TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — An assistant district attorney was recognized this week by the Kiwanis Club of Ithaca-Cayuga and colleagues for his nearly three decades of work in Tompkins County.

Gary Surdell, who has spent just about 30 years at the Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office, is set to retire by next spring.

At an award luncheon Monday held by the Kiwanis Club of Ithaca-Cayuga, Surdell received the Frank G. Hammer Officer of the Month Award. Though the award typically goes to officers in law enforcement, sometimes the award goes to people outside of law enforcement. In March, the club honored the Ithaca Fire Department for their work to protect the community.

Over the years, Surdell has covered all types of cases, from high-profile criminal cases in Tompkins County Court to traffic infractions in county courts. He currently handles a hefty caseload in courts across the county, including Dryden, Danby, Newfield, part of the Town of Ithaca, Caroline and Cayuga Heights. He also handles DWI cases in the City of Ithaca.

Despite the hefty caseload, District Attorney Matthew Van Houten said Surdell never complains about taking on another case.

“Gary is a huge asset to the office,” Van Houten said.

Surdell has also lectured about criminal law at Ithaca College for may years. Surdell said he began as a fill-in teaching but loved working with students and continued to lecture when there was an opening, he said.

Deputy District Attorney Andrew Bonavia dredged up some comments for Surdell on, where two students commented that he has the best stories — and long lectures.

Bonavia and Assistant District Attorney Dan Johnson said Surdell has been a mentor in the district attorney’s office.

“If there’s been any sort of foundation of the district attorney’s office over the last 30 years, it’s been Gary,” Bonavia said.

Surdell is also a bit of a TV star.  In 2006, he was featured on “Forensic Files” on Court TV. The episode titled “Dark Waters” examined a 2002 boating hit and run on Cayuga Lake. In the crash, one person was killed and another injured off of Myers Point, where a boat collided with them and kept going. Surdell served as the lead prosecutor on the case which resulted in the conviction of Floyd P. Wright for tampering with evidence and failing to stop and report a boating incident.

At the luncheon Monday, Surdell reflected on his career, which included many “terrifying yet fascinating” cases. He said he covered “the sublime to the ridiculous.”

“I have absolutely no regrets for what I chose to do with my life,” Surdell said.

Featured image: From left, Linda Gafford, who works at NYS Justice Center and wife of Surdell, Assistant District Attorney Gary Surdell, Kiwanis President Mimi Melegrito and District Attorney Matthew Van Houten. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.