street fights

The Battle of Fishkill

When Domenic Broccoli set out to expand his IHOP empire upstate, he didn’t expect to find a grave site — or start a war.

The flapjack king and the archaeologist and his army. Photo: Stefan Ruiz
The flapjack king and the archaeologist and his army. Photo: Stefan Ruiz
The flapjack king and the archaeologist and his army. Photo: Stefan Ruiz

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Domenic Broccoli, the IHOP kingpin of the Bronx, lives a good life. He drives a nice car, spends time with his six grandkids, and golfs often enough to have a tan for most of the year. He owns a four-bedroom home in Pelham Manor, a house upstate, and IHOPs throughout the borough where he grew up, each of which runs smoothly enough to give Broccoli the time and resources to devote himself, at the age of 66, to the animating force in his life: destroying his enemies. This mission came as a surprise to Broccoli, who had little reason to expect that trying to expand his pancake empire into upstate New York — and to build his grandest IHOP yet — would lead to such conflict. But sometimes that’s what happens when you find a dead body.

On Memorial Day, Broccoli drove to his property in Fishkill, where a crowd was gathering to protest his planned development. These were the Friends of the Fishkill Supply Depot, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the town’s Revolutionary War history and, in Broccoli’s view, to making his life hell. For more than a decade, the Friends have argued — based on some evidence, but not as much as they would like — that there are more Revolutionary War soldiers buried on Broccoli’s land than anywhere else in the United States. Broccoli argues that this is rubbish and accuses his foes — with some evidence, but not as much as he would like — of going so far as to plant human remains on his lot in their effort to make it seem more grave-stuffed than it actually is.

“Is Domenic Broccoli here?” Keith Reilly, a co-president of the Friends, asked the protesters through a microphone. “Mr. Broccoli, we dare you to be a profile in courage.” The crowd included a half-dozen Revolutionary War reenactors with muskets and several people Broccoli has sued, including Bill Sandy, the archaeologist who found the first dead body. The protesters marched up and down the edge of the property — careful not to trespass lest Broccoli call the police — while honks came in from passing cars.

Broccoli had told me that he had planned to crash the protest with “guns a-blazing” but ultimately thought better of it. “If I go there and then my Bronx comes out, it’s not gonna go well,” he said. His Bronx had come out plenty in his campaign to build the IHOP as part of a Colonial-themed strip mall he was calling Continental Commons. The Friends of the Fishkill Supply Depot are a group of history buffs and retiree volunteers, and yet Broccoli claimed he had found it necessary to spend more than a million dollars battling them with archaeologists, lawyers, and the private investigators he hired as “spies” to infiltrate the Friends. As it happened, one of his spies was at the Memorial Day protest holding up a STOP CONTINENTAL COMMONS sign while surreptitiously recording the group in case anything might help the RICO case Broccoli was building.

Broccoli insists that he’s not anti-history. He doesn’t dispute the fact that people are buried on his land or that the area is steeped in Revolutionary significance; his vision for the IHOP involves a wait staff in tricorne hats and bonnets. But it was still a bit of a mystery exactly whose bones were buried on his property and who put them there. And, besides, if there really were hundreds of soldiers beneath the ground, Broccoli believed it to be self-evident that he was the one pursuing the vision of life, liberty, and happiness that George Washington’s troops had fought and died for: the right to sell pancakes where they were buried.

Broccoli and the Friends offered competing arguments for how best to honor American history. Solemn commemoration or the unabated exploitation of property rights? Preservation or pancakes? Like many other modern American debates, there didn’t seem to be much common ground. Bob LaColla, who served as the town supervisor during much of L’Affaire Broccoli, told me it was a baffling situation defined by “false allegations” and “an avoidance of facts.” “Like everywhere else in the country, once people get into these camps … either you’re with me or you’re against me,” LaColla said. A local Boy Scout leader, who has spent time with both Broccoli and the Friends, summed up the predicament by telling me that he knew only one thing for certain. “They’re all full of shit,” he said. “It’s just a matter of who’s more full of shit than the other.”

