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To Provoke and Unnerve
B
y David King

A small-town feud leads to claims that state troopers bearing grudges are abusing their power

 

It is around 4 PM on a sunny Thursday in the tiny hamlet of Freehold, a place you likely wouldn’t notice if you were just driving through. Two young children sit outside the entrance to the Freehold Country Pub, scraping lines of pastel chalk across the sidewalk. A man with a crew cut walks back and forth in front of the bar, watching the children as they play inches from the entrance, giggling, oblivious to the patrons stepping around them.

Although it’s a cute scene to some, for bar owner Wayne Nelsen, it is an ominous sight.

“It’s very coincidental he shows up there today,” says Nelsen nervously, watching from inside the bar. “Out of all my time here I have never seen him . . . in front of the bar with those children out there.”

Nelsen sits with his head in his hands. He doesn’t share the children’s calm; in fact, he looks like he’s worried to death. The kids and the man outside his door are not helping his state of mind. He reluctantly tells me about the harassment that has been set upon him by state troopers who he says want to shut him down. According to Nelsen, the troopers have tailgated him, run six unnecessary ID checks on customers leaving his bar, and filed meritless harassment charges against them. The troopers have pulled Nelsen’s daughter over four times, and they’ve parked in front of the bar, their headlights shining through the front windows, for 45 minutes at a time.

Nelsen claims that there’s a conspiracy designed to drive him out of business. He says that the conspiracy is fueled by a grudge held by one local state trooper—Patrick Cullen (the aforementioned pacing man)—as well as, perhaps, other powerful people in the area. Nelsen claims that Cullen and Cullen’s wife, who live just a few doors down from Nelsen’s bar, regularly videotape his customers. He says Cullen’s wife has entered the bar, screaming about the horrible things that go on inside of it, things that Nelsen says certainly do not go on—things bad enough that if they did go on, he wonders why the woman would let her children play in front of the bar, as they were that afternoon.

Nelsen doesn’t want to be talking about this. It clearly hurts him just to think about it. He says he is losing sleep, that this feud is costing him his health. “I’m 59,” he declares. “I’m not a young guy. I don’t need this.” He keeps logs in marbleized notebooks of the number of times his business is passed by trooper cars each day; he has one page with 30 passes in two nights. He also has four pages of recorded trooper presence covering just one day, the day after a town meeting where he tried to pass a motion requesting reduced trooper presence in the hamlet.

“[Higher-ups in the state police] are calling me now, telling me they are trying to get their police under control because they are leaving their posts to come here and harass me,” says Nelsen. “They have geographic posts they aren’t supposed to leave unless there is a call for them because of an emergency. It is not an emergency to park out front of my place and harass my customers and stop them from coming in with their intimidation factor.”

New York State Trooper Capt. Patrick Regan, however, insists that although he has kept in touch with Nelsen about what is going on, he has been “very careful not to admit anything regarding out-of-control trooper presence. If you’re going anywhere near there or want to go west in the county, you take that county road.” He notes that Freehold and the Freehold Country Store are “a logical meeting place for troopers.” He also says a number of troopers live in the area. However, he adds, “I don’t want to sound too much like I’m dismissing the issue, and I’m not.”

Nelsen doesn’t buy it. “They are simply trying to intimidate me,” he says.

Nelsen isn’t the only one who insists there is something bigger going on. To Nelson’s friend Robert Meringolo, there is no question that the Cullens videotape the bar’s customers. Meringolo has videotaped the surveillance. Other residents, including Greenville Town Supervisor Al Cardemone, and a resident who wishes to remain nameless for fear of reprisal, say the same thing. They say that Nelsen is no Johnny Nobody himself. His name is on a plaque on a rock just across the street; he heads the Freehold Beautification Project, which supporters say, has turned Freehold from a small nondescript mess to a quaint hamlet. He also sits on the Greenville Town Council. Cardemone describes Nelsen as “the most popular politician in the area, and the most selfless, too.” And as dramatic and paranoid as Nelsen’s story might sound, it becomes easier to believe upon watching Cullen strut back and forth in front of the bar, sometimes for hours.

Knowing that a trooper spends time pacing in front of a bar and videotaping its patrons, it might make you wonder if there is something bad going on in the bar, but Capt. Regan himself says that although the bar used to be a problem area before Nelsen became owner, it is no longer. “My long-term issue is to deal with the perception and potential reality of possible harassment,” Regan says, “to rectify what amounts to a dispute between two neighbors, one of whom happens to be a trooper.”

Meringolo claims things are not that simple.

