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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 1, 2005
Robbery botched, Murphy kills himself
By Nicole Fay Barr
Police and the community are baffled about why a young Guilderland man held four people hostage at an Albany bank Saturday before hanging himself in the bank managers office.
After the five-hour standoff, police interviewed the family of 22-year-old Sean David Murphy, but got no answers, said Albany Police Detective James Miller.
Murphy did not appear to be on drugs and he did not have a history of mental illness, Miller said. Murphy had, however, received treatment for emotional problems in the past, a spokesman for the Albany County District Attorneys office told The Enterprise yesterday.
The hostages were not physically harmed in Saturdays incident and police believe Murphy may have panicked before killing himself, as he said he was not going to go back to jail, Miller told The Enterprise.
"Regardless of these horrific events, we must remember that a family has lost a young man," said Mary Jean Coleman, of the Samaritan suicide-prevention program.
The Enterprise interviewed Murphy in March of 2004. He had called the newspaper, excited about a new business he started, called PetPort.
Guilderland needed a pet transportation and sitting service, he had said. He loved animals, he said, and was happy making money taking Guilderland pets to the veterinarian, groomer, or kennel.
Murphy, a Guilderland High School graduate, ran the business out of his mothers home on Angelina Terrace. During the interview, Murphy wore a jacket with the PetPort logo embroidered on the front. He told The Enterprise of his dreams for the business as his mother, Kerry Murphy, beamed with pride.
Murphy described his love for animals and he playfully wrestled with the familys golden retriever, Teddy.
"All animals like me," Murphy told The Enterprise then.
"He’s learned some tricks from the pet-sitters’ association," his mother said. For cats, she said, her son puts catnip on the cuffs of his pants. For dogs, he carries treats in his pocket, she said.
After the interview, Sean Murphy appeared twice on the Enterprise blotters page.
On Aug. 20, 2004, Murphy was arrested for driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor.
A little over a month later, Murphy was arrested again, this time for third-degree burglary, a felony, and possession of burglary tools, a misdemeanor. He did not return phone calls to The Enterprise for comment after the incident.
Guilderland Police said then that, at 1:45 a.m. on Sept. 28, they responded to a burglar alarm at Gade Farm, at 2479 Western Ave. When searching the building, police said, officers found Murphy in the farms office with the door locked.
Murphy refused to give a written statement, but admitted to using a knife to pick the lock on the back door and then on the office door, the arrest report said. He also admitted to breaking into the building to look for money, police said, and he told officers he broke into the building a month before, too.
Murphy was wearing a black knit cap, dark clothing, and a pair of green rubber gloves at the time of the burglary, police said. He carried a backpack which contained two sets of truck keys, later identified as belonging to farm trucks owned by Gade Farm, the report said.
On May 12, 2005, Murphy pleaded guilty to driving while ability impaired in Guilderland Town Court, for his first offense. He paid a $300 fine and an $80 surcharge. He was also sentenced to attend drinking-and-driving school and a victims impact panel and his license was suspended.
On March 17, 2005, Murphy pleaded guilty to petit larceny for the Gade Farm incident. He was sentenced to three years of probation; 100 hours of community service; the continuation of treatment for emotional problems; resititution; and to apologize, said Richard Arthur, a spokesman for the Albany County District Attorney.
Although the larceny plea involved no jail time, Murphy had spent a week in jail after his Sept. 28, 2004 arrest, before posting bail, according to a spokesman at Albany Countys jail.
His desire not to return to jail may have motivated his suicide after Murphy bungled the bank robbery attempt last week.
At 1 p.m. on Saturday, Albany Police received an alarm from Trustco Bank, on Madison Avenue. One officer was near the bank and got to the scene first, Detective Miller said. The officer saw Murphy in the bank, wearing camouflage clothing and a helmet, and carrying a backpack, Miller said.
"He realized it was a robbery and called for other units," Miller said. Within minutes, several police cars surrounded the bank, he said.
Using duct tape he had brought with him, Murphy then bound the three female employees who were in the bank at the time and one male customer, Miller said. Murphy had them lie on the floor, Miller said, and he took the cash from the bank drawers and placed the money in his backpack.
