just to be clear, the agreement by the People is to the plea being entered into, the manslaughter counts and the reckless endangerment counts. As far as the sentencing is concerned, that’s in the discretion of the court. That’s been our position, just so the record is clear.”
Walsh is running for re-election without opposition in November on the Democratic and Republican ballots. He won a four-year term in November 2019 by defeating independent Michael Diederich after winning a contested primary with overwhelming support from Ramapo’s Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish voters.
Anger from firefighters followed plea agreement
The NAACP’s critical letter follows condemnation of the plea deal from Lloyd’s family and his fellow firefighters. Multiple fire departments have banned Walsh and his staff from their events.Lloyd’s mother, Sabrail Davenport, responded to the plea with four words: “disappointment, disgusted, heartbroken, and betrayed.”
She said Walsh went back on his grandiose guarantee at a news conference announcing the indictments and did not explain his rationale for the plea deal when meeting with her and supporters: “He promised justice was going to be served. This deal is not justice.”
Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Walsh speaks at the Rockland County Fire Training Center April 1, 2021 about the investigation of the fatal fire at the Evergreen Court Home for Adults in Spring Valley. Peter Carr/The Journal News
While Russo endorsed the plea agreement and the sentence and took part in the negotiations, the judge can change his decision at sentencing on Sept. 20. Nathaniel Sommer and Aaron Sommer pleaded guilty on June 20. Nathaniel Sommer pleaded to two counts of second-degree manslaughter and is expected to be sentenced to five years’ probation. Aaron Sommer pleaded guilty to second-degree reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, which will carry a sentence of three years’ probation.
The NAACP letter focused on the grand jury finding sufficient evidence presented by Walsh’s prosecutors to charge the Sommers and then bailed on the case. Russo had upheld the indictment.
The letter argued criminal indictments “can help protect the community by telling potential criminals that their illegal actions will not be tolerated.”
“Those who have endured the trauma of being violated by a person who acted criminally need to know that they are not alone and that the state is taking action to protect their interests as well as the interests of the public,” the letter states. “Given that, we and the community expected the trial to proceed to a just outcome.”
The NAACP leaders wrote that research has determined that minorities are more likely to face longer jail terms or are not afforded the same plea deals as non-minorities for comparable crimes, raising questions about the fairness of our judicial system.
“As you should be aware, disparities between minorities and non-minorities are unacceptable and should not be tolerated,” they wrote.
Spring Valley Firefighter George Cich, whose son almost died in the blaze, has attended the court hearings and spoke to authorities. He leads the Rockland Illegal Housing Task Force, which attempts to pressure governments to crack down on unsafe housing and enforce state fire and safety codes. He’s in line with the NAACP and has been critical of Walsh. “We feel it was fixed from the time the blow torches were lit.,” Cich said. “It wouldn’t have mattered who perished in that inferno because of the politics involved. It’s totally disheartening to sit through all these hearings thinking the it would end fairly. Unfortunately, we live and learn.”
Read the complete Journal News coverage here.