The contested ground. Photo: Stefan Ruiz

By the time I met Broccoli, his battle with the Friends had already lasted longer than the Revolutionary War. “I’m gonna go after them with a vengeance,” Broccoli told me from his basement in Pelham Manor. He apologized for how long it was taking, two hours and counting, to talk through what he believed to be the “many tentacles” of the vast conspiracy against him, not to mention his entire family history. The genealogical tree, he told me, includes the Broccolis of Calabria, who, as Domenic tells the tale, crossed cauliflower with rabe and named a vegetable after themselves — not true, according to broccoli experts — and the Broccolis that control the James Bond franchise. (Despite having never met them, he has a copy of the New York Times obituary for one of the Bond Broccolis on his office wall next to a photo of his graduation from the Culinary Institute of America.) Broccoli was only beginning to explain where he fit in when his wife called from upstairs to say that dinner was starting in five minutes and he’d better be there.

When we met again over a full stack at one of his IHOPs, Broccoli told me that what had kept him going throughout his war with the Friends was a belief in fate and signs from above. When his father died in 1984, Domenic took over Gino’s, the family’s Italian restaurant on Allerton Avenue in the Bronx. He tried to build on his father’s legacy — Robert De Niro attended Chazz Palminteri’s wedding reception at the catering hall Domenic built — but the neighborhood changed and the clientele moved on. In 2006, Broccoli visited his dad’s grave to ask if he should close Gino’s. A beam of sunlight bounced off the mausoleum. Broccoli quickly leased the Gino’s space to HSBC. (Another sign: “Heaven Sent Broccoli Cash.”) But that deal fell through, which was lucky. Broccoli later talked to an IHOP franchisee who told him that the only two IHOPs in the Bronx were the two top-grossing ones in the Northeast. (Dollar signs!) Broccoli opened his first pancake house inside the old Gino’s and then a second, third, and fourth elsewhere in the borough.

Broccoli could be forgiven for missing any signs of trouble buried deep under the property that he bought in Fishkill in the 1980s. Two hundred years earlier, in 1776, America’s Colonial government built a massive supply depot in Fishkill to provide Washington’s troops with muskets, rations, boots, and whatever else they needed. It sat at a crucial crossroads five miles from the Hudson, just out of British naval range but close enough for supplies to get to Fishkill Landing on the river, where Metro-North now off-loads visitors to Dia Beacon. Continental soldiers in the Northeast mustered there before deploying, and the depot supported major American victories throughout the war. But Fishkill wasn’t top of mind for Washington even when his generals warned of British attacks. “I have repeatedly informd your Excellency of the Enemys Design Against this Post, but from some Motive Or Other, you always Differd with me in Opinion,” Israel Putnam wrote to Washington. There weren’t any battles in Fishkill, and when the war ended, industrious locals tore down most of the depot to reuse the materials.

In other words, the depot played a crucial role in American history — the muskets at Saratoga had to come from somewhere — but was also destined to be forgotten. The area is proud of its Revolutionary heritage (one high-school team is the Patriots) and slow to give way to progress (another is still called the Indians), but efforts to preserve the depot largely succumbed to modern life. In the 1960s, the looming construction of Interstate 84 through Fishkill prompted an archaeological dig that uncovered loads of 18th-century detritus — a bayonet, a penny from 1796, the walls of a blacksmith’s forge — but did little to halt the freeway. In the 1970s, Fishkill shot down a proposal to create a national park on the depot site modeled after Valley Forge. A shopping mall went up instead.

As I drove through town one day with Broccoli, he pointed out all the ways Fishkill had yielded to the American expansion the Revolution enabled: a Walmart Supercenter, a 3 million-square-foot Gap warehouse, and a branch of practically every major hotel chain — Residence Inn, Holiday Inn, Best Western, Hyatt, SpringHill Suites, Marriott, Hilton, plus a Wyndham and an abandoned Ramada — all of which, like the depot, serve as stops en route to somewhere more exciting. Fishkill sits just a few miles from Beacon, but it isn’t most people’s upstate fantasy. An IBM facility once employed thousands, but the company shifted to overseas production, and the plant itself was cited by the EPA for leaking toxic chemicals into the local water supply. It was not the only time the town’s name carried an unfortunate resonance. In the 1990s, when PETA attempted to raise an objection to the name Fishkill itself, the mayor pointed out that its argument would be problematic for the Catskills.

But rumors had also circulated for years about a piece of history that would be more significant and harder to bulldoze: a cemetery, somewhere in town, filled with Revolutionary War soldiers. A pair of smallpox epidemics killed hundreds of soldiers at the depot during the war, and there were so many corpses after the Battle of White Plains that one local recalled seeing them stacked up like logs waiting for a fire. But no one could figure out where they had ended up. It was possible to analyze the description of the stacked-up bodies, look at a map, and deduce that they might be under a Domino’s.