He also had garden shears and several knives in his backpack, Miller said.
An Albany detective, who is also a hostage negotiator, spoke with Murphy several times on the phone, Miller said. Murphy told the detective that he was waiting for a ride and that he wanted police to back off, Miller said.
Murphy didnt make any other demands, Miller said, but he told police that, if they attempted anything, the hostages would be harmed. Murphy also told the negotiator that he was not going back to jail, Miller said.
After a few hours, Murphy cut off phone contact with the negotiator, Miller said. Police then decided to enter the bank, through its back door, he said.
The State Police used a helicopter as a diversion, Miller said. The helicopter hovered 25 feet over the bank, he said, which made a lot of noise.
Police officers came in through the banks back door at this time, Miller said, and they hid.
At the same time, an unmarked Federal Bureau of Investigation vehicle pulled in front of the bank, Miller said. Investigators used a public-address system to try to talk to Murphy, he said.
After 10 or 15 minutes, the hostages, who had freed themselves, came out of the bank, Miller said.
They indicated that Murphy had killed himself, Miller said. Police found that Murphy had tried to cut his throat with garden shears and he then hanged himself, Miller said.
He was found in the bank managers office, at about 6:30 p.m., Miller said.
Other than being emotionally drained and frightened, the hostages were not harmed, Miller said.
After the incident, police spoke with Murphys family to try to get an idea of why hed do such a thing, Miller said. Police asked if Murphy had a drug dependency or if he was mentally ill, Miller said.
They found he did not and police are still puzzled as to why this happened, Miller said.
"Like a puzzle"
Members of the community have to be sensitive to Murphys family now, said Coleman, director of the Samaritan suicide-prevention program in Troy. People shouldnt pass judgment on what led to his death, she told The Enterprise this week; they should realize that the family is dealing with a loss like any other.
"From the start, we have to remember a young man did take his own life," Coleman said. "Whatever the circumstances that surround it, we still lost a young man. We can’t make a judgment on the death."
Friends and acquaintances of Murphys family should reach out to them and help them grieve, she said.
Since Murphy commented to police about not wanting to go back to jail, Coleman speculated that he panicked and killed himself.
"But, there are many factors that contribute to suicide," she said.
Some people who kill themselves are reported to have done so because a boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with them, she said. But, she said, the breakup might just have been "the straw that broke the camel’s back."
Of Murphy, she said, "Maybe the thought of jail was the straw."
A suicide is like a puzzle with hundreds of pieces scattered all over the ground, Coleman said. People struggle to put all the pieces together, which is often impossible, she said.
Colemans brother killed himself over 25 years ago, she said, and shes still trying to piece together all the reasons. She will probably never know, she said.
Asked how her family dealt with the loss, Coleman said, "The resources that were available were far more scarce than now. We dealt with it as a family unit, being able to talk."
One of the best resources for families now is support groups, she said. Samaritan offers support groups for those who have attempted or have thought about suicide and for the family and friends of those who have killed themselves.
No clear answers exist as to the method of suicide a person chooses or the circumstances, Coleman said. Its impossible to tell why Murphy killed himself the way he did, she said.
Of his being worried about jail, she said, its not uncommon for those involved in a crime to kill themselves or execute suicide by cop, that is, act in a threatening manner that forces police to shoot them.
Although she doesnt have statistics, Coleman said that suicide is a big issue in prison.
In New York State, Coleman said, about 1,600 people kill themselves each year. But, she said, that number could be higher because not all suicides are reported.
"How many times does a teen drink a six-pack of beer and get in a one-car accident"" she asked. "That’s ruled as an accident, but it could be a suicide."
Samaritans confidential hotline, serving the Capital Region, gets between 8,000 and 10,000 calls a year, Coleman said. Many of the callers report that they have already attempted suicide in the past, she said, but their injuries are nursed at home and not reported.
"The more we do to break down the awful stigma and silence that surrounds mental-health issues and thoughts of suicide, the more we make it okay to talk about it," said Coleman. "We can help people through this."
