MINEOLA, N.Y. — He owns a castle and gives generously to charities. Friends and acquaintances say he has done more anonymous good deeds than anyone they know. He also has donated hundreds of thousands to political candidates and counts a retired U.S. senator as a friend. And he was embroiled in a controversy that led to the downfall of a police commissioner.On Monday, he was shot in the head by an unknown masked assailant.Detectives were saying very little Tuesday about who may have wanted to kill Long Island businessman Gary Melius. Officers set up an "informational checkpoint" at a busy thoroughfare near the crime scene but said little else.In the meantime, Melius was interviewed by detectives at the hospital and was counting his blessings. "If this near-death experience has done anything it is a reminder to live each day, celebrate life and embrace your family," the 69-year-old businessman said in a statement.Melius was shot shortly after noon Monday as he got into his car in the parking lot of Oheka Castle, a storied Gold Coast mansion-turned-wedding palace in Huntington, N.Y., where the businessman and his wife live. Police had no description of the assailant, other than the shooter was wearing a mask and said nothing before opening fire.Built to resemble a French chateau, the 127-room Oheka Castle was one of America's largest private homes when it was built for financier Otto Hermann Kahn in 1919, according to its website.It was abandoned and in disrepair when Melius bought it in 1984. He sold it a few years later but regained ownership in 2003. Today, it is known as haven for top political officials and the site of some of Long Island's fanciest weddings.Melius was on his way to a lunch with his friend, former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato when he was shot. D'Amato, who initially described the shooting as an "assassination" attempt, said in a statement that Melius "is in good spirits, is resting comfortably and is recovering, surrounded by his family and friends."Ronald Rosenberg, Melius' attorney and longtime friend, said Melius never forgot his working class roots. "You couldn't ask for a more loyal and devoted and truer friend," Rosenberg said.Melius grew up a truck driver's son in West Hempstead and has spoken frequently of his modest upbringing. He worked odd jobs, including as a plumber's helper and a bowling alley pin setter, before making his fortune as a real estate investor beginning in the late 1970s, buying one property then another during a real estate boom. At one point in the early 1990s, his company owned more than 1 million square feet of buildings, according to Newsday.Melius had several scrapes with law enforcement as a young man. As an 18-year-old in 1963, he was convicted of mischief as a youthful offender for his involvement in a mugging, Newsday reported. In 1971, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors after being arrested for attempting to shake down a drug runner and a scheme to steal and sell heavy equipment.He and his businesses also have been embroiled in dozens of lawsuits, but Rosenberg portrayed them as not unusual for a businessman of Melius' stature."Most of the issues in those lawsuits were amicably resolved," Rosenberg said.Numerous Long Island charities hold fundraisers at Oheka Castle, and Melius is involved with many of them, Rosenberg said.Linda Sweeney, chair of The Cancer Center for Kids at Winthrop University Hospital, said her charity has raised nearly $350,000 annually at Oheka Castle. She said Melius has given the organization a generous break on the cost to rent the venue.Melius and his wife, Pamela, have donated $817,053 to political candidates of various parties since 1999, according to state elections records.Last year, he became embroiled in a controversy that resulted in the resignation of then-Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Dale.The district attorney found that Dale had instructed officers to arrest a 29-year-old Roosevelt man, who had testified that he had been paid to collect signatures for a third-party candidate. Melius, a supporter of the third-party candidate, then contacted Dale seeking to have the young man investigated. The young man was arrested on an outstanding warrant while riding a county bus on Oct. 5.The Nassau County district attorney found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing but raised questions about the ethics of Dale's actions, leading to his resignation.Former state Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs, who still runs the party's Nassau County organization, has been a longtime Melius critic. He questioned whether the district attorney had done enough to investigate the Dale case and was quoted in a Newsday story last year saying, "It often seems to me that all things evil in Nassau County somehow go through Oheka Castle."He said Tuesday that any disputes with Melius are based on politics and said he was sorry to hear of the shooting."That comment was in reference to the political world," he said. "I know him personally. I have been to Oheka Castle and I like him and have enjoyed his company. But we have fundamental disagreements over the way politics should be conducted."
Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.