There were other possibilities. A report from 1844 put the soldiers’ cemetery “near the base of the mountain, where a road turns off from the turnpike to the east,” and another from 1866 offered more specifics: east of Route 9, near some black-walnut trees. Several sites fit that description, but the closest was a largely undeveloped plot near the original location of a granite marker the Daughters of the American Revolution installed in 1897 to commemorate the soldiers “whose bodies repose in this adjoining field.” (The marker had since been moved to make way for a wider Route 9.) The 1866 text said the cemetery had “not a few, but hundreds” of soldiers and that “it is doubtful whether any spot in the State has as many of the buried dead of the Revolution as this quiet spot in our old town.” The quiet spot in question seemed to belong to Domenic Broccoli.

The spy. Photo: Stefan Ruiz

Bill Sandy has worked as an archaeologist for 40 years and has the look to prove it: bushy beard, cargo pants, a posture formed by countless days hunched over trenches. In the book Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, Sandy’s colleagues describe him as “brilliant and eccentric.” In 1992, he helped sift through hundreds of human remains found during the construction of a government building in lower Manhattan, but he prefers digging up structures rather than bones. When graves turn up, science tends to give way to emotion.

In 2007, Broccoli hired Sandy to see if there was anything important under his ground. This wasn’t an act of archaeological generosity. The New York State Historic Preservation Office had demanded that Broccoli look for the long-rumored cemetery before moving forward with plans to build a strip mall. (He had been talking to Palminteri about opening a Bronx Tale–themed restaurant as part of the development.) In the early days of the dig, Sandy came up empty: a few artifacts, a couple stone walls, no graves. Broccoli wandered around the site with a handheld camcorder, recording his skepticism. “The rocks in this hole, supposedly, are some sort of foundation,” he said, pointing the camera at an unearthed wall. “What’s the significance? Don’t ask me.”

The day after Halloween — an ominous sign — Sandy found something unusual. A few feet below the surface were seven ghostly silhouettes lined up. “Once you’ve seen a bunch of graves, you know,” Sandy said. He and his team began gingerly digging into one of the rectangles with trowels and bamboo picks while Broccoli stood over them with his camera. (“I’m taking pictures of dirt,” Broccoli said at one point. “Imagine that!”) After seven hours and two feet of careful digging, Sandy hit bone. It was powdery and in bad shape — old. The bone seemed to be part of a skull, and there were other fragments where a dead man’s chest and feet should be. Sandy had seen enough and decided to stop digging. He called in the county coroner, who declared that it wasn’t a crime scene, then walked over to the Maya Cafe, a Mexican restaurant across the street, to take a celebratory shot. “I thought, That’s gonna be a national park next week,” he said. A few months later, another archaeologist conducted a radar study on Broccoli’s property that identified “hundreds of anomalies” that appeared to be similar to the graves Sandy found.

In short: The rumors might be true. The Times reported the discovery, and other outlets declared there could be “thousands” of bodies, making it potentially the largest Revolutionary War cemetery anywhere. Senator Chuck Schumer called on Broccoli to halt his development. “The Town of Fishkill is sitting on a gold mine,” Schumer said, arguing that preserving the site could be a boon for local tourism. “The sacrifices of the first Americans must not be forgotten nor should their graves be desecrated by commercial development.” He visited the site to promote legislation he was proposing to expand the American Battlefield Protection Program, which was then limited to acquiring land from the Civil War. Schumer said he was going to chant “Fishkill, Fishkill, Fishkill” in the halls of Congress until they came up with the money.

While Congress debated Schumer’s bill, Broccoli wasn’t sure what to do with the property. There weren’t many eager buyers for a cemetery. And now bones were showing up everywhere. Sandy found half a dozen more elsewhere on the property. A rumor started swirling that workers installing a new septic tank at the Maya Cafe found another skull, which a local priest blessed before the workers quietly put it back in the ground. When Broccoli decided to dig again, hoping another part of the property was soldier free, his archaeologists turned up four more potential graves.

