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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 30, 2005

A crime of passion: Westervelt convicted for hatchet murder

By Nicole Fay Barr

ALBANY — Erick Westervelt, who just last fall was studying at the University at Albany and aspiring to be a police officer, was convicted Wednesday afternoon of second-degree murder.

After a week-and-a-half trial and one full day of deliberation at the Albany County Courthouse, a jury handed down the guilty verdict. The 12 people were convinced that, using a hatchet, the 23-year-old Guilderland man beat Timothy Gray so severely in the head at his Bethlehem home that Gray died a few days later.

Although Westervelt left behind no DNA evidence, he did write and sign a confession. Prosecutors say he also had a motive: his ex-girlfriend had left him for Gray. (See related trial story.)

On Aug. 25, Westervelt will be sentenced by Judge Joseph C. Teresi.

"I’m very pleased," Assistant District Attorney David Rossi, who prosecuted the case, told The Enterprise after the verdict. "I think the Bethlehem Police Department did an outstanding job."

"I respect the jury," Mark Sacco, Westervelt’s attorney, said in response. "But, my client maintains his innocence that he didn’t do it. The proof is not there; there’s no forensics or eyewitnesses. He’s got an alibi."

The jury was most persuaded by Westervelt’s confession and the fact that he had a motive, Rossi said. The defense tried to convince the jury that Westervelt was interrogated in such a way that he made a false confession.

"The jury didn’t accept that he was coerced into a confession," Rossi said. He said he’s seen false-confession defenses before, but, "I’ve never seen it where the confession was written out and on video."

Westervelt will appeal, Sacco said. "There are significant appellate issues in the case."

Sacco alluded to another brutal murder in Bethlehem that occured soon after Gray’s; Peter Porco was bludgeoned to death in his home and his wife was severely injured. Sacco said that the same unknown assailant had committed both the Gray and Porco murders. No one has been charged in the Porco case.

Asked about Westervelt’s reaction to the verdict, Sacco said, "He’s devastated, of course. He’s facing 25 years to life for something he didn’t do."

Westervelt’s family, too, is taking the verdict hard, Sacco said. His parents, his brother, his three aunts, and some of his friends were in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

It’s a horrible fate for a boy who has never been in trouble, Sacco said.

A young man’s life on the line

By Nicole Fay Barr

ALBANY — The story that unfolded in the Albany County Courthouse this week was one of sharp contrasts: Was 23-year-old Erick Westervelt a brutal murderer who bludgeoned a man with a hatchet and left him to die, or was he a gentle, peace-loving man wrongly accused of a heinous crime"

The prosecution painted a picture of a man who did computer research on murder and sharpening knives before using a hatchet, similar to a boyhood souvenir hatchet that had hung on his bedroom wall, to commit the crime.

This is what the jury ultimately believed. (See related story.)

But, the defense presented witnesses who said Westervelt was home the night of the crime and that his confession, forced by police, was a false one.

Westervelt’s three best friends, the four Guilderland High School graduates inseparable since elementary school, said he’s the nicest, most peaceful person they’ve ever known.

Westervelt’s mother said her son is a good man, who had a little trouble getting over a breakup. She recalled a happier time years ago when, at Lake George, she bought her son a wooden toy hatchet.

His father said Westervelt was with him on the night of Oct. 5 and that he wouldn’t lie for him.

Attorneys Kent Sprotberry and Mark Sacco used all of this Friday to try to convince a jury that Westervelt, of Guilderland, did not do what he is accused of. They say he did not beat Timothy Gray so severely with a hatchet that the man died of head injuries days later. They say that, although Westervelt’s former girlfriend, Jessica Domery, left him for Gray, Westervelt did not kill the man on Oct. 5 in his Bethlehem home.

Westervelt himself also testified that he was home the entire day of Oct. 5 and that he was over Domery.

Sacco said Wednesday, after the jury handed down a guilty verdict, that Westervelt will appeal.

Judge Joseph C. Teresi presided as the defense on Friday called its key witnesses to the stand. After Westervelt’s parents and friends was perhaps the most important witness to the defense — Dr. Allison Redlich. Her testimony was meant to cast doubt on Westervelt’s signed confession to the murder.

The psychologist testified about her research of false confessions. Sprotberry later told The Enterprise that, although Westervelt told police he committed the crime, "He didn’t do it. It was a false confession. That’s what she [Redlich] explained to the jury. It’s newly-developed evidence of false confessions.

"He was at home; his parents told the jury that," Sprotberry said. "There are no forensics to put him there."

The Enterprise this week asked Assistant District Attorney David Rossi, who prosecuted, about DNA evidence in the Westervelt case. He said there was no DNA but experts from a lab said nothing was unusual with that. Rossi also said that Westervelt was familiar with forensic evidence and could hide things.

Friday, Sprotberry told The Enterprise he wanted it to be clear that he doesn’t think the Bethlehem Police tricked Westervelt or forced him to confess. They used common techniques to get a suspect to confess. They pushed hard and Westervelt "cracked," Sprotberry told The Enterprise.

"But, they can’t prove Erick was at the scene," he said.

Asked who else would have the motive to kill Gray, Sprotberry said, "I have no idea who did it." Referring to the prosecution, he said, "The people haven’t followed up with that; they haven’t found who did it."

Rossi spent most of Friday trying to punch holes in the defense’s claims. He asked how Westervelt’s parents could remember everything about Oct. 5, but nothing about the day before. Perhaps it was too long ago, he said. He asked the parents if they would lie for their son.

Rossi had witnesses describe an earlier confrontation between Westervelt and Gray; they fought over Domery.

Of false confessions, Rossi asked, "Don’t...suspects ever lie just to lie""

Terrible night

Late on the night of Oct. 5, Bethlehem Police told The Enterprise last fall, someone went to Timothy Gray’s house, at 95A Elsmere Ave., and beat him in the head and face with a hatchet. The suspect then repeatedly kicked Gray when he was on the ground, police say.

More than 12 hours after Gray was attacked, he was found by a neighbor; he was lying on his porch, said Lieutenant Thomas Heffernan.

Gray, 28, was semi-conscious and suffering from severe skull and facial fractures and from trauma to his torso, Heffernan said. Gray was taken to a hospital where he died five days later.

Before Gray died, police began trying to find the perpetrator of the assault.

"After interviewing several neighbors and a couple of people who lived at the house, but weren’t home at the time...it led us to Westervelt," Heffernan told The Enterprise soon after the arrest.

Police believed that, since Domery left Westervelt for Gray and Westervelt had fought with Gray at the house earlier, Westervelt assaulted Gray on Oct. 5. Domery, who was sharing her home with Gray, was out of town at the time of the assault, police say.

On Oct. 8, Westervelt, then a senior at the University at Albany, was charged with second-degree attempted murder, first-degree assault, and trespassing.

Gray died Oct. 10 and, on Oct. 12, Westervelt was arraigned on second-degree murder charges.

At the trial Friday, about 15 people, either Gray’s relatives or friends, sat on the right side of the courtroom. His sister, Jennifer, sat in the front row, intently listening to the testimony.

As pictures of the crime scene were shown on a large screen — photos of Gray’s sandals found near the porch or splattered blood on a frog garden ornament — some members of Gray’s family quietly wept.

On the left side of the courtroom were about eight of Westervelt’s relatives and friends. His friends, wearing suits and short haircuts, looked just as clean-cut as he.

They, too, leaned forward to listen to witnesses. When witnesses paused to consider a question, the bystanders seemed to be holding their breath. Only the quiet buzz of an air conditioner in the grand courtroom could be heard.

Meanwhile, a jury of seven men and seven women — 12 plus two alternates — about half middle-aged and half in their 20’s, listened.


Friday afternoon, Westervelt’s mother, Wendy, took the stand. As Sacco displayed a picture of the family’s large, white house with a perfectly-manicured lawn — at 659 Salvia Lane in Guilderland — Wendy Westervelt described the inside of the house.

Then, with a series of step-by-step questions, Sacco asked Westervelt to describe what she did on Oct. 5.

She said she arrived at her job, at the state’s Department of Civil Service, at 8:40 a.m. She stopped for gas on the way home and arrived at her house at 5:15 p.m., she said.

Erick Westervelt’s car was in the driveway, his mother said, and she heard him lifting weights in the basement as she walked past the cellar door.

Wendy Westervelt then described, minute by minute, changing her clothes, checking the mail, using her computer, eating a pasta dinner, and watching the vice presidential debate on television.

She saw her son at 7:10 p.m., at 7:40 p.m., at 10:30 p.m., and again at about 11:20 p.m., she said. Wendy Westervelt said she saw her son one last time, just before midnight, when she walked past his room to say goodnight.

When Rossi cross-examined Wendy Westervelt, she was less open to providing information. The prosecutor asked her similar questions about her activities on Oct. 4.

She didn’t remember what time she got home from work that day, Wendy Westervelt said, and she didn’t remember what she ate for dinner.

She said she bought groceries that day, but, when asked, said she didn’t remember what any of them were.

"That’s a long time ago; I don’t know," Westervelt said.

Rossi countered that this was only one day prior to Oct. 5, where she recalled every move she made.

