“I knew of him since I was younger,” Peter Smith said about his ex-roommate Tommy Gilbert, at whose trial he was testifying last week. Their parents were members of the Maidstone Club in East Hampton, and the two had both gone to the same prep school, Buckley. But Tommy Gilbert, who has been charged with murdering his father, was two years ahead of Smith at Buckley, and the two had never bonded.
That changed in the summer of 2011. “We ran into each other on the beach,” Smith told the jury. “I was about to go surfing and he asked to join me. I said sure, and we paddled out together and we started talking.”
They spoke about their living situations. “I had an extra room in my apartment, and he told me he was living with his parents,” Smith said. “I needed a roommate, so I suggested he move to Williamsburg.”
Smith was being questioned as a witness for the defense by Gilbert’s attorney, Arnold Levine. The defense is not contesting the idea that Thomas Gilbert Jr. shot his father at point blank range in the older man’s Beekman Place apartment January 4, 2015. Rather, the defense Levine is offering is that Tommy Gilbert was insane at the time of the crime.
Levine asked Smith how long it took for the two men to decide to become roommates after they first met, surfing. “It was kind of a quick romance. I believe it was the same day,” Smith answered.
Levine said he didn’t know about surfing, and asked Smith to describe it. “We sat in the line together,” Smith said. “I normally surf alone, so it was nice to have company.” At another point, Smith said, “He told me that he didn’t get along with his father, that he was overbearing.”
The two began splitting the $2800 monthly rent at Smith’s Meserole Avenue apartment. They spent most of their time together. “I tried to socialize with Tommy as much as possible,” Smith said, adding he tried to help Gilbert “crawl out of his shell a little bit.”
He said, “I surfed with him a lot. I took him to parties. Anytime I went to play music anywhere, I brought him along.” He also made it a point of taking Gilbert to the drum circle at Sagg Main Beach. “It is an organic kind of gathering that has been going on for the better part of a decade,” he said.
“There was a group of us that hung out together, in the city, and in the Hamptons,” Smith added.
But, surfing dominated their lives. They would go surfing “pretty much anytime there were waves,” Smith said. “I think at that point, Tommy was the happiest he had ever been.”
After living together for three or four months, the two went on a surfing trip in January 2012 with a group of friends, to the Dominican Tree House Village in the Dominican Republic. Gilbert’s behavior became quite odd, Smith testified. A manager at the resort asked Smith to not bring him to functions. Gilbert was seen with an underage prostitute, Smith said. When Smith knocked on Gilbert’s door and asked about the prostitute, Gilbert denied it was him, and shut the door in Smith’s face. “I would say that was the first time we ever got into a fight,” he said.
At that point, Tommy Gilbert decided he wanted to do a surfing trip around the world and temporarily moved out of the Meserole Avenue apartment.
Refused To Leave
Gilbert returned to Smith’s apartment in March, 2012. Then, Smith began dating a girl. It became serious. Craig Ortner, prosecuting attorney, said during his cross-examination, that new relationship “in many ways, displaced the spot the defendant had occupied, right?”
“Yes,” Smith replied.
It was decided that Tommy would move out. “Once Laurel started paying rent, and Tommy refused to leave, then things started escalating,” he said.
Gilbert began accusing Smith of going into his room, of hacking into his computer and his bank account, “and messing with him.” He also accused Smith of trying to steal a woman Gilbert was seeing, Lizzy Fraser, from him.
Smith described the many properties his father owned in Sagaponack, including a 350-year-old house on Main Street. Across the street from the house were some newer houses, also owned by Smith’s father. Peter Smith was launching a new company. His father told him to use one of the houses across the street as an office for his team of workers, with the understanding that it was to be used for work purposes only.
Gilbert began showing up, and sitting in on meetings. Smith said he caught him a couple of times, sneaking in and sleeping overnight.
One night, in September 2013, Smith was having a poker party. He had not invited Gilbert, but he showed up, anyway. With him was Lizzy Fraser and another woman. Smith’s dog, excited, knocked a glass over. The glass broke, and the dog began running around. Smith grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck to prevent it from hurting itself.
“Tommy got angry at me and yelled at me,” Smith said. “He told me I was the most violent person he had ever met and he was going to report me.”
Smith told Gilbert to leave. “You’re a loser,” Smith said in front of the group. Later, he said he began getting calls and visits from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, checking on the welfare of his dog. Gilbert had called in multiple complaints.
‘He Was Coming For Me’
The day after the poker party, Gilbert came to the house while Smith was out, went up to the second floor, and stole a flagpole from a balcony, the jury was told. The next day, Gilbert returned with the flagpole, minus the flag, and smashed it through the kitchen window.
It wasn’t the only window that was smashed that month. A car window was smashed. Smith said he knew it was Gilbert, because the car window was smashed with a can of Hawaiian Punch, “and Tommy was the only one I knew who drank Hawaiian Punch.”
The police were not called. “My father didn’t want to ruin his life, so no charges were pressed,” said Smith. The father eventually received a check from the Gilbert family as compensation.
Smith said Gilbert called him and told him he “was coming for me.”
On October 6, Gilbert began calling Smith repeatedly at his Meserole Avenue apartment. When Smith came outside, Gilbert was waiting for him. “He swung at me but missed. He grabbed the back of my head with both hands, he kneed me in the face about 18 to 20 times,” Smith testified. Smith suffered a broken nose. Gilbert ran off when a Guardian Angel, who happened to be on patrol came upon them.
Gilbert was picked up by New York police and charged with assault as a misdemeanor. An order of protection was issued.
The two men had no contact until Labor Day, 2014. Smith was at a drum circle on Sagg Main Beach when Gilbert approached him. Gilbert told Smith that it was his last chance to “bury the hatchet.”
Smith spoke with his attorney, and it was decided not to press charges. Two weeks later, on September 15, the house on Main Street burned down. At that point, Smith told Southampton detectives what had happened. Gilbert was picked up near his parents’ Georgica Estates house. He contacted Alex Spiro, his attorney who had defended him after his various previous transgressions. Police questioned Gilbert, but he was eventually released on the charge of violating the order of protection without bail.
While the Southampton town police considered Gilbert a suspect, he was never charged.
A little more than three months later, Thomas Gilbert Sr. was dead.