Second Chance School Principal Exonerated

School Principal Exonerated
By Robin Topping NEWSDAY STAFF WRITER

He had been Westbury High School's principal for 18 years, enjoying a reputation as a hands-on administrator who had an easy relationship with students. But eight months before he was to retire capping a stellar 34-year career Pless Dickerson's world fell apart when he was arrested on of charges possession of crack cocaine and faced 21/3 to 7 years in prison.

Instead, he was offered the chance to get into Nassau's Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison Program, in which non­violent drug offenders enter a re­habilitation program instead of jail. If they complete the pro­gram, charges are dropped. Yesterday, in Nassau County Court in Mineola, Judge Frank Gulotta dismissed all charges against Dickerson in an emotion­al proceeding that ended with spontaneous applause in the courtroom. "Everybody speaks very high­ly of you. You are entering a new phase now and I'm sure, you will do as well as you did before," Gulotta told Dicker­son, who withdrew his guilty plea. “Charges are dismissed, and congratulations!'"

Dickerson completed 81/2 months of inpatient drug treat­ment at Phoenix House in Hauppauge, followed by outpa­tient care. He had been "so diligent and so motivated," that the agency offered him a job as a vocation­al education counselor; which he has accepted, said Ann Marie LaPlaca, head of the Long Island Treatment Against Street Crime unit. "This indi­vidual has been an inspiration to the program," she said. Prosecutor Jill Fisher supported the dismissal of the charges because Dickerson had "fulfilled all of the terms and obligations" of the program.

Dickerson's attorney, William Petrillo of Rockville Centre, said Dickerson had endured a "personal hardship later in life" and had "ad­dressed the issue head-on." Afterward, the onetime principal reflected on the events of the past two years, saying the arrest had been "something that created a chain of events in my life which taught me to realize that I needed to do some self-help”.

"I was not dealing with certain things and it was time. It was a second opportunity, a second chance and I am very grateful for it," he said. Orin Naughton, 47, whose daughter is a junior at Westbury High School, said he approved of Dickerson's treatment "because jail is not the way to deal with a person who has a drug problem, People do deserve second chances," Naughton said.

In his new job, Dickerson, 56, of Westbury, will help Phoenix House residents with job training and with education. Dickerson's teaching license was not affected by the charges because they were dismissed. Dickerson was nearing retirement after working as a teacher, guidance counselor and finally principal at Westbury High School for 18 years, he said he misses education. "I've been teaching since I was 21 and I still have a love for the kids."

L.I. School Principal charged with possession of crack cocaine By Greg Retsinas NEW YORK TIMES STAFF WRITER

Westbury, N.Y., April 17 -- The principal of a Long Island high school was arrested Wednesday night after police officers found half a gram of crack cocaine inside his car, the authorites said today.

The principal, Pless M. Dickerson, has been principal of Westbury High School for 18 years and before that was a popular social studies teacher here, and his arrest shocked many in this central Nassau County community. He was taken into custody just a few hours after the Westbury Schools had closed for an extended spring break.

According to the Nassau County police, Mr. Dickerson, 54, was arrested at 10:05 pm by officers who had stopped his car on Rockland Street, near his home here, after police received a tip from an informer.

Detective Lt. John Wolff said a plastic bag containing the crack was found on the front passenger seat of the BMW sport utility vehicle that Mr. Dickerson was driving. The police said the drugs had a street value of about $300.

Mr. Dickerson pleaded not guilty this morning during his arraignment in First District Court in Hempstead, and was released on his own recognizance. He is charged with fifth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. His next court appearance is scheduled for April 28.

The Westbury schools superintendant, Constance R. Clark, said in a statement that she would recommend that the Board of Education name the school's assistant principal, Manuel Arias, acting principal. "As always, our highest priority is the safety and welfare of our students," the statemet said. "The district is investigating the matter thouroughly and will continue to take all actions it deems appropriate."

The statement did not say whether Mr. Dickerson would be suspended or placed on leave, and Dr. Clark did not return calls seeking comment. There was no immediate reponse to a message left with the school board president, Floyd Ewing.