At another point, she described her son playing a video game in his room.

"What time was that"" Rossi asked.

"Eight"" Westervelt said, in a questioning tone.

"Are you asking me or telling me"" Rossi asked.

"I’m telling you," Westervelt said, through gritted teeth.

Sacco objected, asking the relevance of all of these questions. Judge Teresi overruled the objection.

Both Sacco and Rossi asked Wendy Westervelt to describe Oct. 9, when the Bethlehem Police came to search her home. Police were looking for a wood hatchet, she said.

"They asked me five or six times and I told them Erick was home," that night, Westervelt said.

"Did you ever call the DA’s office and say that"" the prosecutor asked. If his child was with him and was then accused of murder, Rossi said he would have called the district attorney’s office.

"Did you stand on a mountaintop and say, ‘He was home’"" Rossi asked.

"No, I didn’t," Westervelt said.

After this, John Westervelt, Erick’s father, took the stand. Sacco also asked him to describe the events of Oct. 5. John Westervelt said he saw his son several times that night, and had watched part of a Yankees game with him.

Almost exactly as his wife had said, John Westervelt said he went to bed at 11:20 p.m., and, at 11:40, Erick Westervelt stuck his head into his parents’ bedroom and reported the final score of the game.

"Did you discuss the case with your wife before coming here"" asked Rossi. "The events of that night, her memories and yours, the times""

"She’s talked to me before about things, but I didn’t know exactly what she was going to say," John Westervelt said.

"Do you know what times your wife saw Erick that night"" Rossi asked.

"I don’t know. I wasn’t there," John Westervelt said.

"But, your son is on trial for murder, sir," Rossi said. "Did you discuss the alibi""

"No," Westervelt said.

Later, Rossi asked, "Do you care about your son" Do you care enough to lie for him""

"No," Westervelt said.

Toy hatchet

Sacco also questioned Wendy Westervelt about a wooden toy hatchet she bought for her son, when he was 11 years old. The hatchet hung on Erick Westervelt’s bedroom wall for years, his mother said, and she last saw it about two years ago.

She described a trip to Lake George she took with her sons, Erick and his younger brother, Jason. The three rode the ship, The Mini-ha-ha, and then Wendy Westervelt bought her older son the hatchet, she said. Since Jason Westervelt was three years old at the time and not old enough to play with a hatchet, his mother bought him a whistle, she said.

Taking the hatchet out of a brown paper "evidence" bag, Sacco asked Westervelt to describe it. Holding the item, she said it was about 12 to 14 inches long, made of solid wood, with the hatchet part measuring about five or six inches.

During the trial, it was stated that police had asked about several hatchets in the Westervelt household, but focused on this toy hatchet. It was a piece of wood, in the shape of a hatchet, with souvenir-type writing on it, but no visible blood stains.

The hatchet was taken from the Westervelt home when police searched it after the crime.

Rossi told The Enterprise this week that the toy hatchet from Lake George was not the murder weapon, but that it is similar to the hatchet they believe was used. And, he said, Westervelt confessed to using a similar hatchet.

Sacco responded, through The Enterprise, that, during Westervelt’s interrogation, police asked him what he would have assaulted Gray with, if he wanted to beat him. Westervelt talked about his toy hatchet, he said.

Computer search

Computer records also came into question during the trial. A Bethlehem investigator testified that he had searched Westervelt’s computer and found that, on Sept. 9, someone typed the word "murder" into a search engine.

"How to sharpen a knife" was also found to have been researched that day and Rossi placed the computer printouts of these searches on a large screen.

Sprotberry asked the investigator if there were any way to determine if Erick Westervelt had typed these words into the computer. He said there wasn’t.

The prosecutor countered, "Is there any evidence that someone from outside hacked into that computer""

The investigator said, "No."

Sprotberry then questioned the date of the search. A computer’s clock can be changed to make a search look like it happened before or after it did, he said.

One computer in the Westervelt house, which is located in Wendy and John Westervelt’s bedroom, is hooked up to the Internet, Wendy Westervelt said.

Sacco asked Wendy Westervelt if she ever searched murder stories. She had, she said, researching articles on a sniper that struck the Washington, D.C. area in 2002.

Rossi later asked Westervelt if she came home from work on Sept. 9 to do an Internet search. She said she did not.

He asked if she had adjusted the clock ever, by more than a few minutes. She said she had not. He asked if the time on her computer was kept accurately.

"As far as I know," Westervelt said.

Rossi later asked John Westervelt if he had ever done a computer search on murder. He said he had not.

Relationship and character

Wendy Westervelt said that she had never met Jessica Domery, but her son talked about the young woman. They began dating in December of 2003 and broke up in June of 2004.

"How did he handle the breakup"" asked Sacco.

"Not very well," Wendy Westervelt said. "He was moody. He would keep to himself a lot."

To vent his frustrations, her son would play basketball and lift weights often, she said.

Answering Sacco’s questions, Wendy Westervelt said that, after her son encountered Domery on July 8 of last year, he became depressed and "was drinking a bit." The family went to a wedding and Domery was supposed to be Erick Westervelt’s date.

In August, Wendy Westervelt said, her son was still depressed, but things got better. In September, she said, he was better still.

"So, when he was depressed over Jessica, he’d shoot hoops, lift weights"" Rossi asked.

"Yes, and he’d throw darts," Wendy Westervelt said.

"Like on Oct. 5"" Rossi asked.

Westervelt said this was different, because her son had music playing that day.

After Westervelt’s parents testified, the man’s three friends took the stand. Seth Knupp, Justin Wittig, and Ajay Dhar each said they had been friends with Erick Westervelt since elementary school.

Each of the college graduates wore suits and appeared nervous; Knupp and Wittig were sweating.

Sprotberry asked all three about Westervelt, "Are you familiar with his reputation for peacefulness in the community""

All three answered that they were and said Westervelt has always been a quiet, gentle person. Their friend warms up after getting to know someone and is then very friendly and considerate, they said.

Rossi asked Knupp and Wittig if they were aware that Westervelt had assaulted officers while in jail.

They said they had heard something about it.

False confessions

Friday afternoon, Dr. Allison Redlich took the stand for the defense. She is a psychologist from Delmar who has studied and written about false confessions for 13 years.

It can be proven that a person made a false confession in four ways, Redlich said. The first way is through DNA, she said, if another person’s DNA is found at the scene and the accused person’s is not.

Second, she said, is if the true perpetrator confesses or is otherwise apprehended. Third is if the crime didn’t occur. Redlich cited a case in China where a person was executed for murder and it was later found that the suspect’s alleged victim was still alive.

The last way is if it is physically impossible for a person to have committed the crime. For example, Redlich said, if the person was in jail at the time or if they have a solid alibi.

Redlich said she knows of at least 160 false confessions that have been discovered. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many more, she said.

The most famous case is that of the Central Park jogger, she said. In 1989, a woman was raped and murdered in New York City. Police apprehended five teenagers who confessed to being involved in the crime.

They were convicted only on their confessions, Redlich said, and they served time in prison. Thirteen years later, she said, a man confessed to raping and killing the jogger. His DNA matched a sample on a pair of socks taken at the scene; none of the five who were convicted had DNA at the scene, she said.

To understand false confessions, Redlich said, one has to believe that most confessions are true. Research shows that 50 to 60 percent of people accused of crimes confess, she said.

Why this many" Because police have special techniques to get people to confess, Redlich said.

First, officers may isolate a suspect and make them uncomfortable. Police put the suspect in a small, windowless room that is usually very hot, she said. The suspect is in an uncomfortable chair, she said.

"It’s a stressful situation by design," Redlich said.

Next, she said, the suspect is confronted in a "guilt-presumptive process."

"I’m not saying that cops are mean," Redlich said. "They really believe the suspect is guilty."

But, she said, police often use something called confirmation bias. That is, they only seek out information that confirms the suspect is guilty. They discount denials or other information that may be inconsistent with the data they have, she said.

After confronting the suspect, telling him that they know he is guilty, police may then befriend the suspect, Redlich said. They may shift the blame from the suspect or tell him that they know the crime was an accident, she said.

"It creates a situation where it’s easier to confess to something if you’re not as accountable," Redlich said.

Police may also refuse to listen to any denials. After trying to deny the crime dozens of times, the suspect begins to feel that asserting his innocence is hopeless, she said.

"It creates a situation of such utter despair and hopelessness that you must confess to get yourself away from the situation," Redlich said.

"Police may say, ‘I have an eyewitness who saw you there or your DNA will be found in the car...I can only help you if you confess,’" she said.

The suspect knows his DNA can’t be found at the scene and thinks justice will prevail, Redlich said. So, he confesses to get himself out of the uncomfortable interrogation, which may have lasted several hours.

In the cross-examination, Rossi asked Redlich, "Do you think suspects ever lie just to lie or is it always the cops’ fault""

"Oh no," Redlich said. "That’s why I said most confessions are true."

Of the Central Park jogger case, Rossi asked, didn’t the prosecutor know the DNA at the scene didn’t match the five suspects, but the jury accepted they were involved in the crime.

