A Nesconset man threatened to kill supporters of Pres. Donald Trump and Rep. Lee Zeldin, according to police —but his attorney says he was simply exercising his First Amendment rights.
“My client just expressed his dissatisfaction with the administration. That’s what the First Amendment is all about,” attorney Guy Oksenhendler said Saturday.
Suffolk County police say Martin Astrof, 75, confronted a worker Friday at the Nesconset campaign headquarters of Zeldin, a Republican. After threatening to kill the campaign worker and other supporters, the police said, Astrof backed his car up in “an aggressive manner” and nearly struck the worker before speeding off.
The campaign volunteer, Donato Panico, 49, of Smithtown, said the clash began after he rolled down his car window to offer assistance to Astrof, who was cursing and pounding on the campaign office door.
Astrof, he said, grew more incensed upon seeing the “Make America Great Again” hat on his passenger seat.
“He was enraged, a thousand times, I’ve never seen anybody so crazy,” said Panico, a former Smithtown deli owner who formed a non-profit to serve sandwiches to police and firefighters.
“Oh my God, this guy’s got a knife or a gun,” Panico said he thought. “All I could think was ‘I’ve got to get out of this car, this guy’s going to kill me.”
Panico said he escaped through the passenger door and then tried to keep the car between him and Astrof, whose threats partly focused on what advocates have called “cages” used to detain migrant children after they cross into the United States from Mexico.
“He’s going to put us all in cages, like the kids down there, he’s going to shoot us up,” Panico quoted him as saying. Some of what Astrof said was inaudible, Panico said.
Panico said he called 911 while also trying to take a picture of Astrof, and of his car’s license plate.
Panico, the father of five-year-old twins, attended Trump’s State of the Union speech in January at Zeldin’s invitation. He said his wife and a staffer had just left the office a few minutes before Astrof arrived.
Astrof was charged with making a terroristic threat and reckless endangerment. He has been released on a $25,000 bond.
Oksenhendler said Saturday that his client, who is a real estate consultant, “vehemently denies” the allegations against him and said Astrof was angry over Trump’s immigration policies.
“My client, like many of us, are outraged over this administration’s immigration policies and specifically the policy of separating children from his parents,” Oksenhendler said. “There’s a large segment of our society who have had families who suffered similar fates many, many years ago in Europe, and so people have strong opinions about this, and people also are outraged about the decline of our democratic institutions under this administration.”
Astrof is a registered Democrat, according to voter records.
“This man is loved by his family, he is adored by friends, and he is admired by his friends and colleagues,” Oksenhelder said. “My client is a husband, a father and a grandfather who has worked hard his whole life to take care of his family, and it is tearing him apart to see families broken up without any due process.”
His client is looking forward to “working with the District Attorney’s Office to resolve this case in court,” Oksenhelder said.
In a tweet Friday, Zeldin (R-Shirley) said, “In the US, political scores are settled at the ballot box, not by trying to kill your political opponents. Donato Panico is a great American, supporter of @realDonaldTrump & one of my campaign vols. He shouldn’t have been targeted like this today for his passion & involvement.”
Said Panico, “You don’t do this to other people. You just don’t treat people like that, you treat people like you want to be treated. I respect your opinion, you don’t have the right to do this to anybody else.”