STUYVESANT, N.Y. >> Frank Serpico stopped along a road near his home in this Hudson River town, picked up a dead bird, gently placed it on a steel guardrail and laid a wildflower on the bird’s breast.
“This is my little oasis,” he said, surveying a leafy expanse of 40 or so acres he has owned in Columbia County since 1968. “This is my healing place.”
Serpico became one of the most famous police officers in the history of New York after he helped uncover one of the Police Department’s most infamous corruption scandals. But speaking out carried a price – he became a pariah inside the force, and his career ended soon after he was shot in the face in 1971 during a drug raid gone bad and fellow officers delayed calling an ambulance.
His convalescence here, a two-hour drive north of New York City, has been Serpico’s second act. He wandered Europe and North America for a decade and then, in the early 1980s, built a rustic one-room cabin with no furnace overlooking the Hudson and began living a monastic life in nature.
But now Serpico’s serenity has been broken and he finds himself battling a new nemesis. This time not an entire agency, but a local developer and town officials who Serpico says have ignored his complaints; this time it is not over issues like taking cash payments from drug dealers, but over the fate of some trees and the desecration of pristine woodland.
“It’s like fighting the system again,” Serpico said. “Here I’m trying to enjoy my tranquility and I’m being dragged back into a world of corruption.”
So discouraged has Serpico, 77, become that he has renewed his American and Italian passports with an eye, he said in all seriousness, toward moving to Europe.
The developer, Frank Palladino, scoffed at what he called baseless claims made by a bitter old man who is using his celebrated name to satisfy a hunger for attention.
“He wants to be back in the limelight. He needs an ax to grind,” said Palladino. “He’s a lonely and unhappy man – he’s like a petulant child.”
Serpico’s plan had been a simple one – to keep his property wild and leave it to a preservation group upon his death, possibly for use as a retreat for other whistle-blowing police officers. But his plans were upended after Palladino bought a wooded parcel next to his and bulldozed much of it to put up a luxury home.
The 4.8-acre parcel abuts a favorite section of Serpico’s land where he often watched hundreds of swallows on a sandy bank, and where he walked a stream that runs partly through his property, looking for medicinal herbs.
Serpico said he had passed on an opportunity to buy the property for a low price years ago, because he thought it was environmentally protected from development. But after Palladino, 58, bought the land in 2010, he started clear-cutting trees to build a luxury home to sell.
The chain saws and bulldozers disrupted his idyll, but Serpico said he was even more aggrieved by what he said was an intrusion by Palladino onto his property and upon nature. He has accused the builder of knocking down trees Serpico owns, destroying part of the swallows’ nesting area and being insensitive to the wild feel of the area.
In escalating hostilities, the two have traded insults and called each other trespassers. Serpico said he had been unable to get help so far from various government agencies and preservation groups.
Serpico said his predicament brought him back to when he was an idealistic young officer turned bitter and disillusioned after Police Department and City Hall officials ignored for a time his reports of rampant corruption. Eventually, his revelations led to the formation of the Knapp Commission and one of the department’s biggest shake-ups.
The land dispute validated his longstanding belief, he said, that wrongdoing still flourishes in government and that whistle-blowers wind up being punished.
“You have favoritism – those who are in it, and those who are on the outside,” said Serpico, whose account of taking on the Police Department was chronicled in a best-selling book and in the 1973 film “Serpico.”
Palladino said Serpico was simply using his fame to harass him. “He went and filed charges with everyone under the sun,” Palladino said, “and when all was said and done, they said, ’No foul.’”
When Serpico called a state trooper to Palladino’s property recently to lodge a complaint against Palladino, the trooper wound up giving Serpico a warning for trespassing. Serpico videotaped the episode, as he has other encounters with Palladino and local officials in an attempt to document his claim that Palladino was receiving preferential treatment because of connections with town officials.
That includes the Stuyvesant town supervisor, Ron Knott, who once rented Palladino an apartment.
Serpico called the town government a clubby “old-boys network” run by entrenched Republican elected officials who embrace cronyism and political patronage and favor native-born locals over the increasing population of New York City residents who have moved to the area.
Despite his 30 years in Stuyvesant, Serpico said he still felt like a second-class newcomer from the city. He only recently realized, for example, he had been overpaying on his property taxes because town officials failed to notify him of a senior discount.
And when he complained to Stuyvesant’s zoning board last year that Palladino was encroaching on his property, he said it took no action.
Serpico also has a video of himself walking on Palladino’s property with Stuyvesant’s zoning enforcement officer, Gerald Ennis, and Palladino, who admitted during the walk to having cut several of Serpico’s trees. He offered to replace them.
Ennis visited the property four times before concluding that the town had no reason to cite Palladino.
Ennis said the issue was simply a dispute among neighbors that amounted to “two guys butting heads.”
Knott is dismissive of the idea that any of this amounts to a “Serpico” sequel. He said he knew “both Franks” and favored neither one. “There’s no corruption here,” he said. “It’s not like Albany.”
Palladino, a hard-driving man who can alternate between flashes of anger and incisive wit, had thought that having Serpico as a neighbor would make the property more marketable. In fact, Palladino had entered into a contract to sell Serpico the land for $50,000. But then the men had a dispute over an environmental review Serpico’s lawyer had sought and Palladino withdrew his offer.
Now he has become so aggravated that he is willing to stop his development and sell once and for all – just not to Serpico. “I don’t need the battle,” Palladino said. “It’s for sale – 5 acres overlooking the Hudson.”