In 1989, DNA evidence wasn’t as accepted as it is now, Redlich said. There is also a myth that people don’t make false confessions, she said.

Rossi asked Redlich if she were aware that the man who later confessed to killing the jogger told other inmates that he had the five suspects help him.

"I don’t know," Redlich said.

"And this case is the cornerstone of false confession"" Rossi asked.

"I wouldn’t call it a cornerstone," Redlich said. "It’s a famous case."

"What if someone provides details to police that police didn’t give them and those details are true — does that give you any indication of false confession"" Rossi asked.

"I’d have to see it with my own eyes and hear it with my own ears," Redlich said.

Rossi then had Redlich describe how she researched false confessions. She did one study where she had a group of people in a room with computers. She told them not hit the "alt" key because, if they did, the computer would crash.

Redlich then had the volunteers hit a series of keys on the computer, avoiding the alt key. Then, without their knowledge, she made the computers crash.

Although no one hit the alt key, Redlich said, 26 percent of the volunteers said they probably did. They made false confessions, she said.

Rossi asked if Redlich had cameras directly above the computers, to be sure that no one actually hit the alt key. She said she didn’t.

"So you can’t say with certainty that those who confessed didn’t hit the alt key"" he asked.

"No," she said.

"Isn’t it true that crashing a computer is different from a very serious criminal case"" Rossi asked.

"Yes," said Redlich.

Westervelt’s side

Late Friday afternoon, the defense called Erick Westervelt to the stand. As he sat in the witness box, Westervelt’s cheeks were red, but he appeared confident.

Friday, he told the jury that he was attending the University at Albany, studying history, until his arrest last October. He has been in Albany County’s jail ever since.

Westervelt said he had a normal, happy life before October. He worked at various stores in Crossgates Mall and he liked to play baseball and basketball, he said.

"Did you have any girlfriends"" Sacco asked.

"I wouldn’t call them steady girlfriends," Westervelt said. "They were girls I would meet at parties and fool around with a little bit. Nothing serious."

This, Westervelt said, was until he met Jessica Domery. He met her at Jillian’s, a restaurant-bar-nightclub in Albany, in December of 2003. They were introduced by friends and dated for about half a year until June of 2004, he said.

"Jessica said she was breaking up with me because Tim [Gray] came back and she wanted to be with him instead," Westervelt said.

That same month, Westervelt was upset over the breakup and was drinking, he said. He went to her house in Bethlehem around midnight and had a conversation with her outside, he said.

"Then, Tim came out and started yelling at me," Westervelt said. "He pushed me and I pushed him back."

After the two scuffled, Westervelt told the jury, Gray asked Domery if she had had sex with Westervelt.

"She said no and I stood there in disbelief," Westervelt said. He left the property and never saw Gray again, he said.

The next month, on July 8, Domery sent Westervelt a text message via cell phone with the question, "One more time"" he said. He spent that night at her house in Bethlehem, he said.

After that, Westervelt said he spoke to Domery once or twice more, but had no physical contact with her.

He spoke to Gray on the phone once more that summer, on July 12. Westervelt said the conversation was "mostly him yelling at me."

The interrogation

On Oct. 7, a day-and-a-half after Gray was found beaten, Westervelt had just finished a statistics test when two Bethlehem detectives confronted him at his car, he said.

"They said they wanted to ask me questions about my relationship with Jessica Domery," Westervelt reported. "I said I would answer any questions."

After a few minutes of talking to Westervelt, the detectives asked him to come to the police station, he said. He agreed and they suggested he ride in the police car because it was easier, Westervelt said.

Sacco interrupted this line of questioning by asking Westervelt if he had ever taken an exam to become a police officer. He said that, in December of 2003, he took an Albany Police test and, in March of 2004, he took a State Police exam.

Westervelt said he had gotten almost perfect scores on both tests and that he wanted to become an undercover officer.

When questioned, Westervelt went back to describing a police interrogation that occurred on Oct. 7 and again on Oct. 8 when he agreed to take a polygraph test at the Albany Police Station.

A polygraph is an instrument, often used as a lie detector, that records changes in physiological functions like heartbeat, blood pressure, and respiration.

Westervelt said, at first, officers befriended him, talking about sports and other subjects, and they bought him a double cheeseburger at Burger King. Later, in a small room with no windows, he was told that Gray was accusing him of the assault, he said.

Westervelt said he told police 30 or 40 times that he didn’t do it, but they wouldn’t believe him.

"It was very stressful and very hard and I was very annoyed because every single time I told them I didn’t do it, it didn’t matter to them," Westervelt said. "I could not leave. I could not physically walk out the door and breath. I didn’t have my car and, when I said I wanted to leave, they said I wasn’t allowed."

He agreed to take a polygraph test to prove his innocence, Westervelt said.

Westervelt was first shown three cards — one was yellow, one was red, and the third was yellow with a red dot, he said. Police told him to say each card was yellow, he said.

But, when he was shown the red card and asked if it was yellow, he said no, Westervelt told the jury. The detective got angry, he said, so he changed his answer.

Then, Westervelt said, he was asked questions about assaulting Gray.

"They asked me if Jessica paid me to hurt Tim," he said.

Then, Westervelt said, he was shown cards and asked to tell which number was written on each card. He got into an argument with the detective then, he said, and he discovered that the needles on the polygraph had not fluctuated.

"At that point, I said, ‘This is bullshit. You’re going to tell me I’m lying no matter what,’" Westervelt reported. "I started pulling at the wires."

Westervelt reported the policeman told him, "You’re stopping the test because you’re lying. You’re a liar."

Although Westervelt asked to see a lawyer several times, he said he was never taken to a lawyer.

"Why didn’t you run"" asked Sacco.

"Because I had nowhere to go," Westervelt said.

Gray’s sister says: ‘This won’t bring my brother back’

By Nicole Fay Barr

ALBANY — Jennifer Gray felt both relief and sadness Wednesday, as a jury handed down a guilty verdict to Erick Westervelt, the man prosecutors say killed Gray’s brother, Timothy.

"Obviously our family is very pleased that the jury saw the truth for what it was," Jennifer Gray told The Enterprise Wednesday evening. "Unfortunately, it’s not going to bring my brother back."

Timothy Gray was a sweet man who loved his friends and family, his sister said. At 28, his life was cut too short, she said.

Late on the night of Oct. 5, Bethlehem Police told The Enterprise last fall, Westervelt went to Gray’s house, at 95A Elsmere Ave., and beat him in the head and face with a hatchet. Gray died five days later.

Westervelt, of Guilderland, was jealous over a woman, police said. He confessed to the assault and, Wednesday, was found guilty. (See related stories.)

This week, Jennifer Gray, who lives with her family in Westchester County, described getting a call from Bethlehem Police on Oct. 6. Detectives told her to come to Albany Medical Center right away, she said, because her brother was severely injured.

"It was just heart-breaking when we saw him," Gray said. "His injuries were gruesome."

Timothy Gray was in a coma, his sister said, and she never got to speak to him again.

"Easygoing person"

Timothy Gray was the middle child of three siblings. His sister, Jennifer, is three years older.

"We were close," she said. "Tim had a heart of gold. He would do anything for anybody and his smile would melt your heart."

Gray graduated from Plattsburgh State University and made many friends there, his sister said. He belonged to a fraternity, to which he was very loyal, she said. Many of his fraternity "brothers" attended Westervelt’s trial, she said.

Gray moved to Bethlehem last July, to be with his girlfriend, Jessica Domery, his sister said. He delivered water for Culligan Water in Troy.

"He was funny," his sister went on. "He was such an easygoing person."

Timothy Gray loved the Yankees and he played hockey and baseball, his sister said.

Dealing with death

Jennifer Gray said she suspected right away that Westervelt had assaulted her brother. She knew the two were having "issues," she said, over a woman.

Domery had dated Timothy Gray for five-and-a-half years, his sister said. For a half-year, from December of 2003 to June of 2004, she dated Westervelt, witnesses testified. Then, Domery left Westervelt to go back to Gray.

Asked about her feelings for Domery, Jennifer Gray said, "Unfortunately it’s a sad situation for everybody. She made some bad decisions. As a woman, you never think dating someone else will lead to someone being killed...Hopefully this will be a lesson for other people."

Gray, along with her parents and other brother, commuted from their Westchester County home and stayed in the area to sit through every day of the trial. Many of Timothy Gray’s friends also sat through the testimony.

The trial was difficult, Jennifer Gray said. The worst part was hearing the descriptions of how Timothy Gray was beaten, she said.

"It sent chills through my body," she said.

But, she said, she understood that the defense attorneys had a job to do. She repeated this when The Enterprise asked how she felt about Westervelt’s intention to appeal.

"I don’t have faith that that would ever come to be," she said. "It’s like grasping at straws, but, it’s Erick’s right to do that. In the end, things will work out and Erick will get what he deserves."

Jennifer Gray said she was nervous while waiting a full day for the jury to deliberate. "Once I heard the word ‘guilty,’ I let out a lot of emotion. It was a relief and, at the same time, I had to put it in perspective because it’s not going to bring Tim back," she said.

