The poster child for East Hampton Town's new get tough policy on code violators is sitting in a psychiatric ward, recovering from a suicide attempt.
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In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Sydney Griffin expressed anger and frustration at the way the town handled his predicament and the publicity surrounding it. "It's humiliating," he said.
Griffin, 75, has no money. He can't afford to pay the electric or heat bills in his house in Northwest Woods.
He faces 28 zoning and code ordinance charges after a much publicized raid on his house earlier this year -- but he can't afford a lawyer.
What he does have is a resume. Friends said Griffin was the youngest graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, and the youngest to achieve the rank of captain. He skippered a cargo ship during Operation Desert Storm, earning the praise of crew members. He's worked for the top cruise ship lines in the world. Griffin's last job was running a five-star cruise ship around the Hawaiian Islands.
"Unfortunately, he's been suffering from a severe mental crisis for a long time," said a friend who has known Griffin for decades. She did not want her name used. "He had dementia, but he was so smart – a genius — that people didn't realize it at first."
In his heyday Griffin was one of the most sought-after cargo ship captains in the world. In the 60s he took a cargo ship to China, the first U.S. vessel to enter mainland waters since World War II.
He was hired by the United States Navy to take the helm of The Antares, one of the largest – 947 by 105 feet -- and fastest merchant ships in the world. The ship was part of the Navy's Rapid Deployment Fleet.
Griffin built the house for himself, but spent most of his time at sea. When he retired, he received a large lump-sum payment that was to be his retirement fund and it was by all accounts a considerable amount – Griffin's salary approached six figures and his jobs always included free room, board, uniform allowances, and so on.
About eight years ago Griffin took a boarder into his East Hampton home. "He might have wanted someone to help pay the bills but I think he just wanted a companion," the friend recalled. The boarder ended up stealing Griffin's money. "I went to the police with him, but they made light of it. They wanted no part of it."
Since then it's been a spiraling descent into confusion and poverty. Griffin took more boarders in, and they inevitably took advantage of him. He was busted in 2011 for many of the same types of violations he faces now – most of which, Griffin said, he is innocent of.
According to the town's press release the "single family house was converted into four separate living units with four different groups of people living there."
"I rented to two tenants. Each tenant had relatives living with them," Griffin countered.
"That's not true," that there were four apartments carved out, said the friend, who has been to the house frequently. "It's a three bedroom house. Syd sleeps upstairs. There is also a covered porch along with the two bedrooms downstairs. There are two bathrooms in the house and one kitchen."
Griffin, for his part, acknowledged he had violations in 2011 he promised to correct – according to town records he pleaded guilty to four of 28 charges and agreed to correct certain violations. He didn't, he acknowledged. "Look, I'm an old man. I get confused."
"The house was in severe risk of danger due to a fire," read the press release trumpeting the arrest. Not so, said Griffin. There were several space heaters on at the time of the bust, he said, but that's because he had run out of heating gas a couple of days earlier. It was delivered, ironically, later that day, a fact confirmed by the Town's Chief Building Inspector, Tom Preiato. "His nephew was there bringing him soup, and he paid for the gas."
The larger issue is why the town chose to make a public spectacle at Griffin's expense rather than help him – given his mental condition, he is clearly incapable of answering any of the charges in court.
Diane Patrizio, the head of the town's Human Services department, said, "because of confidentiality I can't comment about it." She said her department did not participate in the raid.
Sources said the town became aware of Griffin's condition while he was a regular at the senior citizen center and that the county assigned a case worker to help Griffin.
Preiato said officers from the town's Code Enforcement department showed up while he was there but that he didn't call them in.
Michael Sendlenski, a town attorney, said the raid came after "a complaint" but he was not sure who made it. Griffin, and his friend and family members, suspect it was a tenant Griffin became disgruntled with. The man refused to vacate the house even though Griffin repeatedly asked him to, sources said.
Sendlenski said he "wasn't sure" who is in the house now. "We don't have access to the inside."
The resulting public embarrassment took its toll on Griffin: he said he slit his wrists and was taken first to Stony Brook and then Eastern Long Island Hospital. Since then, he was been confined to a psychiatric ward there.
"The charges are mostly false," said Griffin. He found it particularly irksome that the town implied he had illegal firearms at his premises.
"I have an old 22 filled with birdshot and a BB rifle." Sendlenski said there were at least two children living in the house and that the guns weren't stored in a secure place. Griffin said the guns were turned over to police, who didn't even know they were there until his nephew volunteered the information.
Betsy Bambrick, the head of the town's Director of Code Enforcement said she did not know Griffin tried to commit suicide. "I really can't comment. There are charges pending," she said.
Griffin hopes to be released shortly. He has no idea who or what he will find in his house. He has no money for food, heat, or electric.
"This is a guy with four stars on his lapel," his friend said. "I found the tone of the press release alleging he is a 'gouging landlord' disgusting and repulsive." She acknowledged the house is in disarray. "He'll have to go back to that squalor. Where is he going to get money? He has zero. He leaves cash around and it disappears. They are treating him like a criminal instead of a man with a mental condition. He needs help."
"It's a housing issue to us," Sendlenski said. "Code enforcement went in with the permission of an occupant."