Dispute between Rockville Centre businesses ends in arrest

Donald Casati, owner of E. Vincent Luggage, took down a “Space Available” sign that Carolyn Vella, his landlord, hung on his business. Vella was arrested a few weeks later for allegedly stealing luggage from his store.
Donald Casati, owner of E. Vincent Luggage, took down a “Space Available” sign that Carolyn Vella, his landlord, hung on his business. Vella was arrested a few weeks later for allegedly stealing luggage from his store.
Courtesy Carolyn Vella

The owner of a Rockville Centre business was arrested earlier this month for allegedly stealing from a neighboring store after a months-long dispute about rent and signage.

Carolyn Vella, owner of Pretzel Town USA, at South Long Beach Road and Seitz Avenue, was arrested on Sept. 12 and charged with petit larceny, according to police.

Donald Casati, owner of E. Vincent Luggage, which shares a building with Pretzel Town, said that Vella allegedly walked into his store on Sept. 8, grabbed two suitcases and ran out. She was arrested four days later and was scheduled to appear at First District Court in Hempstead on Tuesday, police said.

“It’s unbelievable to me,” Casati said. “She’s pretty well-liked and respected in the community, but she went berserk.”

A months-long dispute preceded the arrest, according to Casati, whose store has been at that location for 32 years.

Casati signed a lease with CJV Properties, when Vella, the building’s landlord, and her husband, John, purchased the building five years ago from Casati’s estranged family. But CJV raised his rent earlier this year by 60 percent, Casati claimed, and he decided against renewing. He is set to move his business to 435 Old Country Road on the border of Westbury and Carle Place at the end of the year.

Vella said she is raising the rent by roughly 30 percent, which she says is fair market value. “We weren’t looking to kill him or anything,” Vella said. “We wanted him to stay.

“He’s hurting my business … he just wants to up and leave,” she added. “I have no tenant. …It’s just a bunch of games.”

Tensions rose when Vella started hanging “For Rent” signs on the property on July 1. Vella said that, according to the lease, she and her husband are allowed to market and show the space if the tenant does not wish to renew their lease. This includes hanging signage, Vella noted.

“Landlord may start to market the space and may show the space to potential tenants with reasonable notice to the tenant of such showings,” states the lease, which was obtained by the Herald. Casati noted it does not mention that marketing includes hanging signs.

“I just put my own signs next to them to say that I was moving,” he added. But on Aug. 25, Vella hung a “Space Available” sign over the entrance to E. Vincent Luggage, “like we were being evicted,” Casati said.

He took down the sign and returned it to her. The next day, she put it back, so he took it down again. “We’re not giving it back,” he said earlier this month.

The next day, Vella called the Rockville Centre Police, who told both businesses owners that the situation is a civil matter, according to village spokeswoman Julie Scully. “This type of occurrence is not uncommon,” Scully said, “and as long as no crimes were committed, the [Rockville Centre Police Department] keeps the peace and refers them to civil litigation if necessary.”

The lawyers representing Casati and Vella had not returned the Herald’s calls for comment at press time Tuesday.

But the increased rent and dispute about signage was not the only source of disagreement between the Rockville Centre businesses.

Vella told the Herald she intends to take Casati to court, claiming that he owes CJV more than $6,000 for common area maintenance charges. She said he “crossed the line” last March when he accepted more than $15,000 from an insurance settlement for interior water damages due to the negligence of a contractor trying to repair the roof last year yet “quietly sat back” while CJV’s insurance company footed the full bill for the repairs.

According to the lease, however, he said he is not liable for any common area maintenance, which in this case was exterior painting and roof work. The money he collected from his insurance company, he said, was for damages to his inventory when leaking occurred. “Why would I pay her for damages that I incurred?” Casati said.

Set to move on Dec. 31 after three decades at 106 S. Long Beach Road, Casati said he garnered a following of about 14,000 customers from Rockville Centre and surrounding communities like Oceanside and the Five Towns. “I think a lot of people are going to be sad to see us go, and so will we, but they know where to find us,” Casati said. “They’ll just have to travel a little further to get to us.”

Casati gave the “Space Available” sign to Rockville Centre police on Sept. 17 and agreed to allow Vella to post the smaller “For Rent” signs in the windows. Vella had not posted the signs as of press time Tuesday.