Her family has done a lot of crying, Jennifer Gray said. They try to help each other through the tough moments, she said. They know Timothy Gray’s death was senseless, she said, and they don’t try to figure out its reason.

They will never forgive Westervelt, she said, but now that he has been found guilty, her family can "begin the healing process."

Jennifer Gray spoke to a woman whose child was murdered, she said. The woman told her that the pain never goes away, but she finds ways to learn to appreciate the limited time she had with her child.

"We had 28 great years with Tim," his sister said. "He cherished every day he had with his family and friends and Jessica. He tried to live life everyday to its fullest....We learned that from him and that’s what we’re trying to do now."

Kutey arraigned for causing hostage crisis

By Nicole Fay Barr

ALBANY — Jason Kutey was expressionless Friday as he slowly walked with a guard through the Albany County courtroom. He looked pale in his orange jumpsuit and his hands and feet were manacled.

He was there to be arraigned on charges of imprisoning and kidnapping his ex-girlfriend.

In court papers, police said that, in May, Kutey had used handcuffs, similar to the ones now on his wrists, when he kidnapped his ex-girlfriend and took her to Lake Placid.

"I was very scared," the ex-girlfriend wrote of the Lake Placid kidnapping in her deposition. "Jason told me that he was going to kill himself and he wanted me to watch because I broke up with him."

An order of protection was issued for the ex-girlfriend after the May 17 incident; Kutey was then arrested for kidnapping and taken to Albany County’s jail.

A month later, as Kutey was out on bail, he committed a similar crime in Guilderland, police say.

On June 16, the very day he was due in court on the May 17 charges, police say Kutey held his ex-girlfriend hostage with an assault rifle in her new boyfriend’s home, on Woodscape Drive in Guilderland.

As Kutey was to be arraigned for this on Friday, no relatives or friends were in the courtroom. His arraignment was adjourned until Monday.

Then, on Monday, the 28-year-old was arraigned on several felony charges. He pleaded "not guilty" to all: two counts of second-degree kidnapping; two counts of first-degree unlawful imprisonment; first-degree criminal contempt; third-degree criminal possession of a weapon; and three counts of first-degree burglary.

Guilderland Police described last week how the hostage situation turned a quiet McKownville neighborhood upside down; over a hundred officers and paramedics swarmed the area.

Albany Police Detective Jack Grogan told The Enterprise last week how, after two hours, he got Kutey to surrender to police and let his ex-girlfriend go.

Grogan didn’t think Kutey was a threat to his 19-year-old ex-girlfriend, he said. Grogan actually had to convince her to leave the house, because she was worried Kutey would kill himself, Grogan said.

Grogan spoke to her on the phone and convinced her to come outside. About 10 minutes later, he convinced Kutey to come out, too.

During the dramatic exchange Kutey had with Grogan, Kutey revealed that he just wanted someone to listen, the detective said.

"They broke up and he couldn’t handle it," Grogan told The Enterprise. Kutey was arrested last month in Colonie for kidnapping the same ex-girlfriend and was due in court last Thursday for charges from that incident.

The Enterprise was able to obtain police documents this week that describe the Colonie incident. The newspaper is withholding the name of the ex-girlfriend because it has a policy of not printing the names of victims.

Kutey could not be reached for comment this week. His attorney, E. Stewart Jones, did not return calls from The Enterprise.

Ex-girlfriend’s story

In her supporting deposition, the ex-girlfriend described the events of May 17 and 18.

She said that, on the morning of May 17, Kutey called her and asked if she would watch his sister’s baby because his sister was in the hospital. The ex-girlfriend agreed, she said, and met Kutey in the parking lot of Latham Farms in Latham.

The ex-girlfriend got into Kutey’s truck, thinking he was taking her to his sister. As they got on the Northway, Kutey asked her for her cell phone, she said; he said he needed it for work. He then took the battery out of the phone and threw it in the back of the truck, the ex-girlfriend said.

Next, she said, Kutey grabbed her left arm with his right hand and, with his left hand, locked one end of a handcuff around her wrist and the other end around his right wrist.

"He then said plans have changed," the ex-girlfriend wrote in her statement.

As the pair continued up the Northway, Kutey instructed his ex-girlfriend to place a sweatshirt over their cuffed hands, so truck drivers wouldn’t see them, she said. She was hysterically crying, she said, and Kutey told her to hide her face.

"He told me not to look out the window as we passed other cars so they would not see me crying hysterically," the ex-girlfriend wrote. "He would tell me to put my hand up to cover my face when a car went by, he said to me if anyone sees me crying, don’t do anything stupid because he’ll have to hurt me."

Kutey later stopped at a gas station, unlocked the handcuff attached to his wrist, and locked it to a chain in the truck, the ex-girlfriend said. While Kutey was in the gas station, the ex-girlfriend tried to roll down the window of the truck, but couldn’t she said. She also tried to move into the driver’s seat, but couldn’t, she said.

Kutey drove through the village of Lake Placid and then down a road, possibly Whiteface Lane, the ex-girlfriend wrote. He took her to an isolated log cabin that he said he rented from a friend, she said.

"Jason took the handcuff off me and he told me if I try to call anyone or run he would hurt me and make me watch him kill himself," she wrote.

It was about 11 p.m., she said. In the cabin, Kutey said to her, "Look what I did for us," the ex-girlfriend reported. Kutey kept hugging her and trying to kiss her, she said.

The two walked around the cabin and Kutey disconnected and hid all of the telephones, she said. After a brief conversation, the ex-girlfriend went upstairs to bed. She wore all of her clothes, but got under the covers, she said.

Kutey spoke to his mother on the phone and then came to bed, the ex-girlfriend said. He took off his clothes and laid next to her, she said.

"I laid there all night but couldn’t sleep," she wrote. "I couldn’t stop picturing Jason killing himself and I didn’t know what I was going to do."

The next day, the ex-girlfriend took a shower and used the bathroom with Kutey standing in the doorway watching, she said. He asked her questions, but she mostly remained silent, she said.

He then asked her if she would give him a second chance, she said.

"I said to him, ‘I don’t know what to think right now. You’re a psycho’," she wrote.

They went to a diner and silently ate breakfast, the ex-girlfriend wrote. Then they went to Rite-Aid, bought a home-pregnancy test, and went back to the cabin, she said.

"Jason thought that I might be pregnant so he wanted to know," the ex-girlfriend wrote. "We went back to the house and I did the test....While we were waiting, he was saying I hope you’re pregnant and how great it would be and we would work everything out. I was praying I wasn’t."

The test was negative, she said, and Kutey was upset.

Kidnapping arrest

After a while, the ex-girlfriend told Kutey she would give him a second chance. He then agreed to take her back to her car in Latham, she said.

Meanwhile, the ex-girlfriend’s roommate, with whom she was living in Delmar, alerted police that she was missing.

In her supporting deposition, the roommate said that, on May 17, the ex-girlfriend told her she was going to baby-sit Kutey’s nephew and bring the child to the roommate’s house. Hours passed and the roommate began to worry, she said.

At 10:20 that night, the roommate wrote, Kutey called the roommate and said that the ex-girlfriend was staying with him for the night. Kutey told the roommate that the ex-girlfriend would call her later, she said.

"I was worried about her and, at that point, it just felt weird," the roommate wrote. "I knew that [name withheld] wasn’t going to get back together with Jason and that she was with a new boyfriend. It didn’t add up to me."

The next day, May 18, the roommate still didn’t hear from the ex-girlfriend. After leaving messages on both the ex-girlfriend’s and Kutey’s cell phones and after visiting Kutey’s empty house, the roommate and her mother decided to call the Bethlehem Police.

As an officer arrived at the roommate’s house, she was able to get Kutey on her speakerphone. The roommate asked to speak to the ex-girlfriend and Kutey said she was sleeping. The roommate said she heard Kutey shouting the ex-girlfriend’s name.

A Bethlehem officer, as well as the roommate’s mother and sister, all wrote similar depositions claiming this. The ex-girlfriend wrote that she stayed silent when Kutey was on the phone with her roommate.

The Bethlehem officer then spoke to Kutey. He was advised to bring the ex-girlfriend back to Latham Farms, statements say.

The ex-girlfriend said that Kutey told her to "hug him like nothing was wrong," when they arrived in the parking lot. Kutey told her to tell the cop that they went to Lake George to work things out and that everything is fine, she wrote.

Colonie Police did not arrive at the parking lot in time, the ex-girlfriend said. She hugged Kutey, as instructed, and then got into her car and drove off, she said.

On her cell phone, she spoke to police who told her to meet them at Target, she said. She did and that day she obtained an order of protection against Kutey.

Meanwhile, Kutey was stopped at Warren Tire, in Latham.

In an oral admission form, Kutey stated to police, "So who’s pressing charges against me anyway, [the roommate] or [the ex-girlfriend]" That [roommate] is a pain in the ass, she needs to leave us alone. The only thing I did to her was lie to her on the phone and told her that we went to Lake George when we went to Lake Placid, and there’s no law against that."

Later, Kutey told a judge, "I can prove that she was able to leave all day today. We were at least four places that have video. We were up in Lake Placid, we ate breakfast at a diner for about an hour, then we went to a Stewart’s and I was inside and she was outside for a little bit."