The schools were closed today in ovservance of the Passover and Easter holidays, and with spring break next week, they will not reopen until April 28.

Mr. Dickerson's lawyer, William Petrillo said late today that his client had not been contacted by school district officials. "He is loved by his teachers and his students, and we have already received dozens of calls from supporters," Mr. Petrillo said. "We plan to mount a vigorous defense to these allegations."

Mr. Dickerson has a reputation as a creative administrator and an advocate for students, especially the Haitian and Hispanic immigrants who make up much of the student body. Several people said the relative lack of turmoil in a school with so many different ethnic groups was a credit to Mr. Dickerson's steady hand.

Residents reacted with varying degrees of surprise today as news spread through this working-class, largely immigrant community. The Rev. Lionel Harvey of the First Baptist Church speculated that Mr. Dickerson confiscated cocaine from a student.

"We have to wait to hear his side of the story," Mr. Harvey said. "It's unfortunate because immediately we rush to judgement. The nature of his business dictates that he could have confiscated it."

Standing a few doors away from Mr. Dickerson's single story ranch house here, two brothers -- one a Westbury High student and one about to become one in the fall -- said the arrest did not fit with their image of the principal.

"He's always very friendly, interactive with the kids," said Garry Cameron, 18, a senior. "You see him and feel like you can talk to him." Garry's brother Ronnie, 13, added, "I was hoping he'd be my principal."

Mr. Dickerson is on the board of Westbury Rising, a nonprofit educational foundation formed by business, community and educational leaders to aid Westbury students. The group raises money from private sources to supplement school district funds.

Mr. Dickerson, whol holds bachelor's and master's degrees in education from the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and received a distinguished alumni award from that shcool a year ago, has been a leader in the Corner school reform project, a joint effort of the Westbury schools, C.W. Post and Yale.

Corner school reform, named for a Yale professor and used in many school districts, strives to increase the involvement of parents and the community in shcools and create links between schools and community institutions.

The Westbury district has made some academic gains in recent years but continues to struggle. Fewer than half its students received a Regents diploma last year, according to the most recent state report, but the percentage has been steadily rising for three years. More than 20 percent of Westbury High's 963 students are studying English as a second language, and nearly half are eligible for the free lunch program.

"His reputation has been tarnished," Mr. Harvey said of the principal. "It hurts in a community that's trying to do so much."

Our Team Leaders Among the Criminal Defense Bar

Achievements

Honors & Awards
  • President New York Criminal Bar Association 2015-Present.
  • Listed in 2016 Super Lawyers, New York Metro.
  • Listed in 2015 Super Lawyers, New York Metro.
  • Listed in 2014 National Trial Lawyers Top 100 Trial Layers.
  • Rated by Avvo 10.0 Superb.
  • Avvo Clients’ Choice 2014-Present, Criminal Defense.
  • Appointed on Homicide Panel, Appellate Division, First Department, in March 2012-Present.
  • Appointed on Criminal Justice Act Panel, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York 2016.
  • Awarded Citation of Honor in September 2011 by New York State Assemblyman Francisco P. Moya for exemplary service through the practice of criminal defense.
  • Recognized in April 2011 by the Board of Directors of New York’s Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.
  • Received Proclamation of Honor in 2010 by New York State Senator Jose Peralta for accomplishments in the profession of criminal defense and extraordinary contributions to the community.
  • Recognized in VerdictSearch’s Top New York Verdicts of 2010 for $1.9 million verdict following a jury trial in Queens Supreme Court.
  • Received Recognition of Honor in 2009 by New York’s Comite Fiestas Patrias Mexican-American organization for humanitarian actions and invaluable service in the field of criminal defense.
  • Awarded Citation of Honor in 2009, by President of the Borough of Queens, Hon. Helen M. Marshall, for outstanding leadership and work in the area of criminal defense.

