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Judge sidelines EastCoastin’ organizer

Motorcyle riders at East Coastin' in New Haven.
New Haven Independent
Motorcyle riders at East Coastin' in New Haven.

If Gabe Canestri Jr. “solicits, organizes, holds or participates in” any unpermitted motorcycle events in the city over the next three years, he could go to prison.

That was the outcome of Canestri’s latest and final state court appearance Wednesday for a criminal case stemming from his organizing of the Sept. 25 “EastCoastin’ 2021” motorcycle event in the Annex.

While the EastCoastin organizer’s criminal case is now over, the city plans on launching a new civil action against him in a bid to collect on roughly $82,000 in overtime costs resulting from the event.

Over 5,000 people flooded the city’s industrial waterfront on Sept. 25 for the officially city-“cancelled” annual event that saw Harley Davidson riders travel from throughout the Northeast to rev their engines, do motorcycle stunts and burnouts, and temporarily take over Waterfront Street.

In a third-floor courtroom at 121 Elm St. Wednesday, Canestri pleaded nolo contendere to a substitute charge of reckless endangerment for his role in organizing and promoting the unpermitted event. (City police initially arrested him on charges of breach of peace and inciting a riot. Thanks to a plea deal struck with state prosecutors, Canestri’s earlier charges were dropped and the motorcyclist was hit instead with one misdemeanor count of reckless endangerment.)

State Superior Court Judge Philip Scarpelino found Canestri guilty of that reckless endangerment charge based on the facts presented by Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney David Strollo and city Corporation Counsel Patricia King.

The judge’s sentence, per the terms of the plea deal struck by state prosecutors and Canestri’s lawyer Richard Tropiano Jr., was a suspended one-year prison sentence and a three-year conditional discharge.

Implicit in that conditional discharge is that Canestri have “no new arrests,” Scarpellino told him in open court.

The more case-specific conditions are that Canestri not “solicit, organize, hold or participate in any motorcycle event” in the city over the next three years “unless it is properly permitted.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, Strollo made the state’s case for why Canestri should be found guilty of reckless endangerment.

Thousands of people descended on the city on Sept. 25 because EastCoastin was “widely publicized on social media,” Strollo said.

“This defendant, despite police in the city telling him not to host the event, still hosted the event.”

The motorcyclists who participated did wheelies, spun their tires, and endangered people nearby, Strollo continued. “The way these motorcycles were being operated created a great risk of injury to other people.”

Speaking on behalf of the city—which was technically the “victim” in this criminal case—King said that the city incurred roughly $82,000 in costs related to EastCoastin. In previous interviews, Acting Police Chief Renee Dominguez and Mayor Justin Elicker have said those costs stemmed from overtime incurred by the roughly 150 city police officers and other public works staffers who worked the event.

King said that the city intends to pursue restitution of that $82,000 “through the civil process,” and therefore not through the criminal proceeding that concluded Wednesday.

She also asked the judge to include as a condition of Canestri’s discharge that he be prohibited from organizing or participating in an unpermitted motorcycle event in the city as both an individual and through a “third party.” Scarpellino included that “third party” language in his final conditions of discharge.

Scarpellino explained in court that nolo contendere means no contest. Canestri’s nolo plea means that he is not pleading guilty to the charge—but nevertheless accepts the judge’s finding of guilty and subsequent sentence. His nolo plea cannot be used as “proof positive” that he admits to any future civil charges or damages stemming from this same event, Scarpellino said.

“Would you like to say anything [to the court], Mr. Canestri?” the judge asked.

“No,” Canestri replied.

Mayor: Separate Civil Case Coming

Mayor Elicker welcomed Scarpellino’s decision Wednesday in a statement provided to the Independent.

“Judge Scarpellino made it clear that Mr. Canestri will be held accountable for his illegal activities that had a negative impact on the city,” he said.

“While the judge didn’t include restitution as part of the criminal case, we do intend to pursue restitution through civil court. Our police department continues to investigate other individuals involved in this event and will bring additional charges when appropriate.”

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