Emotions High as Ground Zero Theft Case Continues

A young Queens woman sobbed on the witness stand yesterday as - for the first time since 9/11 - she saw her charred World Trade Center ID badge, allegedly stolen from Ground Zero by a tragedy-obsessed ex-firefighter.


A young Queens woman sobbed on the witness stand yesterday as - for the first time since 9/11 - she saw her charred World Trade Center ID badge, allegedly stolen from Ground Zero by a tragedy-obsessed ex-firefighter.

"Why doesn't he just stop?" the distraught woman, Priti Bali, 27, cried after her brief testimony in the creepy petit-larceny case at Manhattan Criminal Court.

"He took s--- that didn't belong to him," Bali added, weeping. "It was all burned and crumpled - how could he take it?"

Bali told jurors she escaped the collapse only because by chance she'd arrived late that morning to her job as an assistant project director with the National Development and Research Institute. The badge had been sitting in her desk on the 16th Floor of 2 World Trade Center when the building collapsed.

Bali's badge - along with six other ID badges, a wedding photo, pieces of melted glass, a crushed walkie-talkie, and a key and quarter blackened in the fire and collapse - were allegedly taken from the site by Samuel Brandon, 60, of upstate Pine Bush.

Brandon, who volunteered for five months for the Ground Zero recovery effort, allegedly filched the items as souvenirs.

Two of the ID badges belonged to victims who died in the tragedy - Michael Costello, 27, an equities salesman from Cantor Fitzgerald, and Robert Lynch, 44, a Port Authority property manager from Cranford N.J.

The ID badges - had they not been removed - would have been catalogued as to name and location, for possible use in helping to identify these victims' remains, prosecutor Judy Selwen argues.

Brandon was arrested after he showed off to a prospective buyer of his upstate home a gilt-framed, blown-up photo of himself in firefighter's gear, holding a human hip bone at the scene.

Undercover cops - also posing as prospective buyers - later taped him bragging about having the souvenir booty as well as gruesome pictures of a hand, head and torso of victims.

Brandon faces up to a year in jail on the charges. His lawyer, Ronald Kliegerman, is arguing that the items are, in legal terms, worthless.

The walkie-talkie Brandon took, for instance, was crushed and can't be proven to have belonged to anyone, Kliegerman said.

The pieces of rubble belonged to no one, the bride and groom in the wedding photo are unidentified, and the IDs are of no use to the investigation, he argues.