Police search for attacker

By Nicole Fay Barr

GUILDERLAND — A roadblock was set up outside of Altamont Wednesday morning as Guilderland Police searched for a man whom they say attacked a Danvers Street woman.

Guilderland Police Detective John Tashjian told The Enterprise that, at 9:43 Tuesday morning, they received a call that a young woman was assaulted in her home, at 146 Danvers St., just outside the village of Altamont.

A light-skinned African-American or Hispanic male, dressed all in black, came into the house and tried to choke the woman, Tashjian said. At first it was believed that he crawled through a back window, the detective said, but later determined that he didn’t.

"His entry point is unknown," Tashjian said. It is also not known what the suspect was doing there, he said. The suspect did not take anything and did not try to rape the woman, Tashjian said.

The young woman was able to get away from the suspect and run to a neighbor’s house, where she called 911, Tashjian said.

Altamont Police arrived within three minutes, he said, and Guilderland Police, with a police dog, soon followed. The victim did not know if the suspect left on foot or if he drove away in a vehicle, Tashjian said. The area was searched, but the suspect was not found, he said.

Wednesday morning at about 8:30, a roadblock was set up for three hours, on Route 146 near the home.

Police asked drivers questions such as, "Did you see a tall male in his 20’s here yesterday"" and "Did you see a mulatto man wearing all black""

Since people usually drive the same route at the same time of day, police had hoped to find someone with information. They did not, Tashjian said.

Police are now hoping to create a composite sketch of the suspect, based on the young woman’s memory, he said.

Asked if people living in this area should be worried that the suspect is still loose, Tashjian said residents should always lock their doors and be cautious of perpetrators.

Anyone with information is asked to call Guilderland Police at 356-1501.

Revised rural plan praised

By Nicole Fay Barr

GUILDERLAND — A massive protest from rural landowners melted into words of praise at a hearing last week on a plan to preserve open space in western Guilderland.

Over the past several months, as the group of strenuously opposed parts of the plan, its creator, John Behan, a consultant hired by the town, has said that he’s never felt criticized.

Last Tuesday, as the landowners, who once said the plan violated their rights, voiced overwhelming support for a revised version, Behan praised them for being involved.

"They rolled up their sleeves and we worked together," Behan told The Enterprise. "It’s always easier to be a critic and not a problem-solver, but they did both. They didn’t throw rocks and run."

At its meeting last week, the Guilderland Town Board seemed ready to approve Behan’s plan, which, he said, has minor changes and much definition clarification. The board put off voting until its July 12 meeting, however, to wait for a final version of the revised plan.

"I feel it’s a workable plan that will be good for the future of the town," said Gary Pruskowski. The plan now seems more like a set of guidelines, rather than a list of rules and regulations, he told The Enterprise.

Pruskowski, a Guilderland farmer, is president of the citizens’ group, Landowners Offering Guilderland Intelligent Choices (LOGIC), that formed earlier this year. Members of the group organized before the town board’s first public hearing on the plan and pointed out what they thought were flaws.

LOGIC then encouraged dozens of residents to speak out against the plan. At that hearing in March, many said that Behan’s plan would take away their rights as landowners.

Behan told The Enterprise then that these concerns were more philosophic than realistic.

"Some people just don’t believe in zoning," he said. "None of us likes rules and regulations, but, to live without them would be foolish."

Other LOGIC complaints were that the town doesn’t encourage expansion and development for the economic benefit of those living in western Guilderland.

The western half of town, which, except for the village of Altamont, does not have municipal water, is rural while the eastern part — with water — is largely developed.

LOGIC members have said they want town water so their part of town could be developed.

Others at public workshops, however, have stated they are glad western Guilderland does not have municipal water, because that keeps developers away.

Behan’s plan has since been revised to give some incentives to developers who provide public water to others.


The rural Guilderland plan was drafted by Behan, of Behan Planning Associates, as part of the town’s implementing its comprehensive land-use plan.

Behan has been working for over a year on town guidelines for farmland and open-space conservation. Behan’s plan consists of an open-space and farmland protection plan, rural design guidelines for the town, and a proposal for a new hamlet zoning district.

Last Tuesday’s hearing on the plan was dramatically different than the March public hearing. While the hearing in March was packed with over 100 people and many voiced strong objections to the plan, at last Tuesday’s, only 20 people attended the meeting and no one spoke against it.

At Tuesday’s hearing, brothers Joseph and John Abbruzzese both thanked the town supervisor and board, the town planner, and Behan for working with LOGIC.

"We’ve met constantly over the last two or three months," Joseph Abbruzzese said. "You’ve been very, very helpful."

At the March public hearing, eight members of the Abbruzzese family had spoken separately. The Abbruzzeses own Altamont Orchards, Orchard Creek Golf Course, and much land on Dunnsville Road; all are members of LOGIC.

The Abbruzzeses and several other speakers at that hearing emphasized that selling their land is how they plan to support themselves in retirement. If the town put zoning or lot-size restrictions on their properties, they said, the land will be devalued if they try to sell it.

Behan told The Enterprise in response then that this isn’t true. Smart zoning helps protect property values, he said.

"If there’s good planning and good zoning, people are confident in investing in that land," Behan said.

This week, Behan told The Enterprise that new changes to the plan include increasing the size of proposed country hamlet districts from 40 acres to 160 acres. The idea of clustering, to encourage open space, remains, but more businesses are now allowed.

In the plan, some special uses have been expanded, such as the addition of a home occupation that allows up to three employees. Offices are also allowed, but not stores or retail sales.

Behan also added the option of country stores — small businesses that can sell products — as a special use, he said. The country stores can be up to 5,000 square feet. Non-agricultural retail products can be sold there with some limits, he said.

As part of the open-space subdivision provisions there will be open land. If the benefited use of the property is mainly private, a homeowners’ association may take care of it. If it’s more publicly accessible, the town can decide to maintain it.

The revised plan offers more incentives for maintaining open space in a country hamlet. Before, landowners who kept over 60 percent of their land as open space got a density bonus from the town board. Now, if they maintain 75 percent or more as open, the landowner will be awarded additional bonuses.

Also, if a proposed developer agrees to extend public water along corridors where water is not currently provided, they may be awarded bonuses.

"Overall, the intent hasn’t changed, but some of the specifics have," Behan said.

Since the last public hearing, the town and Behan have had three or four meetings with LOGIC and several phone and e-mail conversations.

Asked if he were surprised at the support for the plan last week, Supervisor Kenneth Runion said he wasn’t. The meetings and conversations with LOGIC were positive, he told The Enterprise.

Major changes weren’t made to the plan, Runion said. Rather, he said, the intent of the plan was clarified. He has always supported the plan, but said before that it needed "tweaking."

Last week, Runion said he approves of the latest version of the plan.

"This is a much better product than the initial draft," he said. "We were able to go through it and re-examine some of the issues raised. We were able to clarify language."

Behan said he showed LOGIC members the current zoning and everyone agreed it had to be fixed. Comparing today’s zoning to his new plan, he said, people could see, "This is better for the landowner, better for the environment, and better for the town."

"When concerns were first raised, it didn’t seem like the people didn’t like the ideas, they just didn’t like the specifics," Behan said. "We changed it to make the intent more clear, but everyone has been on the same page."

The overall design guidelines were altered so they are less onerous, Behan said. This flexibility made a lot of landowners feel better, he said.

This week, The Enterprise asked LOGIC’s president, Pruskowski, why his group is suddenly supporting the entire plan.

All along, not just since the last public hearing, Behan has been considering the group’s comments and suggestions and incorporating them into the plan, Pruskowski said.

"We had a great open dialogue," he said.

The original plan made it sound like things were mandatory, he said. The new draft has cleaned up the language and presents changes as guidelines, he said.

New density bonuses and incentives to bring water to the western part of town have been added to the plan, Pruskowski said.

"If this all happened in the beginning, we probably wouldn’t have had such a rowdy first public hearing," Pruskowski said.

Asked about the future of his group, Pruskowski said, "LOGIC has to stay together because this is a living, breathing document." Group members will continue to speak out on planning issues, he said.

Pruskowski has lived on the same farm, on Grant Hill Road, for 52 years. Guilderland has changed much in his lifetime, he said.

"Before, where I live right now, if you were eight or nine years old and you fell off your bike and hurt yourself, you’d die because nobody ever went by," he said.

Other comments

At last Tuesday’s hearing, Jane Schramm, director of the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce, said the plan is "excellent and has a lot of potential."

She thanked Behan for the changes to the plan dealing with businesses and country stores.

Patricia Marciano, a LOGIC member who had voiced strong objections to the plan, told the board last Tuesday that she and a group of her neighbors went to Pittsford to see the results of a plan Behan created for that area. They liked what they saw, she said.

Pittsford, in western New York near Rochester, is slightly smaller than Guilderland but is growing at the same rate, Behan told The Enterprise. Since his plan was incorporated years ago, Pittsford was just named as one of the 20 nature-friendly communities in the country, he said.