“If you had been there that day and saw this,” says Meringolo, “it was a Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc sort of deal. The day after News Channel 6 covered us, [the troopers] left their posts and flooded the town.” Last month, WRGB-TV reported on a town meeting where Nelsen raised the issue of police harassment and asked for a letter of concern to be sent to the superintendent of state police in Albany. During the meeting, Meringolo says, a number of troopers showed up to support Cullen. He says the next day they showed up in force in the town of Freehold. “They drove in all around town, parked three cars in front of the bar. Trooper Cullen marched back and forth all day long, glaring at customers, trying to scare them away.” Nelsen says police officials have admitted to him that “they were out of control and came that day in retaliation.”

It’s not that Cullen does not have the right to walk down the sidewalk of the street on which his house sits. But, as Nelsen points out and as Regan confirms, Cullen is under Internal Affairs investigation for a number of things, including the harassment of Nelsen and his bar. Cullen faces two other charges that are very likely a cause of the feud between the neighbors.

The first allegation against Cullen was brought by Nelsen himself while he was working on the beautification project. Nelsen explains that the committee he chaired raised around $100,000 for the effort, which included putting in new sidewalks. Nelsen says residents were told the old slate sidewalks were going to be removed for later use in other projects. Then, the morning the sidewalks were supposed to be removed, the slate in front of Cullen’s house disappeared.

As Nelsen tells it, “They come and say all the slate is missing in front of Cullen’s house. When I say missing, I mean dug out of the ground. These are 300-pound pieces of slate. Moving them would not be a one-man operation, and we were missing 10 to 12 pieces. I think this is leading up to my problem with him, because I know something. Somewhere between midnight . . . well, during the wee hours, all the slate disappeared only in front of Pat Cullen’s house. So I ask him if he knows about the disappearance of the slate and the whereabouts. I say it seems unlikely you would miss your slate being pulled up; it would be noisy and take hours to do. And he was definitely [in town]. He insisted he knew nothing about it. So I told him I would like to report the slate stolen.”

Nelsen says that, despite his request, no report was filed. For two and a half years, nothing was done about the slate, but Nelsen says he was “very vocal about it.” According to Nelsen, he later received a package of undeveloped film from an anonymous resident. He handed the film off to Greenville Local reporter Joan Garofalo. Nelsen claims the photos showed what looked like the missing slate on another Cullen-owned property on which he was building a home. Meringolo adds that after the news broke that the slate had apparently been found, the slate was covered up and then later crushed. Garofalo was reportedly pulled over twice by Cullen while she was investigating the issue

In addition to the slate issue, Nelsen called for an investigation into illegal dumping that had been going on in Freehold. Six tons of construction waste was found illegally dumped on land owned by the town. The waste was found and investigated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. They said they knew who the waste belonged to; however, they would not reveal the name. Nelsen demanded a co-investigation into the dumping and the missing slate. Nelsen and Meringolo say they are certain that Cullen was responsible for the dumping.

Nelsen says that police representatives, including Captain Regan and officials from Internal Affairs, have kept in touch with him and tried to keep him from worrying. He says during a recent visit by a representative of Internal Affairs, he asked, “Do you know who did the illegal dumping?” He says the representative’s response was, “Yes, we do, and so do you.” Nelsen also says that in no uncertain terms, he was told by Regan and representatives of Internal Affairs that “the troopers were out of control and leaving their posts.”

“It is not a unique situation,” says Regan. “This is an issue about service I have addressed in many communities. We usually get an idea about it when it is a smaller problem, but the frustration level had built to a point that they sought channels outside of troopers in that area.” He notes that the press coverage has made dealing with the issue more difficult than usual.

Saratoga Springs defense attorney Kurt Mausert agrees that the situation is not unique. “It’s a product of training and policy, and in counties where there is not a strong municipal police force, no strong presence of a sheriff’s department, and state police are on top of the food chain, the arrogance and abuse is even worse. I often refer to them as thinking they are God’s gift to law enforcement.”

Regan says that it is important to understand Cullen’s situation as a state trooper having his name dragged into the public spotlight. He says Cullen has “brought resolution to many cases in the area,” and that besides any bad feelings as a result of the trooper’s involvement in specific cases, there are people who dislike troopers in general. He says having his or her name and address published in the media is not something any trooper would want. “I understand the level of frustration—I wouldn’t use ‘paranoia’—the level of concern about who is conspiring against him,” Regan says of Cullen.

Of course, Nelsen insists that the conspiracy is against him. And that belief is reinforced by the response to press coverage by the police and prominent members of the community. Nelsen claims that the only reason he contacted the outside media was because he was being ignored and dismissed by the district attorney’s office and police contacts, including Regan. Meringolo agrees. “Their reaction initially was to ignore us,” he states, “but the minute media got involved, the attitude changed.”