In 2013, Broccoli met with Lance Ashworth, the president of the newly formed Friends of the Fishkill Supply Depot. Broccoli offered to lease the Friends half an acre of land that included the graves Sandy had found while limiting his strip mall to the rest of the property. The Friends had bigger ideas: They wanted the whole plot. One proposal they were considering was the “Fishkill Living Historic Park.” It would have a proper cemetery, replica buildings from the depot, military reenactments, and a working archaeological site, plus a petting zoo and a zip line for anyone looking for fun rather than an education. Short on options, Broccoli told the Friends he would sell them the land if they could make him a reasonable offer; an appraisal had valued the property at $1.25 million, though Broccoli wanted more.

The Friends went looking for money. The town was broke and declined to help, as did the state. Schumer’s bill had a troublesome requirement: It would apply only to battlefields. The Friends pored over records, looking for a skirmish at the depot, but didn’t find anything especially compelling. So much for “Fishkill, Fishkill, Fishkill.” Time was of the essence — Sandy discovered potholes on the site, which suggested treasure hunters might be trying to loot the place — and the Friends were getting frustrated by the struggle to drum up support. In 2014, during the annual Revolutionary War Weekend event that Broccoli allowed the Friends to hold on the property, Sandy accused Broccoli of damaging one of the graves during one of his subsequent digs. “We don’t like people hitting our soldiers’ burials with backhoes,” Sandy told the crowd. “We find that extremely distasteful.”

Broccoli found the sudden rancor distasteful. To his mind, he had tried to be reasonable; the Friends couldn’t come up with the cash, and now he was the bad guy? He decided to hit back. He had hired a PR consultant, and he put out a statement arguing that, in fact, no one knew how many graves were on his property or even who was buried there. Sandy’s decision not to keep digging into the first grave meant there wasn’t any firm evidence, like a regimental button, to suggest the grave belonged to a soldier at all. Broccoli didn’t want the Friends digging around anymore, and he sent an email banning them from the property. “And that,” he told me, “is when I declared war on the Friends of the Fishkill Supply Depot.”

It’s basically been a bloody battle ever since,” Lance Ashworth told me when we met last year. He and Broccoli had not spoken since the declaration of war eight years prior, and the bombardment that ensued caught Ashworth and the Friends off guard. “It seems like such a noble cause — save a piece of history,” Ashworth said. “But people who signed up for that certainly didn’t expect this.” We were standing in a parking lot across the street from Broccoli’s property, where he had installed one of his many attacks on the Friends: a sign with Ashworth’s face superimposed onto a knight’s body alongside a nickname he had given his foe — SIR LANCE LIES-A-LOT.

Ashworth, who lived a few minutes from the site, is a West Point graduate with the bald head, stocky build, and stolid demeanor of an FBI agent, which is his day job. He isn’t the type to dress up as a Revolutionary War reenactor, nor is he instinctively anti-development. (His biography on the Friends website declared that “former President Ronald Reagan is among his favorite American heroes.”) He just loves history. Ashworth tried to bring a certain military drive to the group, signing his emails “From the trenches” and punctuating victories with “Huzzah!” But the Friends weren’t set up for battle; they were, by and large, older people with a little extra time on their hands. After the Friends received a $24,600 grant from the National Park Service to conduct a survey of the archaeological work done on the site, one supporter suggested the best course of action would be to “take that $24,000 to Vegas and try to turn it into whatever millions they need to buy the land because that Broccoli man is very mad at them.”

It was in 2015 that Broccoli, having abandoned the Bronx Tale restaurant idea, announced the new vision for his development. Continental Commons would still be a strip mall but with a Revolutionary patina. The buildings would have faux-Colonial designs, and the IHOP staff would serve breakfast all day while wearing Revolutionary attire; he wouldn’t build anything where Sandy had found the graves. Continental Commons, Broccoli said, would be “an exciting opportunity to weave together history, preservation, tourism, and commerce.” He was pivoting to patriot. “By developing the property in this way,” Broccoli declared, “I am the true historian in Fishkill.”

The Friends decided to shift tactics, too, from trying to buy Broccoli’s property to trying to stop him from building Continental Commons. The effort was led in part by Penny Steyer, who has devoted her retirement to becoming an expert on the minutiae of state and municipal codes. She is also, as Broccoli reminded me constantly, “Bill Sandy’s girlfriend.” Steyer and Sandy have been dating for more than 20 years but live separately. “That has given this relationship some strength,” Steyer told me from her farmhouse upstate, where a large bald-eagle statue perches halfway up the staircase. When I asked Steyer what kept her motivated, she nodded to her boyfriend, who joined us. “Watching him getting beaten up by this person Domenic Broccoli,” she said.