 

COURTS OF ADMISSIONS
  • Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, Second Department
  • United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
  • United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
  • United States Supreme Court
  • United States District Court for the Northern District of New York
  • United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania
  • United States District Court for the District of Colorado



Testimonials

"As District Attorney of Nassau County for 31 years and a former federal prosecutor, I have encountered some of the best criminal defense attorney’s in New York State. The hallmark of a truly phenomenal criminal lawyer is the ability to be both a great trial lawyer and a strong negotiator, while maintaining credibility at all times. William Petrillo possesses these skills. He has earned a stellar reputation within the legal community as an outstanding, gifted trial attorney. Always a gentleman, honest and ethical, Mr. Petrillo is a fierce, persuasive litigator and a tough, fair negotiator. I would unequivocally recommend him to anyone in need of a criminal lawyer."

Honorable Denis Dillon - Former District Attorney, Nassau County and Former Federal Prosecutor

"If I or a loved one ever need the services of a criminal defense attorney, Bill Petrillo is the one I would count on for representation. No higher praise can be given to a fellow lawyer. Mr. Petrillo not only possesses excellent trial skills, but is also skillful at negotiating favorable dispositions for his clients. He treats everyone he encounters with respect and has earned the respect of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement personnel. He is passionately devoted to his clients and constantly thinking of ways to benefit them. Finally, he is scrupulously honest and ethical while fighting tirelessly for the people he represents."

Fred B. Klein - Retired, Chief of Homicide, Nassau County District Attorney’s Office - Retired Attorney General

"Both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney, Bill Petrillo tried many cases in front of me in Nassau County Court. He won just about every one of those trials. When an attorney constantly wins trials it means that jurors respect him. When jurors respect an attorney they will listen to him, will follow his line of reasoning and give serious consideration to his various arguments. To get jurors to that point the attorney must project honesty, must balance fairness with understanding for all involved, have an absolute knowledge of the facts of the case and the applicable law, and he must be able to create an atmosphere of mutual respect with the judge. Bill Petrillo possesses all of these qualities."

Honorable Donald DeRiggi - Retired, Nassau County Court Judge

"As a prosecuting attorney for almost 30 years, I have observed many trial lawyers. Of the few that I judged to be excellent, only one was uniquely skilled in all of the qualities that contribute to tremendous success in the courtroom. His name is Bill Petrillo. A brilliant strategist who leaves no stone unturned, Bill has a rare natural gift for trying cases. He is a passionate lawyer and has won cases that were considered unwinnable."

James Watson - Retired Deputy Bureau Chief, Nassau County District Attorney's Office and Former Federal Prosecutor

"Bill Petrillo is a giant in the criminal defense community. Time and again I have observed him fearlessly battle the government, negotiate extraordinary plea deals, obtain the dismissal of indictments or acquittals after trial. He regards his clients as family and tries to protect them accordingly."

Kevin T. Kearon, Esq. - Past President, Criminal Courts Bar Association of Nassau County

"As a judge, I presided over felony cases for ten years. Bill Petrillo appeared before me on many occasions. He is as tenacious and talented an attorney as I ever encountered. Bill is an extraordinary advocate and I would strongly recommend him."

Honorable Victor M. Ort - Retired Nassau County Judge

"Bill Petrillo is a relentless super-talent with incredible drive, focus and work ethic. He has a razor sharp mind and is lightning quick on his feet. Bill is as powerful, energetic and persuasive in the courtroom as any lawyer I have ever seen."

Michael S. Lamonsoff, Esq. - Board of Directors New York State Trial Lawyers Association and Member of New York State Ethics Committee

"Mr. Petrillo is one of the most talented, hard working, compassionate, ethical and moral individuals I have ever known."

J.H.

" Mr. Petrillo is a miracle worker. When faced with a situation that others told me was all but impossible to be resolved in a tolerable manner, Mr. Petrillo did the impossible. Throughout the whole process he was knowledgeable, honest, available, and incredibly professional. Having first gone to other highly recommended lawyers I was able to get a sense of different types of attorneys. Not only was the outcome something that the other attorneys couldn't dream of, but Mr. Petrillo's personality and general demeanor was miles beyond the others. In an incredibly trying time he was calming. But while he was pleasant to deal with personally, he also is incredibly fierce in the courtroom. You get the sense that what he does is not just his job, but his passion. There is nobody I would trust more."

Z.K.

