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Turns Out My Persecutor, Harry O'Brien, Was A Democrat

Harry O'Brien

A scholar is writing a book about Long Island culture in the 1960s and he called me a few times for long chats. He followed one of the chats up with a request for two photos, one of Richard Meltzer and one of Harry O'Brien. You may know Richard already, an iconic author, whose first book, The Aesthetics of Rock, laid the groundwork for serious rock music criticism. Meltzer was Lester Bangs before Bangs, a Meltzer devotee, had ever published a word about music. In his introduction to the second printing of Aesthetics of Rock, Greil Marcus wrote that the book is "the best and most obsessive book about the Beatles ever written," and that it illuminates "the collapse of art into everyday life, and vice versa." This is a photo I found of (left to right) Gregg Turner (of the Angry Samoans and Vom), yours truly, Sandy Pearlman (RIP) and Meltzer. But it's O'Brien who I want to talk about tonight. That's his photo at the top of the page. He died a couple of weeks ago, age 85, it turns out. It's an old, storied photo of him I snapped in the Stony Brook gym. He was a Suffolk County assistant district attorney at the time and he was saying "Fuck you!" to me when I took his picture.

I was the biggest pot and hash dealer in Suffolk County-- it's how I put myself through school-- and he was doing everything he could do to arrest me. It's hilarious how lame the police were. I mean, some guy with big cop shoes and a mop-like, long-hair wig he bought for $15 from a Holloween costume shop walks up to me and asks if he can buy a nickel bag. That's enough for a couple of joints. I sold pounds and kilos, not nickel bags. I'm sitting in the cafeteria and one wall is a giant window overlooking the student parking lot and a cop car pulls up to where I'm parked and two cops get out and smash by brake light with a hammer. Then when they pulled me over the next night on my way back from New York with a kilo of hash in a plain brown grocery bag on my front seat, they tear the car apart, even roving my wheels but forgot the look in the bag sitting in plain view. And so on for a couple years.

Anyway, this researcher wanted the picture of O'Brien for his book. I couldn't find the one I snapped of him cursing me. (I was in the gym and he walked over to me and I told him what a clown he was and that's when he cursed and I took the photo. This was like 1967 or '8 and there were no cell phones.) So I looked on Google Images to see if I had ever posted the photo before. I hadn't but that's how I found out two things I didn't know:

  • he had just died of COVID

  • he was a Democrat

Not just a Democrat, the first Democrat to be elected D.A. in Suffolk County which was, all those decades ago, politically exactly like it is now: red but occasionally swingy. The County government and political establishment was very conservative and pretty Republican. The congressman was conservative Democrat Otis Pike. I always assumed O'Brien was a Republican-- I was sure of it-- because he hated me so much. (He eventually dragged me in front of a grand jury and I-- stoned out of my gourd-- made a complete fool of him because he gave me immunity to testify and I was able to say everything I had ever done and never be prosecuted for it.)

I looked harder and finally found the picture.

So... in the Howie Klein saga that I'm trying to organize for a book, O'Brien is a somewhat important character for a short time. Of course I was interested in learning this new information, for me, about him. The story in my head always concluded with two factoids: he turned out many years later to be friends with someone hateful and Republican at CBS Records who had power over me and was never an ally while my company was being distributed by CBS. AND... O'Brien was arrested for having sex with an underage boy. It works into the narrative so well, right?

But... maybe it isn't true. In 1975 I was living in Amsterdam and not reading the NY Times so I missed this story: Lies Laid To Key Witness On Suffolk D.A.

A key witness in the sodomy case against, Henry F. O'Brien, the Suffolk County District Attorney, has sworn to investigators that Roger Barry. Petersen, the 21‐year‐old unemployed handyman who made the accusation against the prosecutor, lied and that Mr. Petersen even passed a lie detector test and then boasted about it.
The witness, 20‐year‐old John Theroux, who is a co‐defendant in a burglary charge with Mr. Petersen, quoted him as saying, “It was easy to lie about Harry O'Brien being gay-- the machine believed me.”
Mr. Theroux has recanted his earlier testimony about Mr. O'Brien's alleged homosexuality and told investigators from the District Attorney's office that the sodomy charges had no substance to them.
Mr. Theroux also has told the investigators in a sworn statement that the Suffolk police “pressured” both him and Mr. Petersen into providing false evidence against the prosecutor, a 40‐year‐old bachelor.
Both youths have records of drug arrests and are currently facing burglary charges, and Mr. Theroux, who is serving a jail term for possession of stolen goods, has told investigators that the police had offered them “bargains” in exchange for evidence against Mr. O'Brien.
Mr. O'Brien, the first Democrat to be elected District Attorney in this traditionally Republican county, has denied any sexual involvement with Mr. Petersen, a former client of his, and he has also denied being a homosexual.
The sodomy charges, in which he was accused of performing oral sex on Mr. Petersen without Mr. Petersen's consent, were personally filed in District Court here by Eugene R. Kelley, the Suffolk Police Commissioner. The Commissioner, a Republican appointee of the G.O.P.dominated County Legislature and Mr. O'Brien are political rivals.
Commissioner Kelley filed these charges a few weeks after Mr. O'Brien announced that his staff was investigating Mr. Kelley and other members of the Police Department for “corruption, misconduct in office and other, more serious crime.”
Today, Mr. Kelley refused to comment on the statement provided to the prosecutor's investigators by Mr. Theroux. However, other police officials said that there were no plans to drop the sodomy charges against Mr. O'Brien.

You can read the whole article, but it's not easy to determine who was lying when, just that they're all liars. The following year, though, the Times reported that "A state grand jury today refused to take action on charges of sodomy and sexual misconduct that had been filed against District Attorney Henry F. O'Brien of Suffolk County by Eugene R. Kelley, the county's Police Commissioner." The special state prosecutor on the case said O'Brien had been "exonerated," though O'Brien refused to testify before the Grand Jury unless he was granted immunity. He lost his reelection bid anyway. He never married, had no family and was cremated in late June.

That's a lot of new information that I have to grapple with there, both the part about O'Brien being a victim of Republicans and of him not forcing underage boys into sex. I'll have meditate about this and re-jigger the narrative a little. These photos were on me in 1965, the year I started at Stony Brook and 1969, the year I graduated. In between, is when I had my Harry O'Brien problem.

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