Nelsen says that the local media have been bullied out of covering his situation or at least covering it fairly. He and Meringolo report that, according to their sources at the Greenville Local, a number of prominent members of the Freehold business community—including Ken Dudley, a county legislator and the owner of Tip Top Furniture, and Ben Buehl, who owns Birch Hill Enterprises—have threatened to or have already removed their advertising from the paper because it had been covering the charges against Cullen. Dudley defends Cullen: He says that the trooper has had his name unfairly dragged through the press and that everyone should wait until the end of the investigation to report on it. However, he says, removing his ads from the Greenville Local “was a business decision.”

Richard Bleezarde, publisher of the Local, declined to comment. Reporter Garofalo has since been pulled off of the story.

Nelsen and Meringolo say that there is no reason to wait for the end of any investigation to go to the press, because the results of Internal Affairs investigations are not usually made public. Regan agrees that this is generally true, but says that he is “going to try to make an exception as specifically as I can in this case.” He says that it is important that the public be made aware of the outcome. Regan estimates that the investigation will come to a conclusion in July, although he notes that if there are more reports and more information gathered, the investigation will continue. However, says Cardemone, “If this was you or me who had done this, they would have been in front of our houses with patrol cars.” Nelsen and Meringolo say they feel there is a double standard for justice, and that they do not have faith in police officers investigating other police officers.

The window of the Freehold Country Store, which sits almost directly across the street from Nelsen’s bar, the store that Nelsen actually used to own and is now owned by Ken Dudley, recently began displaying a yellow ribbon that reads “Support Cullen.”

Meringolo says he suspects that Dudley’s support for Cullen has to do with Dudley’s disdain for Nelsen, not his love for Cullen. Nelsen explains that he was encouraged to run for the Greenville Council on the Republican ticket but was also invited to run as a Democrat. He says he made the decision to run on both party lines and angered many in the Republican Party, including Dudley. Nelsen points out that he won the race in a landslide, taking 1,000 of the 1,200 votes. Meringolo thinks that this was only the beginning of how Nelsen probably angered Dudley and the other influential residents of Freehold. According to Meringolo, Nelsen was brought onto certain council boards in the expectation that he would help approve zoning changes that Nelsen says “would have destroyed the town” and would have “made a few people a lot of money.” Nelsen claims that “one-third of the land that would have been zoned commercial by the zoning changes was owned by Dudley.”

“I didn’t ask for this battle,” says Nelsen, “but I can’t just sit back while they try to destroy me. I mortgaged my house. My life is invested in this place, and there is a conspiracy to put me out of business.” Nelsen is asking for a battle, however, as he has announced that he plans to force a Republican primary between himself and Ken Dudley for a seat on the Green County Legislature.

Nelsen says that the police officials who once were in constant contact with him—“at least once or every other day”—have stopped talking to him. He says it is probably because he has been telling the press what the police officials were telling him. But he doesn’t mind not hearing from them because, as he says, they have not done him much good.

He adds that the general police presence has decreased (except for one large flare-up) since he contacted the media, but that Cullen is still harassing Nelsen’s bar and customers. “They said ‘give us some time, and we will have these guys under control,’ ” he says of the police supervisors. “But they are not under control.” Nelsen notes that Cullen sat staring from across the street while an Internal Affairs investigator visited his bar, and that same week Cullen stood glaring at customers with his leashed dog barking into the bar. He notes that one customer asked to be accompanied home, because “she was afraid what might happen.”

As I exit the bar after an interview with Nelsen, I pass by Cullen, who is still walking his dog back and forth. I get a little twinge of anxiety, and I wonder if spending all that time in the bar hearing these stories of vendettas and revenge have made me paranoid. Then a trooper vehicle passes by and swings into the parking lot.

I walk to my car and glance at Cullen’s house. He is now on the porch with his wife, and she is holding something toward me. I laugh off my concern and begin to pull away. “Just one second!” Meringolo says to me as he crosses the street. “I just thought you should know you were just videotaped by Cullen’s wife.”

I glance over and realize that he is right. Shaken, I pull away. I drive by the Cullen residence and see the video camera. Then I turn around. I park again, walk over to Cullen and his wife, introduce myself as “David King, from Metroland in Albany,” and ask Cullen if he would like to talk about the situation going on between him and Nelsen. “Metroland? What’s that?” he asks. His wife responds, “I know it,” she says. “That’s the alternative weekly in Albany.”

I ask Cullen again if he would like to voice his side of the story. “Not at all,” he responds. I thank him and turn to leave. I hear Cullen’s wife shout after me something about talking after they press charges or after they file something. Again, I start to pull away from the parking lot, and Cullen’s wife is at my car door.

She has decided that there is some dirt about Nelsen’s bar she needs to share with me. “I just thought you should know,” she says, “there is a rumor that they had a transvestite in there the other night, and they kicked him out. That’s not very nice, is it?”

dking@metroland.net


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