Trial of Poxabogue Pro Goes to Jury

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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

Testimony concluded Tuesday in the trial of Steven Lee, the former manager of the Poxabogue Golf Center, who faces a felony charge in Suffolk County criminal court for admitting to having taken an inappropriate photo of a 16-year-old girl in July 2015 and sharing it with several employees.

Prosecutor John Cortes and one of Mr. Lee’s defense attorneys, Patrick O’Connell, made closing statements Tuesday afternoon, and Justice John J. Toomey planned to give his instructions to the jury so it could begin its deliberations Wednesday morning, with a verdict expected as early as Wednesday afternoon.

Mr. Lee was arrested on October 21, 2015, about three months after he took the photo, and charged with a single count of unlawful surveillance. His contract with the town was terminated immediately after his arrest. If convicted, he could face probation or up to four years in prison.

As he did at the opening of the trial on Thursday, March 16, Mr. Cortes asked the jury to focus on the act itself. He said that on July 25, 2015, as Mr. Lee sat in his office at the public golf course, he took a photograph of the crotch area of a young girl as she sat unaware on a bench outside a few feet away, waiting for her parents to finish golfing. Mr. Lee was obscured behind his window, which was covered with a reflective film.

In the age of social media, “do you lose all your privacy? Is everything fair game?” Mr. Cortes asked. “Is nothing sacred? Is she to maintain no privacy whatsoever?”

Mr. Lee’s attorneys had argued throughout the three-day trial that Mr. Lee’s employees, who reported the incident to town officials and later police, may have been trying to get him ousted as course manager, so they could bid on the contract themselves, but Mr. Cortes said that did not matter.

“What if his motive was to make money?” Mr. Cortes said of Eric Schultzel, one of the course pros who later bid unsuccessfully for the contract. Looking at Mr. Lee seated at the defense table, he continued, “Even if true, he’s the one who made the choice. He made the intentional decision to take that photo.”

He also sought to rebuke the defense’s assertions that because the incident took place in a crowded, public place, it did not constitute an invasion of privacy. “It doesn’t matter if there is one person there or 1,000, he doesn’t get that right,” he said.

Mr. Cortes said Mr. Lee bragged about taking the photo. “He was seemingly proud of his accomplishment,” he said. “And what did he accomplish? The crime of unlawful surveillance.”

Mr. O’Connell offered the closing argument in Mr. Lee’s defense. He began by saying the prosecution had exaggerated the salaciousness of the photo by saying Mr. Lee had zoomed in on her crotch. The original photograph cut off the girl’s head and extended down to her feet. He argued to be guilty of unlawful surveillance, Mr. Lee would have had to photograph under her clothing and do so in a private place, not a public golf course where there were signs indicating the premises were under surveillance.

“The photo, we can all agree, is in poor taste,” he said. “It was done as a sophomoric piece of humor. It was a lapse of judgment, dumb, stupid, reprehensible, but does it constitute a felony crime?”

Mr. O’Connell repeated portions of Mr. Lee’s statement to police. “I took a picture, kidding around,” he read. “She was not naked or anything. I thought it was more of a joke than anything.”

He said Mr. Lee “made no effort to conceal his conduct or escape detection.” In fact, when questioned by police three months later, he said Mr. Lee willingly showed his cellphone to police and told them he had taken the photograph as a joke. While acknowledging that the young woman had the right to dress the way she pleased, he asked if she did not “have the responsibility” to be aware that her clothing was revealing.

Mr. O’Connell questioned why Mr. Schultzel and two other employees who were shown the photograph, John Haining and Howard Matheson, did not go immediately to police if they thought it was as disturbing as they said it was in their testimony. Instead, he said Mr. Schultzel reached out to Russell Kratoville, the town’s management services administrator, who agreed to meet with him several weeks after the incident.

At Mr. Kratoville’s suggestion, Mr. O’Connell said Mr. Schultzel wrote a statement about the statement. The lawyer said describing what happened should have been fairly simple. “You don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winning writer,” he said. After Mr. Schultzel wrote a draft statement, “he sends it to his friend who is a freelance writer, Harry Hurt,” Mr. O’Connell said. Mr. Hurt, he added, wrote two additional drafts before the statement was submitted to Mr. Kratoville and then town police.

He suggested that Mr. Schultzel did not go to police sooner not because he was worried about the welfare of the victim but because the incident took place at the busiest time of the year and he was afraid the course would be shut down and he would lose his job.

“What’s more important, a young woman’s privacy, her safety, the safety of other junior golfers, or is it about making money?” he asked.

He suggested that Mr. Schultzel, Mr. Haining, and Mr. Matheson brought their complaint because they knew it would get Mr. Lee fired “so they could put in [a bid] and take over the lucrative business.”

The defense team made a considerable effort during the trial to trip up witnesses who had originally described the reflective film covering Mr. Lee’s office window as a mirror, or two-way mirror. Mr. O’Connell pointed out that the town had the coating removed from the window and discarded shortly after Mr. Lee’s arrest and he questioned if Southampton Town Police and town officials were “in lockstep” and said police should have done a better job preserving that evidence, and called into question of the quality of the investigation.

Mr. Lee made a mistake, he conceded. “What he did was stupid, classless, but not criminal,” he concluded.

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