We were sitting in Steyer’s home office, where she keeps property deeds, FOIA requests, and other documents related to her fight with Broccoli in over a dozen three-ring binders. She has copies of Robert’s Rules of Order and A Graveyard Preservation Primer on her bookshelf. The Friends had managed to delay Broccoli’s development by stalling his progress through various approval processes. (Was Continental Commons a threat to the local aquifer? Might there be a population of endangered timber-rattlesnake babies?) As a stunt, they sent Revolutionary War reenactors to lie on the ground in front of the town hall like soldiers ready for burial. Several outlets picked up the story, including the New York Post. “Pancakes?” the Post article began. “Over their dead bodies!”

The media coverage put Broccoli on his heels. (Ashworth proposed “3 huzzahs” for the Friends’ PR team.) It also highlighted a narrative weakness for Broccoli: the pancakes. Broccoli had always been an enthusiastic member of the IHOP fraternity — he had unsuccessfully pitched a special Italian menu centered on a dish he called the Laz-Omelette, which combined eggs with pasta and meat sauce — and the company had initially been supportive of his Colonial-themed restaurant. But the controversy was giving the corporate office indigestion. Under pressure from the state historic-preservation office, Broccoli agreed to move the strip mall’s parking lot farther away from the graves.

With the Friends advancing, Ashworth decided to step up the attack and asked Alec Crosby, one of the newest recruits, to help him put together a “Stop IHOP” campaign to direct criticism at the company and pressure Broccoli to back down. Crosby stood out among the Friends, first because he was in his 30s, which made him the group’s de facto head of digital operations, and second because he always seemed to be available. The Friends chuckled at the fact that he shared a last name with Enoch Crosby, a famous Revolutionary War spy.

Crosby quickly became Ashworth’s right-hand man. In addition to Stop IHOP, the pair were working with a group of students at a local community college to make a short promotional film about the saga. Ashworth told the class that the Friends were “on a crash course” with Broccoli. “We’re gonna keep telling people about it. The land value’s gonna be down,” Ashworth said. “We’re gonna strangle him, basically. Bleed him out.”

Ashworth warned the students not to visit the property because Broccoli would likely have them arrested. But while Ashworth was on a vacation, Crosby encouraged the students to go anyway. When they arrived, Broccoli was having lunch at the Maya Cafe and walked over. “We were only there for five minutes when Domenic came up,” Alan Keane, one of the students, told me. “I thought we were in trouble.” Instead, Broccoli invited them to join him for sangria, on him. He already had his laptop open to make a surprisingly robust presentation arguing that the Friends’ claims about his property were overblown. “It was kind of weird,” Keane told me. “Why does he have all this ready?”

Crosby emailed Ashworth about the encounter. “This is terrible news,” Ashworth replied. How did Broccoli even know the students would be there? He somehow got wind of a protest the Friends were planning and derailed it, too. Something was up. “Keep this to yourselves,” Ashworth emailed the group. “For spies are at play once again in Fishkill.”

Meet my spy,” Broccoli told me, with a smile, as he introduced me to Crosby at Broccoli’s Fishkill home. In his career as a private investigator, Crosby, whose real name is Ian Bondi, had worked plenty of strange jobs — trailing people to the airport to make sure they got on a plane, sitting in a guy’s backyard to make sure aliens weren’t visiting him at night — but his time infiltrating the Friends of the Fishkill Supply Depot had been among the weirdest episodes of his career. “I thought this might be a one- or two-day job,” Bondi told me. “I had no clue it was going to be years of my life.” For several years, his entire family called him Alec. “I had girlfriends that didn’t know my name,” Bondi said.

Broccoli had decided to hire a spy — several of them, actually, including Bondi’s mother — as his distrust of the Friends reached a fever pitch. He tried sending an acquaintance to do the job, but he wasn’t very good at it, so Broccoli reached out to the private security firm that employed Bondi to get some professional help. (Here Broccoli saw another good sign, this one from his espionage-adjacent relatives: Bondi’s middle name was James.)

While it was a thrill to play spy games with an FBI agent, Bondi said that getting in with the Friends wasn’t especially difficult: The group was so desperate for volunteers that it was happy to have fresh blood. Bondi tried to be helpful, to stay in the Friends’ good graces, but he also found subtle ways to undermine their efforts. He had taken the community-college students to visit the property and told Broccoli they would be there. The only time Bondi got nervous about his cover getting blown came when Ashworth brought an FBI colleague to a Friends meeting; afterward, Bondi used his shirtsleeves to wipe his fingerprints off the table.

