2009-06-19 / Front Page

B.129 Shooter Turns Himself In

Victim Remains Critical After Brain Operation
By Howard Schwach

A Breezy Point man remains in critical condition at Jamaica Hospital after being shot by a local resident on Beach 129 Street early on Sunday morning.

Detectives from the NYPD's Crime Scene Unit search for clues on Beach 129 Street a few hours after the shooting. Photo by Howard Schwach
Police say that the Rockaway Beach man wanted for the shooting of Tommy O'Neil, 27, turned himself in at the 100 Precinct at 10 p.m. on Monday night. He is identified in court documents as Robert Cassato, 36, of 102-00 Shore Front Parkway.

Rumors about the shooting swirled all over the west end of the peninsula after O'Neil was found by police at the corner of Newport Avenue and Beach 129 Street at about 3:45 a.m. on June 14.

Those rumors pegged the shooting to a bar dispute earlier in the evening, to a Brooklyn gang initiation and to ethnic tension.

O'Neil's father is a retired NYPD detective, and some told The Wave that the victim was an off-duty police officer, which proved not to be true.

In fact, none of those rumors was true, nor did any of them play a part in the shooting, The Wave has learned by piecing the story together and following O'Neil's winding route that night.

The automobile involved in the shooting was stopped at Beach 116 Street by responding officers. The two people in the car were being detained as material witnesses to the crime.
Covering the story, the paper interviewed police, bar owners, relatives of the victim, Cassato's defense counsel, court officials and people who heard the altercation that led up to the shooting.

O'Neil started out the evening at the new Bungalow Bar on Beach 92 Street and the bay, where he did in fact have an altercation with a friend.

"It was something of a shoving match," one of the bar's owners said. "We asked both to leave and they did, separately and peacefully."

The owner said that he knew both O'Neil and the man with whom he had the argument. He said that O'Neil's shooting had nothing to do with the incident, and police agree.

O'Neil left the Bungalow Bar and moved on to the Lobster House next door for a few drinks before going to Jameson's Pub on Beach 129 Street at about 3 a.m.

There, O'Neil had one drink and met a girl whom he knew and some other friends, according to a bar spokesperson. That spokesperson said that there were only a few people in the bar, and that there were no problems during the time that O'Neil was there.

Some of the friends left, and O'Neil and the girl remained.

According to Ray Marten, O'Neil's brother-in-law, he and the girl decided that it was time to go home, and O'Neil called a friend to come and pick them up.

The friend told O'Neil that he would pick them up on the corner of Beach 129 Street and Newport Avenue, and the two left the bar, walked to the corner and sat on a Mercedes Benz automobile that had a "For Sale" sign in the window.

Marten said, and police reports corroborate, that a black Acura with four people inside pulled up. The driver allegedly asked O'Neil if he would sell them the car.

According to Marten, who has spoken with O'Neil, the driver asked if he could buy the car and how much it would cost.

When O'Neil told them that it was not his car, and that he did not have the keys, an argument broke out.

One local who lives nearby said that he heard the loud argument but that he hears arguments every Saturday night, and paid no attention until he heard two shots.

Marten said that two people, a man and a woman, got out of the backseat of the car and came up to O'Neil and the girl.

The man suddenly pulled out a gun and fired one shot in the air, Marten said. O'Neil stepped in front of the unidentified girl to protect her when the gunman leveled the gun at the Breezy Point man and shot him once in the head.

As the shots were fired, the driver fled away from the scene, only to be caught on Beach 116 Street by responding police. Sources say the driver and the person in the passenger seat are being held as material witnesses.

The shooter and his companion took off, climbing the fence adjacent to a pet shop and running through some backyards on Beach 128 Street.

Marten said that O'Neil was shot in the back of the head and fell forward, breaking his nose and giving him a large bruise over his right eye.

He added that O'Neil had a good day on Sunday, but on Sunday night he took a turn for the worse and an operation was necessary to relieve the swelling in his brain.

After six hours of surgery on Monday night, O'Neil reportedly remains in critical but guarded condition at Jamaica Hospital.

Captain Thomas Barrett, the Commanding Officer of the 100 Precinct, told a community meeting on Tuesday night that his detectives "are still piecing together the motive" for the shooting.

Barrett added that picking up the car and its driver quickly was a break that helped them identify the shooter.

He told the locals that the shooter was in custody and that "there is nobody with a gun out there running around [the community]."

Sources say that there is speculation that the shooter may have been contemplating a carjacking when he asked O'Neil if the car was his and was angered when he found out that the man did not have the keys to the luxury automobile.

Attorney Ronald Rubenstein, who represents Cassato, told The Wave on Wednesday that he believes his client is innocent.

"My client told me that he does not know the person he supposedly shot and that he didn't do anything," said Rubenstein. "He doesn't understand why the police were looking for him, why he is under arrest."

Rubenstein told The Wave, "He told me that he didn't do it, and I have no reason not to believe him." The defense attorney said that he was told that there are videotapes showing the incident, and that he is anxious to view them as soon as the district attorney makes them available.

"I'm glad that, by all accounts, the young man is going to be OK," he added.

A spokesperson for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said that Cassato was arraigned on Wednesday morning on charges of attempted murder, criminal possession of a weapon, assault and reckless endangerment. He faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted of the top charges in the indictment.

"A Saturday night turned into a life and death situation for a young man, when, without warning he was senselessly but deliberately shot in the back of the head," Brown said. "This case is just one more glaring example of mindless gun-related violence that recklessly puts people's lives at risk."

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