Property Owner Apologizes; Health Dept. Finds "No Evidence" Of Standing Water

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — On the day that New York City confirmed its first death related to West Nile virus, an elderly Whitestone man placed blame on an abandoned property next to his home for his bout with the virus.

Giuseppe Totino, 86,  was hospitalized for nearly two weeks and diagnosed earlier this month with the West Nile virus, said his family physician, Dr. Joseph Mollura, of Whitestone.

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In a story that was first reported by 1010 WINS’ Mona Rivera, neighbors and family members said they were convinced Totino got the potentially deadly virus from the property next door.  It has been vacant for more than five years — home to only feral cats, rodents, overgrown shrubbery and bugs.

1010 WINS’ Mona Rivera Speaks With The Totino Family

Totino’s son, Dominick, got the call from the doctor Wednesday that his father tested positive for West Nile. He said he immediately thought the mosquito must have come from the “jungle next door.”

EXTRA: Totino’s Lab Results Confirming West Nile Virus

“It’s just hideous, it’s a disgrace,” Dominick said.

The Totino family claims the owner of the property on 18th Avenue has let the lot fall into disarray while trying to sell the house and say it has become a breeding ground for insects and rodents.

“I cannot for the past few years sit in my backyard comfortably without being eaten alive by mosquitos,” Totino’s daughter, Diana, told CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez.

Louis D’Lorenzo, 87, who lives on the other side of the blighted property said he’s now afraid of getting West Nile.

“It’s scary,” he said. “Something should be done.”

After being contacted by 1010 WINS, the New York Department of Health sent a health inspector to the site and said “there was no evidence of standing water at the time of the inspection.”

Susan Craig, a Health Department spokeswoman, said “high vegetation/weeds was observed throughout the front and rear yard of the vacant property.”

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“The property will be referred to the Department’s Pest Control Services for further action,” the statement read.

Despite the comments from the Health Department, neighbors have said there could be standing water inside the property, stemming from rain water getting in through broken windows.  They complain that many people have come to the site, looked around and left.

Friday evening, CBS 2 was able to track down property owner Pedro Somoza, who took full responsibility for the property.

“I’m going to clean the property,” he said, “and if I have to say it’s my fault, it’s my fault.”

Somoza also went to the Totino’s home to apologize for the situation.

“Tomorrow, somebody’s going to come — somebody with me to clear the yard,” he said. “I’m so sorry for your daddy.”

The Health Department stated a pest control inspector investigated the property in October 2008 but did not issue a violation because he did not observe animals. However, the inspector also noted overgrowth of foliage in his report.

Abandoned property at 151-20 18th Ave, Whitestone, Queens (credit: Mona Rivera/1010 WINS)

The Health Department confirmed Friday a 60-year-old man from Queens is the first person in the city this year to die from West Nile virus. There have been eight other human cases this summer.

In the meantime, Totino, who has been released from the hospital, is afraid to go outside except for brief periods.

According to the Health Department’s website, the neighborhood has has been sprayed twice this week against the West Nile virus. A third installment was scheduled for Friday.

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