Pittsford’s property values are also the highest in its region because the town has good zoning, Behan said.

He told The Enterprise this week that he was surprised and pleased that Marciano and her friends traveled to visit the town.

"That helped them get comfortable with what Guilderland is doing," he said. "It’s in everybody’s interest."

"I appreciate everyone’s work on this," Marciano said at last week’s meeting. "It was a long haul, but it was worth it."

Guilderland resident Lindsay Childs said the incentives to keep open space are good. "When I was on the planning board in the ’80’s, we’d try to get a developer to do things, but we had no carrot," he said.

Childs, who is the chairman of the Guilderland Pathways Committee, added that he likes that sidewalks and bike paths are encouraged in the plan.

The board then decided to vote on the revised plan at its next meeting, July 12. Copies of the plan are available for review at Town Hall, at the Guilderland Public Library, and on the town’s website, www.townofguilderland.org.

School cuts unhealthy snacks

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Honey buns and fruit gummies are out.

At the school board’s urging, the district here is eliminating 13 food items it planned to buy to serve to students next year.

"Our emphasis has been a transitional plan," Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders told the board last Tuesday, explaining healthy snacks are being introduced at the elementary level.

Linda Mossop, school lunch director, said the district will lose about $9,000 by discontinuing those 13 snacks, one at the middle school, and a dozen at the high school.

The school lunch program pays for itself, taking in over $1 million annually.

Mossop said that, when the district switched to healthy snacks at the elementary schools, there was a 55-percent decrease in snacks being purchased.

Board member Colleen O’Connell, who pushed the issue at the last board meeting, said last Tuesday that comments from middle school teachers first alerted her to the problem. They were teaching lessons about healthy eating, she said, and then felt "dissed" when students could eat six chocolate-chip cookies or six bags of chips for lunch.

Meanwhile, the district is adding a priority to foster healthy living.

Board President William Brinkman suggested that perhaps parents are sending their children to school with healthy snacks and, once the district publicizes the fact they are selling them, more children will start buying them at school.

Board member Thomas Nachod agreed with offering healthy snacks, calling it "a noble cause."

But, he said, "I’m not sure we should only offer healthy snacks...To make good choices, you need choices."

Second, Nachod said, "I’m not sure we have to make a mandate for healthy snacks to the detriment of the taxpayer." If the school lunch program were to operate at a loss, he said, the money would come out of the district’s general fund.

"It has been running in the black...and we hope to maintain that," said Superintendent Gregory Aidala.

"I’m sure the monitors will not be trained to confiscate unhealthy things," quipped board member Richard Weisz, indicating students have choices. He also said they could eat the snacks they wanted after school.

Board member Linda Bakst suggested letting the PTA and booster clubs, organizations that often raise funds by selling "very unhealthy snacks," know about the district’s stance.

"Sometimes the rush to something needs to be tempered," cautioned board member David Picker.

"I think it’s fine to do this; we don’t need to wait," said board member David Dornbush.

"This will be phasing it in," said Mossop. "We still have items that will be phased out. By September, 2006...everyone will be on board."

Ultimately the board approved the change, 8 to 1, with Nachod casting the sole dissenting vote.

Contracts ratified

The board unanimously ratified two contracts — with district office administrators and with non-instructional supervisors and other management personnel.

Susan Tangorre, the district’s administrator for human resources, told The Enterprise that both contracts are for three years, running from July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2008.

The contract for district office administrators, three people, gives a salary increase of 3.75 percent the first year, 3.9 percent the second year, and 3.9 percent again the third year, she said.

There are no other changes, besides salary, Tangorre said.

Currently, the salary for the administrator for human resources is $99,963; the salary for the assistant superintendent for business is $101,675; and the salary for the assistant superintendent for business is $111,344.

The higher salary for the assistant superintendent is because of her seven or eight years of experience, said Tangorre.

Comparing the salaries to other suburban school districts, Tangorre said Guilderland’s are "right in the middle."

The same holds true, she said, for the salaries for the non-instructional supervisors and management personnel.

This includes 14 people in what Tangorre called "an eclectic group," including the transportation director, the clerk for finance, the chief technical specialist, and the food service director.

The contract gives the 14 employees annual salary increases of 3.85 percent for each of the three years.

Those salaries currently range from $29,500 to $78,148 annually.

The new contract also clarifies use of personal time and sick time and how comp time is used, said Tangorre.

There are no other major changes.

"These are the lean years," she concluded.

School on schedule

Sanders updated the board on the $20 million construction project at Farnsworth Middle School.

"We’re kind of in the home stretch," he said.

The fourth house, now named Seneca House, with 18 classrooms, opened in April, and renovations started on Hiawatha House.

The new gym opened in April as well, he said.

The new music addition has just been completed and the new main office and library should be ready for occupancy next month.

Over summer vacation, Mohawk House and Tawasentha House will be renovated.

Sanders concluded by commending Shows Leary, the clerk of the works, for creating a workable schedule.

"He’s well liked by the staff and everyone," said Brinkman, adding that workers have "a love-hate relationship" with Leary as he makes them "toe the line."

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Approved three state-mandated district plans that are updated annually — the S.A.V.E. (Schools Against Violence in Education) Plan, the Professional Development Plan (on training staff), and the Academic Intervention Services Plan (outlining procedures for assessing and helping struggling students);

— Reviewed a policy on student complaints and grievances;

— Agreed to participate in a cooperative bid with other schools in the area for a state-required annual survey on the condition of the district’s buildings.

"This is a stupid state mandate...but a better way to pay for it," said Weisz, indicating that buildings newer than a decade shouldn’t have to be inspected each year;

— Formed an ad-hoc committee to prepare a resolution to restructure pension payments for teachers for the New York State School Boards Association to consider.

Weisz had proposed the idea earlier. He agreed to serve on the committee along with board members Linda Bakst and Barbara Fraterrigo.

Aidala said the goal is to present the resolution to the school board at its August meeting. The resolution is to focus on changing state law so school districts can control the costs they must pay into the retirement system for newly-hired teachers;

— Heard from Bakst that leaders had stepped forward to head the high school’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association.

She had reported earlier that, if no one volunteered to be president, the PTSA might fold.

She thanked Brinkman for volunteering but said other people had come forward;

— Heard congratulations from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Nancy Andress for all the high school’s spring sports teams. Every team qualified or the Scholar/Athlete Team Award, for teams with players who have a composite average of 90 percent or higher.

The teams are boys’ lacrosse, girls’ softball, boys’ tennis, boys’ track and field, and girls’ track and field;

— Heard that Math Olympiad teams from both Lynnwood and Altamont elementary schools were recognized for High Team Achievement, in the top 20 percent of all teams in their division, and Meritorious Achievement, in the top 20 percent of fifth-grade teams.

Gold medals and team trophies went to Kendra Lizotee of Lynnwood Elementary and Austin Malerba of Altamont Elementary.

Silver medals went to Michael Dvoscak of Lynnwood Elementary, and Tara Jackson of Altamont Elementary;

— Learned that junior Tasmina Hydery’s design, entered in a contest sponsored by Singer’s Jewelers in memory of Liza Warner, a victim of domestic violence, will be printed on note cards sold locally. Juniors Sarah Zeremski and Sarah Jurczynski also participated in the contest;

— Heard that Mary K. Weeks, Westmere Elementary School art teacher, will exhibit her artwork in the first annual Teacher Center Art Exhibition, June 29 to July 30, at the Rensselaerville Institute in the Guggenheim Gallery;

— Heard a suggestion from board member Barbara Fraterrigo, which she said was first broached by David Langenbach when he ran for school board, that the board hold informal dialogue sessions with the public three times a year before the formal sessions start; and

— Went into executive session to discuss negotiations with assistant principals, a real property issue, a personnel issue with a member of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, and candidates for interim principal at the high school.

Danese and Bakst vie for school board presidency

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The school board bid a fond farewell last Tuesday to two of its long-time leaders — William Brinkman and David Picker — while learning there will be a contest for new leadership.

For the first time in nine years, there will be a race for board president. At the board’s July 5 reorganizational meeting, new board members will be sworn in and the board will elect a president and vice president for the year ahead.

Both Linda Bakst and the current vice president, Gene Danese, plan to run for president.

Board member Thomas Nachod, who was asked to survey the members, said he had talked to each of them, and Danese and Bakst both said they wanted to run for president. Each will give a presentation on July 5 before the board votes, Nachod said.

Several board members want to be vice president, Nachod said, depending on the results of the presidential election. Nine unpaid members serve on the board; each has a three-year term.

Both Danese and Bakst have served eight years on the board. Danese was elected to a third three-year term as board member in 2003, coming in 52 votes behind Bakst, the top vote-getter, also elected for a third three-year term.

Danese, 58, works for the State Education Department, certifying teachers and administrators.

Bakst, 45, worked for the Anti-Defamation League until it closed its Albany office; she is now doing consulting work in multi-cultural awareness. She has two children — a daughter who just graduated from Guilderland High School, and a son who will be a junior there.

While there has been no contest in recent years for the president’s post, Bakst and Danese did run against each other in 2003 for the vice president’s slot.

Danese was elected in a 6-to-3 vote.

