Tragedy sparks memory of 1990 Valley Stream shooting


The early-morning massacre at the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20 at the AMC theater in Aurora, Colo., has left moviegoers around the nation shocked and troubled.

It reminded some Nassau County residents of an incident that occurred 22 years ago at the Sunrise Multiplex in Valley Stream. While the number of those killed and injured were far fewer in the Sunrise incident, it was similar enough for people to make a connection.

On Christmas Day 1990, during a showing of “The Godfather Part III” at the Valley Stream theater, a shooting left a teenage boy dead and three people wounded. The victim, 15-year-old Tremain Hall, was hit by one of 25 bullets that were fired.

“Very chaotic, very disturbing,” former Valley Stream Mayor John DeGrace said of the atmosphere in the village after the incident. “Obviously we were very, very concerned about the well-being of our residents who were attending the theater at that time.”

Dianna Cunningham, 38, a former Valley Stream resident who now lives in Lynbrook, said she remembers the incident well. “I remember one high school senior lost his left eye,” she said.

DeGrace, who was mayor from 1987 to 1991, attended numerous meetings with theater staff, police officials and security experts to determine what steps could be taken to better protect moviegoers after the shooting. Ultimately, a decision was made to install metal detectors in the theater, but few movie houses followed the example.

Brian Begley, 45, of Bellevue, Neb., lived in Valley Stream until 1995, and his parents still live there. “I remember after that we had to go through metal detectors to enter the theater,” he said. “Crazy times.”

DeGrace explained that the installation of the metal detectors, which are still in use at the Sunrise Multiplex, happened only after a concerted effort. It seems, he said, that in light of situations like the Sept. 11 attacks and last weekend’s shooting, such measures are becoming increasingly necessary.

“I think the village at that time was adamant with regard to the safety of the patrons,” DeGrace said. “I’m a proponent of [metal detectors] in any theater. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Police take precautions

Since the shooting in Aurora, local police have taken precautions to prevent a copy-cat attempt. “We have increased our presence at the movie theater,” Rockville Centre Police Commissioner Chuck Gennario said. “It’s just precautionary. When incidents like this happen elsewhere, we always take precautionary measures in case of a repeat.”

“First of all, there is no reason to believe any event like this will happen in Nassau County or on Long Island,” said Nassau County Police Department Inspector Kenneth Lack, commanding officer of the department’s Public Information Office. “That said, all patrol commands, such as the precincts, emergency service bureaus and canine units will be intensifying patrol around movie theaters showing the Batman movie.” 

Movie theater patrons shared their thoughts as well. “Like everybody else, I just feel horrified at something like that happening because of the fear it could happen again,” said Mary Shaw, 70, of Bayside, outside a Long Island movie theater. “I have nieces and nephews, and of course it’s concerning.”

“It’s always in your head,” added 17-year-old Matt Sullivan, of Garden City. “It’s such a bad thing that … you can’t go to a movie and not think of it.”

Lynbrook’s superintendent of schools, Dr. Santo Barbarino, agreed. “Our theme is always one of community mindfulness,” he said. “That is the message of not just Lynbrook but all school districts. We try to protect our children from the negative elements from the outside world. As we educate them, we try to instill in them those values that bring sense to the world and then, hopefully, that then becomes their world.”

“I thought it was catastrophic,” Kevin Santos, 32, of Brooklyn, said of the shooting in Colorado. “It robbed youngsters of being youngsters. It stole something away from America.” As a high school guidance counselor, Santos said, his main concern was how safe children will now feel at the movies.

“As a school system, we constantly abide by the theme of civility and caring for others,” Barbarino said. “We actively do that by having our students engaged in community programs. There are so many efforts that are positive and, unfortunately, we aren’t living in a positive world. But we hope to change that.

He added that although there is no way to control the level of violence in the media and movies, people can be taught how to react to such violence.

“You cannot plan for anything like this,” DeGrace said. “But I just think that based on what’s been happening in our society today, it’s better to be proactive than reactive.”