"I was under state and federal investigation for multiple potential charges in a year long investigation. The first lawyer I consulted with suggested we go to the US Attorneys office, cooperate and agree to a quick plea, despite my telling him I had done nothing wrong. Shortly after that consultation I was given Mr. Petrillo's name from a friend who knew a criminal court Judge. It became obvious to me during my first meeting with Bill that his level of knowledge and expertise was far superior than my original lawyer. He had a completely different analysis of my case and the best course of action to take. Ten months later, without me ever speaking to law enforcement, eleven people were arrested. I was never prosecuted and will be forever grateful to William Petrillo."

M.O.

"Not only are you a phenomenal and brilliant lawyer, you are an amazing human being and we are grateful to know you on any level. Thank you for everything."

Z.K.

" Mr. Petrillo is a miracle worker. When faced with a situation that others told me was all but impossible to be resolved in a tolerable manner, Mr. Petrillo did the impossible. Throughout the whole process he was knowledgeable, honest, available, and incredibly professional. Having first gone to other highly recommended lawyers I was able to get a sense of different types of attorneys. Not only was the outcome something that the other attorneys couldn't dream of, but Mr. Petrillo's personality and general demeanor was miles beyond the others. In an incredibly trying time he was calming. But while he was pleasant to deal with personally, he also is incredibly fierce in the courtroom. You get the sense that what he does is not just his job, but his passion. There is nobody I would trust more."

S.E.

"Bill and his staff treated me with kindness and respect and the utmost professionalism which is very important when you are facing the uneasiness of criminal prosecution. Besides having a very impressive track record in the courtroom, it was apparent to me and my family that Bill is highly respected and well-liked by judges, lawyers and prosecuting attorneys. He was able to negotiate a great outcome in my case. If I opted to go to trial, there is not a shred of doubt in my mind that Bill was the man I wanted by my side. For a man who makes no promises, he sure delivers."

R.M.

"I consider myself extremely fortunate to have worked with William Petrillo when I was facing multiple felony charges. From our first meeting I felt Bill's passion for under taking whatever was necessary to insure that I receive proper representation. He is endowed with an extraordinary talent for understanding the client's fears and concerns while offering honest and straight forward information and advice. Mr. Petrillo is one of the hardest working people I ever met. He kept me fully informed as to the process and progress of my case. Finally, as opposed to many other attorneys who are not court experienced; Mr. Petrillo shined in court. His presentation of the details of my case held the courtroom captive. Not only did everyone come to understand the complications of the situation, but, more importantly, the resolution of the case reflected the hard work, diligence and devotion to his client. It is my great pleasure to recommend Mr. William S. Petrillo."

A.M.

"About a year and a half ago I ran into some legal trouble and needed legal representation. My wife's cousin is a corporate lawyer and she referred us to William Petrillo. Having never been on the wrong side of the law, I didn't know what to expect. I also didn't know if this would affect my employment status. I had a laundry list of concerns and questions. After my first consultation with Bill, he immediately struck me as personable, professional, confident and honest. He told me what all of my options were and also gave me his personal opinion. My best interest was always his primary concern. He always reiterated that no matter what legal avenue I chose to go down, he was in my corner 100%. I felt extremely confident that I had the chosen the right guy. And I definitely did. From the first court appearance right up to my last, Bill and his associate, Karen Bobley, always put their best foot forward. They never wanted to settle for anything less than what I had hoped for. At the end of my court proceedings, I did get the outcome I was looking for, and my friends and co-workers could not believe that it was possible, under the circumstances. I owe it all to Bill and his team. Whenever I needed legal documentation, for work or other purposes, Jennifer, Bill's office manager, was always on top of things. Jennifer would call me the day before any court appearances, as a reminder, and also give me the heads up on what would happen at that appearance. Whenever I had questions, Jennifer usually had an answer and if she didn't, Bill would, personally, return my call by the end of the day. Words do not truly describe the high level of service I received. Bill and company made a very stressful situation very manageable and I am forever grateful. Not only is Bill a great lawyer, but he's a wonderful person. And that's what separates him from the rest. So,if you ever find yourself in a legal bind, don't take chances or try to cut corners. Protect yourself and go with one of the best, William Petrillo."

O.W.