Petition builds calling for DA’s resignation, but officials stop short of targeting Walsh

“A petition movement has garnered more than 2,800 names demanding Rockland District Attorney Thomas Walsh resign over his no-jail plea deal for two rabbis who admitted causing the 2021 adult home fire in which firefighter Jared Lloyd and resident Oliver Hueston died. [Link for the petition appears at the end of this article]

While petition organizers and supporters, including dozens of Rockland volunteer firefighters, don’t believe Walsh will resign, they say they want to send a message about how the plea deal disrespects Lloyd and Hueston, their families, and first responders. Walsh is running on the Democratic and Republican ballot lines Nov. 7. Some are also considering a longshot write-in campaign.

The case involves two major Rockland constituencies — the Orthodox Jewish community and the county’s firefighters — with emotions running high. Firefighters blast what they see as a light sentence. Leaders of the Orthodox community have largely refrained from offering public comment, but some have denounced what they feel are antisemitic comments on social media and in media reports about the plea deal.

Petition supporters counter that their goal is not bigotry but to show Walsh and county residents that their pain runs deep and personal.

Under the deal, Rabbi Nathaniel Sommer, 71, and his son Aaron, 28, will not serve jail or prison time for their guilty pleas in causing the fire at the Evergreen Court Home for Adults in Spring Valley.

Nathaniel Sommer pleaded to two felony counts of manslaughter, admitting his use of a 20-pound propane blowtorch to cleanse the kitchen and ovens for Passover caused the fire. His son admitted to a misdemeanor reckless endangerment charge.

The plea bargain means the men will not face a public trial. Judge Kevin Russo accepted the plea agreement June 20, and will sentence the men Sept. 20.  

“I’m not confident that it will work, but I love the fact that it will put pressure on him,” former Spring Valley Fire Chief Michael Johnson said of Walsh and the petitions. “I suggest a write-in of Jared Lloyd. I know that would never work, obviously. It’s more about the pressure that we’re here and to embarrass him.”

Thomas Walsh is not talking, but party bosses are

Walsh has repeatedly declined to comment on the calls for his resignation or on the plea deal itself, a decision that has been questioned by the county’s political chairs.

Rockland GOP Chair Lawrence Garvey said Walsh has some explaining to do. “The family and the firefighting community and the first-responder community and everyone has a right to understand what happened,” Garvey said. “And to the extent that District Attorney Walsh has to be part of that explanation, he absolutely should. They absolutely have a right to understand what happened to make their feelings known and to be angry if they feel that justice wasn’t served.” Rockland Democratic Chair Schenley Vital agreed, writing in a statement: “I urge District Attorney Walsh, as well as our federal and state representatives to address our community. We are in pain, and deserve to hear from our leaders.”

Seeking answers

Others have been more pointed in castigating the DA’s silence. Rockland Legislator Laurie Santulli, R-Congers, a firefighter, has been outspoken on the plea deal, the investigation, and the response to the two deaths from elected officials. She has asked that Walsh and his lead investigator Matt Wohl explain the rationale behind the plea agreement and the details before the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee.

“I’ve been bombarded with emails and calls from firefighters and citizens,” she said. “They have questions. I have questions that need answers. We want to know the reasoning behind the light plea deal.”

Santulli said she strongly doubts Walsh will voluntarily appear or allow his investigators or prosecutors to discuss the case. No hearing date has been set.  Committee Chair Toney Earl, D- Ramapo, told Santulli he doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to ask Walsh to appear since sentencing is pending. County Legislator Charles Falciglia, R-Ramapo, took to his Facebook page this week to blast Walsh. He supported Santulli for making her views public.

“Should Tom Walsh resign? Tom Walsh has been another Rockland political lifer and it is time to turn the page,” Falciglia wrote. “He should take the honorable route and step down as he has lost the confidence and trust of our county residents.”

A push for stronger code enforcement

Zebrowski and GOP state Sen. William Weber are pressing for a state law to enhance zoning and code enforcement, saying that first responders and neighborhoods are now at risk.

They noted that questions have been raised about the competence of inspections done by the Spring Valley Building Department over a few decades. The state stepped in and deputized the county government in 2021 to inspect, issue violations, and prosecute.

“Due to an overall culture of non-compliance, I have reintroduced significant legislation in the New York State Senate to transfer the penalty of unpaid code enforcement fines to landowners’ tax bills,” Weber said. “The safety of our volunteer firefighters and residents is paramount.”Weber, who has family in law enforcement, said he found the plea agreement disappointing and Walsh needs to explain his reasoning. 

“I find it disturbing that the charges brought by the Rockland County District Attorney’s office against multiple prior defendants did not result in convictions,” Weber said. “The accepted pleas of a second-degree felony and second-degree reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, were presumably offered in light of the previous court decisions. While five and three years of probation are not ideal, these penalties are better than the prior court dismissals.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Lawler, R-Rockland, who emerged as a Rockland power broker in his first term, also took a dim view of the no-jail plea but didn’t echo calls for Walsh to resign.

He said he supported Walsh’s prosecution in the Evergreen Court cases and there should be accountability for those responsible for the deadly fire, regardless of the intent.

“It is my hope that when the court considers sentencing in the weeks to come, they will strongly consider the wishes of the Lloyd and Hueston families and the need to ensure this type of reckless conduct never happens again,” Lawler said. “Jail time must be on the table.”

Signatures on petitions, and write-in long shots

At least 24 letters from fire companies and volunteer firefighter organizations have been sent to Walsh, condemning the plea and pulling no punches in who they blame for it. Walsh, a former judge, won election to a four-year term in 2019.

There are two petitions started by First Responders For Justice. One is for local residents and one for national supporters. As of Friday, the Rockland-based petition had garnered 1,253 names while the national petition had 1,586 supporters.

Kristen Ann Ross, who started the petition drives, said she’s hoping for 100,000 signatures by Sept. 20, when Russo sentences the Sommers. “I know that’s a high number to hope for,” she said. “But Jared’s family and the other gentleman’s family deserve justice.”

Read the complete Journal News coverage here.