Also in recent years, the board’s vice presidents have later become presidents.

Why run"

Bakst told The Enterprise this week that she wants to run because she has skills that are useful for the board.

"I’m a creative thinker and a problem-solver," she said. "And I think there’s some benefit to having a woman as president...I’m not making this a feminist issue, but it’s important women step forward into leadership positions."

She stressed that this was not a criticism of the board’s former male leadership.

Bakst went on, "I’m good on my feet and I’m a logical thinker. I respect the board’s processes and I’m still a team player."

Bakst said that other board members may hesitate to elect her because she has not been shy about expressing her opinions.

"The most important role a board president plays is as a facilitator....I won’t forfeit my opinions or vote but I will be more circumspect. I think I have the strength to do the job," she said.

Danese wants to be president because, he said, "Being president makes a better board member." He went on, "I’m in favor of the board’s unwritten policy of limiting it to two terms." Each term is one year.

Being board president, he said "gives you insight and makes you more sensitive to issues."

Danese said of his own qualifications for the job, "I bring fairness and I have the ability to listen. Everybody will have their say."

Issues and roles

One of the issues over which Danese and Bakst have consistently disagreed for years is alternative funding for schools, such as through advertising or pouring rights. Danese has favored looking into the matter, and Bakst has steadfastly maintained that public schools should be financed with public funds.

But, unlike in the last contested presidential election nine years ago, where there was a clear-cut difference in philosophy — pro-budget versus anti-budget — and in constituencies — faculty versus taxpayers — the difference between Danese and Bakst appears to be more about leadership style.

"The main job of a board president isn’t to accomplish his own goals," said Danese. "The president is to make sure there is communication and he assists the superintendent in long-range planning."

Danese did say that, as president, he would want the board "to investigate things like alternative funding." He emphasized the word investigate, indicating he wasn’t already committed to one path or another.

Besides alternative funding, Danese said that another matter to be looked at is changing the state retirement system for teachers; he noted that Guilderland has just set up a committee, including teachers, to discuss the matter.

"I’ve always said that we should maintain our program and keep it in line with costs to property owners," said Danese.

Danese concluded of the board president’s role, "Number one, you’ve got to be the representative of the board to the superintendent."

Second, he said, "You assist in planning what the school year will be like," which includes the budget. Guilderland’s budget for the next school year is $76 million.

Third, he said, "You must run meetings well, and listen to understand what the board wants."

Contrasting the current race with the last contested race nine years ago, Danese said, "Two people want to serve. I think that’s good....Either one of us could serve effectively. Any board member on the board today could serve effectively....

"Everybody on the board now basically shares the same goals...No one is radically different. There may be a difference in methods or slight differences in perception, but we all have supported the budget every year and we all have the same goal...preservation of the program at a reasonable rate for taxpayers."

Bakst expressed some of the same views as Danese on the race. She told The Enterprise, "I think it is about leadership styles." She said "in no way" does her running for president indicate a lack of "respect for Mr. Danese." She added, of the differences between them, "It’s not a horrible schism."

Asked about her goals if she were elected president, Bakst said, "I don’t have any kind of agenda."

About alternative funding, Bakst said, "It may come to pass I’m in the minority now. If that’s a decision the board makes, I’ll try to see it happens in a way that serves the community best."

Bakst also said, "For the first time in a long while, there’s a real change in the board...Two new members will bring new ideas. And we’ll be facing a number of challenges. My main concern is we continue to keep front and center the philosophy that has guided Guilderland."

She described this philosophy as being "an individualized, child-centered approach, not teaching to the test." She concluded, "I’m hoping we keep our eyes on the prize."


The last contested race for president was in 1996, when Nachod, a banker, was elected with a 5-to-4 vote, supported by budget-backers on the board, including Brinkman and Picker.

Nachod, who will now be the board’s longest-serving member, had been elected to the board in tumultuous times. He won his first run, in 1995, the year after candidates supported by an anti-tax group trounced their budget-backing opponents.

After a budget defeat in 1994 and a budget approved by just four votes in 1996 — the year Picker was elected to the board — the district has enjoyed solid margins of budget approval.

When Nachod stepped down as president in 2000, Picker picked up the reins.

At the same time, Brinkman was elected vice president. Both men ran unopposed, and were unchallenged in subsequent years.

During their three years in office together, they only disagreed vehemently once in a public meeting. That was over the use of champagne glasses as prom favors. Brinkman brought in a glass that belonged to his son and said it was used as a vase and did not encourage underage drinking; Picker said that, if some in the community felt such favors encouraged drinking, they should not be allowed.

By and large, the two men oversaw smoothly-run meetings.

In 2003, Brinkman was unanimously elected board president. He had recently retired from a 23-year career with the State Education Department. He was uncontested for president again the following year, and, at the close of his term, announced he was retiring from the board to have more time for his consulting business.

Brinkman, Picker, and Nachod all were elected when they had children who were students in the school district; their children are now all grown, with Picker’s younger child graduating from the high school this week.


June 21 was the last school board meeting for Brinkman and Picker.

Brinkman served for 15 years, the last two as president, and before that as vice president to Picker.

Picker, a lawyer who works for the state, served on the board for nine years, three of them as president.

Danese presented both of the men with plaques which said, "By word and deed, your presence has enriched the lives of students."

Board member Colleen O’Connell then read a letter from Beth Miller, president of the Guilderland PTA Council.

She thanked the pair for "tireless efforts, honesty, and fairness in making the Guilderland School District the best it can be and always keeping our kids your first priority."

Miller also wrote, "Your encouragement to parents to get involved and giving us the forum to do so was appreciated."

Bakst read a resolution thanking Picker, which said "his actions and leadership were always guided by high moral standards and principles" and said that "he always conducted himself with dignity and integrity, and expressed his views in a straightforward and articulate manner, resulting in his opinions being respected and considered."

The proclamation concluded, "All members of the community will miss his vision, counsel, humanity, and concern for the children of Guilderland."

Nachod read a resolution honoring Brinkman, which lauded him for his way of strongly emphasizing a reasoned point of view "along with an ability to understand and appreciate differing opinions."

The resolution also said, "He devoted many hours of his personal time to visit schools and classrooms so that he could learn firsthand about the district’s instructional programs" and "he consistently expressed his support and appreciation for those who worked to assure that each child succeeds."

"His fellow board members, administrators, and teachers sought his opinions and the guidance they contained," the resolution said, and, "He took stands which strongly supported public education and carried out all of the duties of his position with honor."

"These two gentlemen have been the greatest mentors for me," said board member Barbara Fraterrigo after the resolutions were read and applauded. "You guys are great."

Board member Richard Weisz said that the pair had been "the heart of our board the last decade" and that thousands of families had depended upon them.

Finally, he said, Brinkman and Picker set the tone for a collegial and child-centered approach.

Brinkman had the last word at the close of the meeting.

"I have really enjoyed every single day I’ve been on the board," he said. "It’s a great staff....People have no idea how good our staff is...It’s made my job that much easier...I just want to thank everyone."

Brandle Meadows site plan approved

By Jo E. Prout

GUILDERLAND -- The planning board last week approved a site plan for the popular but legally-mired senior housing project proposed for Brandle Road. The board also approved a plan for an assisted-living facility off Windingbrook Drive.

Local businessman Jeff Thomas said that his proposed 72-unit senior condominium and rental housing facility called Brandle Meadows, L.L.C. would be less than three-tenths of a mile from Main Street in the village of Altamont. It is outside the village line.

"The need is enormous for senior housing," Thomas told the planning board.

The village is embroiled in a legal tussle with Brandle Road residents Michael and Nancy Trumpler, who agreed to sell five acres of land to the village as a source of well water for its residents. The Trumplers then filed legal papers asking the court to decide if their contract is binding. They did this after the village board broke its moratorium on granting water to those outside Altamont, and offered water and sewer services to the proposed Brandle Meadows. The village has since filed counter claims against the Trumplers for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Thomas’s lawyer has said he plans to sue them for millions.

Supporters of the project include former Altamont Mayor James Caruso and his wife, Rosemary, the Altamont corespondent for The Enterprise. They told the planning board last week that they hope to be residents of the new housing project.

Christine Capuano, related to the Trumplers, who owns land on Brandle Road, said that the proposed condominiums would increase traffic on her relatively quiet street.

Planning board Chairman Stephen Feeney agreed that traffic with 72 units "is a real issue."

Capuano asked why village water would be shared with Brandle Meadows but not with other nearby applicants, but the board repeatedly told her that the dispersement of village water was not a planning board issue.

Feeney asked if there were adequate rights-of-way along Brandle Road to install a sidewalk from the proposed housing to Arlington Road.

"There is no room to build a sidewalk," said Francis Bossolini, a representative for Thomas.

The board gave site plan approval with the conditions that: a storm water prevention plan be created; the absence or presence of wetlands be verified, and their boundaries defined by the Army Corps of Engineers, if necessary; and the applicant "explore" an adequate pedestrian connection to the village, Feeney said.

He said that the plan should refer to water and sewer sources.

"It’s implicit".Like you said, we can’t build it without water or sewers," Bossolini said.