When the Friends learned the truth about Bondi, they were shocked — a Benedict Arnold in their midst. Bondi had become such a core part of the Friends that no one suspected him. “I wouldn’t have ever expected to have needed the same sort of vetting and validation for a group of volunteers as I would, let’s say, for my profession,” Ashworth told me. “You feel gross inside, you feel embarrassed. You’re always left wondering what was said that could be twisted.”

The reveal also made clear just how far Broccoli was willing to go. He had spent thousands funding Bondi’s clandestine operation and believed it was worth every penny — especially considering a piece of intelligence Bondi obtained that, to Broccoli, showed just how far the Friends would go too. During a town board meeting, Bondi had secretly recorded a conversation between Steyer and Marty Byster, another member of the Friends, in which Byster asked Steyer, “Were you there when we buried … we buried the bones by the foundation?”

Bondi didn’t know what to make of the comment. But to Broccoli, it seemed to support an outlandish theory he had been developing: Could some of the supposed graves on his property be fake? The years since Sandy’s initial discovery had produced some doubt about what exactly was in the ground in Fishkill. Sandy still had no definitive proof the original grave he dug into belonged to a soldier, and the six bones he found later turned out to be from a deer.

A few years after Sandy’s initial dig and the radar study that detected hundreds of gravelike anomalies, Broccoli hired a new team to look at the site. Doria Kutrubes, a geophysicist, conducted another radar study that detected even more anomalies that looked like graves — bad news again for Broccoli, at least on the surface. But the archaeologists told Broccoli that “anomalies” weren’t necessarily graves. The only way to know for sure was to look underground. “Everywhere I thought was a potential burial, I had them dig,” Kutrubes told me. The team found boulders, tree stumps, and rodent burrows but no graves. “One by one by one, they looked at my anomalies and said, ‘Nothing,’” she recalled. In the most unusual cases, there was loose soil filled with grass, leaves, and other organic material that seemed recently disturbed at the same depth as the graves Sandy found. “It kind of blew me away that in every single instance, there was an explanation,” Kutrubes said. “Almost as if somebody knew how to generate false positives.” Broccoli now looked with suspicion at all the times the Friends had been on his property without him.

The accusation was, on its face, insane: A group of archaeologists and Revolutionary War reenactors had somehow managed to acquire human remains and clandestinely bury them on Broccoli’s property all because they were so desperate to build their “Living Historic Park”? Byster, Sandy, and the other members of the Friends denied the allegation, but that didn’t assuage Broccoli. At the very least, he felt the Friends had exaggerated what they knew about what was underground. He posted a series of Facebook videos, which he described to me as a “character-assassination campaign,” accusing the “Frauds of the Fishkill Supply Depot” of being “a NIMBY extremist group.” Everyone involved got a nickname: Ashworth was Sir Lance Lies-A-Lot but also “Land Grabbing Lance” and “Your Local FB-Lie Agent.” Byster became “Crooked Marty.” Broccoli demurred when I asked if his attacks were inspired by the former president from Queens. He said this was just the way you talked in the Bronx.

When I first heard about the Battle of Fishkill, in 2020, the story had already taken so many turns it was hard to catch up. So how many bodies were there? Who buried what? The accusations and innuendo flying back and forth were like something out of a bad political thriller. In one of our early conversations, Broccoli claimed that even the town’s elected officials were out to get him. The Friends’ preferred candidate for town supervisor, Ozzy Albra, had just won his election on an explicitly anti–Continental Commons platform. During the final board meeting before Albra took over, at which Broccoli expected to receive a necessary approval for Continental Commons, the board experienced several curious absences: one departing member resigned before the meeting; another said his wife was sick; a third claimed to be stuck in Westchester with a flat tire. Had they skipped out on the crucial meeting so the issue would punt to Albra’s term? Broccoli got so upset during one town meeting that he held up a kitchen towel he brought from home embroidered with the phrase MAYBE BROCCOLI DOESN’T LIKE YOU EITHER. 

