Trial Opens in Golf Pro Accused of Taking Inappropriate Photo of Teen

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Steven Lee, center, leaves court on Thursday with his wife, Debbie, and attorneys, Patrick O’Connell and James O’Shea, left and right. Stephen J. Kotz photo

By Stephen J. Kotz

The prosecutor in the trial of Steven Lee, the former manager of the Poxabogue Golf Center who faces a felony charge for admitting to having taken an inappropriate photo of a girl and sharing it with his employees, urged jurors to focus on that act alone in his opening statement before Justice John J. Toomey in Suffolk County criminal court in Riverhead on Thursday.

Mr. Lee’s defense attorneys, in their own opening statement and cross examination of the first five witnesses called in the case, appeared intent on raising the possibility that Mr. Lee’s employees and Southampton Town may have exaggerated the incident and used it to terminate Mr. Lee’s contract with the town.

“This case is about an adult male using a smart phone to do something really stupid,” said assistant District Attorney John Cortes. “He made the decision to put his interest, his selfish interest, above this girl’s interest.”

“This was no accident. This was no mistake. He knew. He didn’t delete it, he kept it,” Mr. Cortes said of the photograph. “The evidence in this particular case is overwhelming.”

Mr. Lee, 47, took the photo on July 25, 2015, of a 16-year-old girl’s crotch with his cellphone from behind the mirrored window of his office while she sat on a bench outside. He faces a felony charge of unlawful surveillance in the second degree.

Some of his employees shortly after being shown the photograph reported it to Southampton Town officials. The matter was turned over to Southampton Town Police in September.

Sgt. William Kiernan, who investigated the matter, said when Mr. Lee was called in to answer questions about the photograph in mid-October he was cooperative and said he waived his rights and gave police permission to search his phone. He said Mr. Lee told officers, “I have nothing to hide” and expressed surprise that he could get in trouble for the photo. In a statement to police, Mr. Lee said, “I took the photo through my office window as a joke,” Sgt. Kiernan testified.

Two of his employees at Poxabogue testified that Mr. Lee showed them the photo soon after taking it. John Haining, an assistant golf pro, said he urged Mr. Lee to delete the photo and added that it appeared he was attaching it to a text message to send to others.

“It was shown to me when the girl was still sitting on that bench,” testified Howard Matheson, another Poxabogue employee. “I walked into the pro shop and it was put in my face.”

Mr. Matheson said he found the photograph disturbing because he is a father and added that Mr. Lee was “being a big shot, a wise guy, a cocky guy. I left he pro shop and shook my head.”

A few days later, he said he called the office of then town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and left a message that he wanted to discuss an incident that took place at the golf center. A few days later, he said the supervisor left a message on his phone, stating, “we are well aware of what is going on. It’s being taken care of.”

In his opening statement, one of Mr. Lee’s attorneys, James O’Shea, told jurors that a number of the witnesses had called town officials, and not police, and he pointed out that shortly after Mr. Lee was arrested, his contract with the town was terminated and that when a new contract was awarded for the following season, Eric Schultzel, one of Mr. Lee’s former employees, bid on it. He asked jurors to “understand what their motive might have been” in reporting the incident.

Mr. O’Shea acknowledged that the photograph Mr. Lee took may have been “vulgar and disrespectful, but not illegal.”

In cross examination, Patrick O’Connell, another attorney representing Mr. Lee, asked Sgt. Kiernan if he had made any effort to question Mr. Lee if he “ever took similar photos of girls from this position” or if he had sought to examine his client’s personal computer, to which Sgt. Kiernan replied he had not.

The defense also tried on several occasions to ask Mr. Haining and Mr. Matheson if they would have suffered financial harm if the matter had been investigated earlier and the course had been closed at the height of the season, as it was for a short period in late October after Mr. Lee’s arrest. But Justice Toomey sustained objections made by Mr. Cortes and ordered the testimony stricken from the record.

The trial will resume at 11 a.m. on Monday at the Arthur M. Cromarty Court Complex in Riverside. Justice Toomey said he expected testimony to be completed by Wednesday and the jury to begin its deliberation by Thursday, March 23.

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