Blinded Justice for a Ground Zero Hero

Ritchie Vergona spent months clearing World Trade Center rubble. Too bad growing a little pot earned him one to five years in prison

By Ciro Scotti

When the madmen came and crashed and left New York shaken and sobbing, most legs headed for the hills -- or at least as far from Lower Manhattan as they could trot, cycle, or cadge a ride. But as the cloud of toxic dust and debris and incinerated citizens began to settle, others instinctively turned in the opposite direction. Back to what would come to be called Ground Zero.

Along with the Bravest of the NYFD and the Finest of the NYPD, rushing south were a pack of roughnecks stamped indelibly with union labels. At first it was a trickle and then a beer-gutted, ham-fisted, cursing wave of hard hats. And among their earliest numbers was a big-hearted, slightly offbeat, recovering hippie named Ritchie Vergona.


  Right now, I should tell you that I have a passing acquaintance with Ritchie Vergona. Don't know him well, but enough to exchange a few words if we ever recognize one another on the street and I rush to shake his hand.

Ritchie is a crane operator and by all accounts, one of the best in the New York-New Jersey arc of construction. But when he got to the surreal mountain of destruction that once was the World Trade Center, there were no cranes to lift girders twisted like pipe cleaners and none of the claw machines that would soon be ripping away at the carnage. So he joined the bucket brigades gingerly removing debris and searching for survivors.

When the cranes were brought in, Ritchie was one of the first operators to begin the crucial task of dismantling a nightmare. Stopping only to sleep and eat, he worked virtually nonstop for the next couple of months. He slept on a hospital ship anchored in the Hudson and later, in a hotel that was housing volunteers.


  As his lawyer, Raymond Flood of Hackensack, N.J. recalls: "For the first couple of months, the only time he left [Ground Zero] was to come to my office or go to court. He would come in covered with dust with bags under his eyes."

After the company he worked for, Bay Crane, was formally hired, Ritchie kept working at Ground Zero, sometimes filling in for his brother operators who couldn't hack the stress.

But, of course, that was then.

Nine months later, 49-year-old Ritchie Vergona is sitting in a New Jersey jail doing one-to-five for the vile, blood-thirsty, civilization-threatening crime of growing pot plants in a wooded area near his rural home in Sparta, New Jersey.

No one ever said Ritchie was an angel. Cherubs and seraphim are hard to find on any construction site, where the hours are early, the work is honest, the steel is hard, and the drinking and drugs are harder. But the truth is, Ritchie is a gentle soul -- a guitar player, an animal lover, a guy who likes to fire up a joint after work.


  What Ritchie didn't know was the law. And in the Garden State, as Flood explains, if you are found growing more than 50 marijuana plants, even for your personal use, you're looking at a potential 20 years in the slammer. Last summer was particularly good weather for Mary Jane horticulture, and Ritchie raised 71 weeds.

Thomas J. Reed, the assistant Sussex County (N.J.) prosecutor who handled the case, says Ritchie was caught on videotape watering and pruning his doobie garden. Reed could have knocked the charges down to a piddling offense, but he says he wasn't prepared to give Ritchie any bigger break than he got. A trip to Ground Zero right after September 11 might have changed his mind, but he did let Ritchie plead to a lesser crime.

At Ritchie's sentencing, his boss spoke out on his behalf. And, according to Flood, letters came in from police and fire officials with whom he had worked at Ground Zero. The mayor of Ritchie's hometown, where he had been a star athlete and coach, also wrote to the judge.


  Superior Court Judge N. Peter Conforti declined to comment on the case -- just as he had declined to make any waves in sentencing Ritchie. He stuck to the guidelines and handed out up to five years in prison with the possibility of parole in a year and five days.

Formal and informal ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center massacre two weeks ago signaled the end of the cleanup. Ritchie Vergona, nice guy, father, Ground Zero hero should have been there, and he should have had a good cry with the other hard hats and gone home.

Instead, he sits in a cage in New Jersey, not knowing he's a three-time poster boy: For the inanity of the nation's marijuana laws. For the wrongheadedness of mandatory sentencing. And for the gritty nobility of the American working man.

Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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