As I tried to sort through the quagmire, spending more time with either side didn’t necessarily offer clarity. While Byster called the bone-burying accusation a “farce,” he also had trouble landing on an explanation for his comment: He had been “expressing a rumor” or was being sarcastic; he meant to say “reburied.” (Broccoli sued “to compel Byster to identify the location of bones” he had supposedly buried, but the case was eventually dismissed.) At the same time, Broccoli seemed to be digging ever deeper into his own rabbit hole, and he buried me in an endless stream of documents offering “proof” of one “scam” or another: The town assessor was out to get him, Ashworth was “tapping my phone,” and so on. When Broccoli went on a radio show hosted by a local state representative, the host told him, “Frankly, a sane person would have went away.” That was four years ago.

While everyone had come to the situation with good intentions — to preserve people’s history, to serve people pancakes — they could now only see the worst in one another. Things had only escalated. The Friends accused a local woman of having an affair with one of Broccoli’s friends and leaking sensitive information. A Fishkill femme fatale! The woman confronted Ashworth in an email with “Your lies” in the subject line. “This is not the fourth grade, Lance,” she wrote. “Grow up.” (Ashworth apologized.) One of Broccoli’s spies had recorded Barbara Hobens, the former vice-president of the Friends, joking that Broccoli had connections in the “cement and stone” business. “Begins with M, ends with A,” she said less cryptically. Broccoli gave Hobens a nickname (“Barbara the Bigot”) and sued her for defamation, arguing that she had made “false and malicious statements” about his Italian American heritage. Hobens told me she intends to fight the case and that “my best friend is Italian.”

In 2021, Broccoli asked his cousin, an attorney, about the possibility of bringing a RICO case against the Friends. “A judge is gonna go, ‘So you’re suing all these old people?’” his cousin said. Broccoli did it anyway, filing a suit that characterized Ashworth’s “strangle and bleed” comment as sounding “like a La Cosa Nostra Caporegime.” Broccoli was bringing cannons to a bayonet fight, and the stress of it all was wearing down the insurgents. At one point, the president of the Fishkill Historical Society, another historic-preservation group in town, responded to a heated discussion about a negotiation with Broccoli by sending a lengthy message written mostly in all caps. “I have decided to TENDER MY RESIGNATION AS PRESIDENT OF THE FISHKILL HISTORICAL SOCIETY BOARD!!!” he wrote. “FUCK IT … I QUIT!!!!”

It was possible to see the Battle of Fishkill as a state of our union, 247 years after the Declaration of Independence: two intractable sides, no middle ground, everyone claiming to be the true heirs to George Washington’s ideals. More than 15 years after Sandy first hit bone, it remains unclear exactly what’s under the ground in Fishkill. There’s no proof that the Friends buried anything there and no proof that hundreds of graves are there either. The truth lies in the muddy middle. While Broccoli’s IHOP wasn’t the most inspiring way to honor America’s heroes, if the government stopped every development that may or may not be built on top of something else, America would be all past and no future. Last fall, a New York State judge ruled that Fishkill had to give Continental Commons the approval the town board had denied. Broccoli declared victory. “Like the American Revolutionary War patriots that fought at the Fishkill Supply Depot,” he wrote, “my opponents tried to deprive me of my property rights, but they underestimated me.” This spring, Broccoli cut down a large grove of trees on the property. He says he hopes to begin construction this year.

But for Broccoli, the Continental Commons had started to feel beside the point. “This isn’t about the money anymore,” he told me. “This is about exposing what’s going on. This is about corruption.” More than anything else, Broccoli seemed to be getting a thrill from the fact that his life had taken him from the Culinary Institute of America to a standoff with a federal agent. “He might be from the FBI, but I’m a graduate of the CIA,” he told me on multiple occasions.

The Friends didn’t seem to have much fight left in them — a clash for American history ending with a whimper rather than a bang. They didn’t have the money to buy the property, and some members could admit their effort had always been a bit of a pipe dream. Were Americans really more likely to visit a cemetery connected to a Revolutionary War supply depot than to stop for breakfast? Ashworth resigned as president last year after the FBI transferred him to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Sandy was trying to hold on to a grim piece of advice from a friend who had worked for nearly four decades to protect a historic site in New Jersey — “Wait until your opponents grow old and die” — but the actuarial tables weren’t working in anyone’s favor. Sandy and Broccoli both turn 67 this year. As for Keith Reilly, who took over for Ashworth and led the Memorial Day protest, even he had to admit there are different American Dreams. His wife supported the preservationist cause, but she told him recently that if Broccoli were able to, say, bring Costco to town, she could probably forget about whatever was under the ground.


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The IHOP Kingpin vs. the American Revolutionaries