Assisted living

The board approved a site plan to allow developer First Columbia, of Latham, to build an 80-unit assisted living facility near the Guilderland Library and the YMCA.

The approval was granted with the conditions that a sidewalk be constructed from Mercy Care Lane to the library, and that the presence of wetlands be verified.

Kevin Bette of First Columbia said that Mercy Care Lane from Western Avenue to an existing nursing home along the street is owned by St. Peter’s.

"We own the driveway," Bette said.

"The full right-of-way may not be there," said town Planner Jan Weston.

The diocese and First Columbia are working together to develop the property, Bette said. After the assisted living facility is built, Bette said, senior condominiums are planned nearby.

Bette said that his plan did not call for pedestrian areas.

The board said that sidewalks were necessary.

"Someday, this could be something else," Feeney said.

"We understand development issues and town issues," Bette said. "If the town wants to make it a town center"money is a factor."

The Guilderland Hamlet Neighborhood Association sent a letter to the board, and member David Reid attended the meeting.

"We feel that the sidewalk is logical to put in right now," Reid said.

In a GHNA letter signed by Reid and President Gene Danese, the group wrote that it supports First Columbia’s proposal with its own conditions, including "antiqued" lighting, sidewalk construction, and the creation of a four-way stop at the intersection of Windingbrook Drive and Mercy Care Lane.

Board member James Cohen said that a four-way stop there would create more east-bound traffic.

Lindsay Childs, of the Pathway Committee, agreed with the need for sidewalks near the library and the YMCA, particularly at a medical home facility.

"These people need a safe place to walk more than any other population," Childs said.

Other business

In other business, the planning board:

-- Heard a concept presentation by Troy Miller, who wants to subdivide three acres on Siver Road into three lots. Feeney told Miller that, because the project would disturb more than one acre, he must file for a permit with the state Department of Conservation, and present an erosion and sediment control plan.

Pole fire causes ower outage

By Maggie Gordon

GUILDERLAND — The King’s Wok in 20 Mall stayed open until half-an-hour before its normal closing time Monday night, despite the six-hour-long power outage.

Cooks worked by candlelight and flashlight, combined with the few lights they had in a hot kitchen, without the fans that usually run on 90 degree days.

"There were a lot of customers at first," said Kevin Lo, a cashier at the Chinese restaurant. Many Guilderland eateries had been forced to close.

The King’s Wok was able to stay open for as long as it did because it uses gas ovens instead of electric. The women working at the register tallied up bills by hand.

"We probably closed about a half hour early," Lo said. "We couldn’t see any more. There was no light."

A few doors down, Price Chopper was operating its air conditioning and cash registers on a generator. The grocery store lacked the white noise and bright light that customers are usually greeted with, leaving the aisles silent and dimly lit.

About 6,500 people in the Capital District were without power on Monday night between the hours of 5:30 p.m. and midnight, according to Steve Brady, a spokesperson for Niagara Mohawk.

"Over the last few days, we’ve had a steady number of very small outages throughout the Capital Region because of the very high temperatures and very high customer demand," said Steve Brady, a spokesman for Niagara Mohawk. Many residents have been using air conditioners in the heat wave.

Monday’s outage did not fall into the same category as the other, smaller, outages in the area.

"Monday’s was due to a fire on the [utility] pole," Brady said. "The equipment overheated, and the pole just caught fire." Brady went on to explain that the pole overheated due to the increased demand.

"Air conditioning contributes to the problem," he said. "Moreso lately than normally, because it didn’t get that cool at night, so air conditioners continued to operate.

"Higher customer demand creates more heat," he said. "And it puts more strain than normal on our system."

Lt. Curtis Cox of the Guilderland Police Department said that five or six traffic lights were out of commission due to the outage. Police responded to the intersections in need of traffic direction as soon as possible, Cox said.

"There are a few that were able to operate with generators," he said. "Route 155 and 20; Willow Street and 20; and 146 and 20.

"We maintained increased patrols and availability in case of accidents, and responded to calls," Cox said.

Brady encourages citizens to conserve energy, even on the smallest scale.

"It’s not possible to completely prevent outages, but in situations where you get several days of very warm temperatures, and very high customer demand, certainly even modest conservation can help the overall situation," he said. "Turning the thermostat up on air conditioners, even just a few degrees can help. Residents can keep curtains and shades closed during the day to keep a home cooler. Offices can shut off unnecessary equipment such as computers and copiers. Even those small steps will help the problem."

Cox advises citizens to be safe if a power outage occurs. "Be prepared with a battery-operated radio, and flashlights. If people choose to use candles, they need to use them very carefully," he said. "You should clear things away from stoves and turn stoves off because, when the power comes back on, you could have forgotten about it and there may be a fire."

Loucks helps rare bird take flight

By Maggie Gordon

GUILDERLAND — The fastest bird on the planet is making a comeback and a Guilderland biologist has played a part in the success story.

Barbara Loucks has been a wildlife biologist for more than 25 years. In that time, the peregrine falcon has bounced back from virtual extinction east of the Mississippi River, and has been removed from the New York State Endangered Species list.

"The peregrine falcon is a crow-sized bird. They’re the fastest birds on the planet," Loucks said. "They eat only other birds, small ones up to the size of a duck. It used to be called the duck hawk."

The bird reaches its highest speeds while it is hunting its prey. "They get close to 200 miles per hour in a dive on prey. They climb up really high, fold their wings, and they just drop," Loucks said. "They normally hit the prey with their feet and grab them out of the sky."

Loucks knows all about peregrine falcons. She has worked with them since 1978, and recently received the Major Achievement award from the New York City Audubon Society at the 21st Annual Awards for Distinguished Service to the Environmental Cause.

She graduated from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s of science degree before going on to the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, where she earned her master’s degree in wildlife biology, in an era when there were few women in the field.

"I loved animals and being outside, and wanted to do something in the area of conservation of less-studied wildlife," she said.

That is exactly what she does as a research scientist and wildlife biologist. While there is no such thing as a typical day at her job, there are a few things she can count on doing from year to year.

"In the spring and the summer, I go to different parts of the state to do work on birds of prey," she said. "I might be climbing around a building or a bridge in New York City, or I might be up in the Adirondacks canoeing on a lake, looking at a cliff site, or hiking."

Often, her job includes hanging off bridges, or scaling buildings. This is because she said, "We monitor the population. Every year we do a count, and every year there are new sites to check. We put colored leg bands on the young and, when they’re seen somewhere else nesting, or found dead or injured, we get information on their movement.

"It’s hard," she said of the banding process. "It’s always very interesting though, because the birds are very aggressive. You have to wear a hardhat and protective eyewear. If you’re not wearing the proper clothing, they’ll tear your shirt or hit you with their talons.

"Their feet are very powerful. If they have their talons open, that’s when they’ll get to ripping your shirt — they’re specialized predators."

In the winter, her job is mostly office work, and planning work for the field season.

From hacking to nesting

Before the problem with pesticides, such as DDT, eliminated the peregrine falcon from the state of New York and surrounding areas, there were 350 pairs in the eastern portion of the United States. Dichoro Dphenyl Trichoroethane was outlawed in 1972, and when Loucks began working for the Department of Environmental Conservation in 1978, the organization was already working to bring back the species.

"There was a restoration program, in which we released captive-bred birds," Loucks said. The release of such birds was known as hacking, which went on from the mid-70’s until 1988. "Once these birds started breeding, we switched from hacking to protecting and managing the population as it recovered."

The falcons began breeding in New York City again in 1983, when nests were built on two bridges, and in the Adirondacks in 1985.

Now, Loucks tries to help the falcons have a safer place to nest. The birds, which usually mate for life, tend to find a nesting spot and stick with it. Sometimes these spots are on dangerous areas such as bridges and high-rise buildings.

"When a pair takes an interest in a site, if it’s a suitable site, we’ll put out a wooden nest tray if possible," she said. "We fill it with pea-sized gravel, which helps keep eggs from rolling off and being broken by sharp debris."

That’s when she gets up on a bridge, or climbs a building.

Restoring a species

"The most rewarding part of my job is knowing that I’ve played a small role in helping restore a species that was basically wiped out," Loucks said. "It’s good to know that despite the actions of man and the use of pesticides, we could reverse the damage that was done."

However rewarding her job might be, she said it is also frustrating that the projects take so long to complete.

"A lot of these projects take a lot of time and money and that’s challenging," Loucks said. "So is educating people, because everybody, not just the people who work in the field, I feel, has a responsibility to their environment and people need to be educated.

"Years ago, people would do things like routinely shoot hawks because they thought they were hurting their chickens. Every hawk was a bad hawk to people," she said. "There are also other situations that people need to be aware of. They need to think when they apply pesticides and herbicides to their lawns — it might affect birds higher up the food chain, like the peregrine."

Now, the New York City peregrine population is the largest urban population of peregrine anywhere in the world. "We’ve got roughly, in the New York City area, about 14 to 16 pairs, and some of them are not even a mile apart," she said "It’s a fairly dense population."

She concluded, "That’s the largest urban population in the world, which is incredible...We have it right here in New York State."

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