Untreated depression is a mental health issue that leads to suicide, she said, but it can be treated with therapy and medication.
Although perhaps not in Murphys case, some warning signs do appear before a person kills himself, Coleman said.
The biggest sign is that a person changes, for better or worse, she said. For example, she said, a child who is always quiet in school, who suddenly is raising his hand, might be sending the message that he doesnt want to be remembered as the quiet kid.
Sometimes when someone is thinking of suicide they say so, Coleman said, either directly or with vague comments. Even the smallest indication of suicide should be taken seriously, she said.
"One of the biggest, deadliest myths about suicide," Coleman said, is that, if a friend or family member talks about it, it will give the person the idea to do it.
If someone is giving off warning signs, he probably has already thought about suicide, Coleman said. Friends or family members should immediately ask him if hes thinking about killing himself and let him know they care, she said.
"Don’t be afraid to ask," she said. "You’re letting them know that you care enough to ask about it."
Anyone feeling suicidal, Coleman said, should call Samaritans hotline, at 689-HOPE or the national suicide prevention hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK.
"It’s comforting to know there’s a place where you can call anonymously and confidentially, where you will be listened to," Coleman said.
Westervelt sentenced Defense plans to appeal
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
ALBANY Eleven months after he was arrested and nearly two months since a jury found him guilty of murder, Erick Westervelt, still maintaining his innocence, was sentenced last Thursday to 25 years to life in prison.
"Your acts were cold, calculated, and inhuman and violent," said Supreme Court Judge Joseph C. Teresi, as he sentenced Westervelt to the maximum allowed for second-degree murder.
Arrested when he was 23, Westervelt will be eligible for parole when he is 48 or 49. He plans to appeal.
Westervelt, who had lived with his family on Salvia Lane in Guilderland while he attended the University of Albany, aspiring to be a police officer, was convicted of murdering 28-year-old Timothy Gray at his Bethlehem home.
A jury found him guilty on June 29 after deliberating for about 24 hours. Teresi presided over the trial.
Bethlehem Police told The Enterprise last fall that someone went to Grays house at 95A Elsmere Ave., and beat him in the head and face with a hatchet and then repeatedly kicked him when he was on the ground. More than 12 hours after Gray was attacked, he was found by a neighbor, lying on his porch. He was taken to a hospital, where he died five days later.
Although Westervelt left behind no DNA evidence, he confessed to the crime on video and signed a confession. Prosecutors also said he had a motive: His ex-girlfriend, Jessica Domery, had left him for Gray. She and Gray lived together at the home on Elsmere Avenue where Gray was killed, although Domery was away at the time of the attack.
Domery had dated Gray for five years. 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.
That June, Westervelt testified during the trial, he had gone to Domery’s house in Bethlehem he said she had been his only serious girlfriend and was talking with her outside when Gray came out and they scuffled. Gray asked Domery if she had had sex with Westervelt and, he told the jury, "She said no and I stood there in disbelief." He said he left the property and never saw Gray again.
The next month, on July 8, Westervelt testified, Domery sent him a text message via cell phone with the question, "One more time"" He spent that night at her house in Bethlehem, he said, and had no physical contact with her after that.
During his trial, the defense portrayed Westervelt as a gentle, peace-loving man wrongly accused of a heinous crime. Westervelts three best friends, the four Guilderland High School graduates inseparable since elementary school, said he was the nicest, most peaceful person they had ever known. His parents testified he was home the night of the murder and the defense claimed his confession, forced by police, was a false one.
Westervelt told the jury he asked to see a lawyer several times while being questioned for hours by Bethlehem Police but was never taken to a lawyer.
"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 told the jury. "I could not leave."
The prosecution painted a picture of a man with parents who would lie to protect him, a man who did computer research on murder and sharpening knives before using a hatchet, similar to a boyhood souvenir that had hung on his bedroom wall, to commit the crime.
Before the judge pronounced his sentence last Thursday morning, Grays sister and father faced the courtroom and read statements to the judge. Westervelts mother and father, Wendy and John, and his younger brother, Jason, sat on the right side of the courtroom in the front row. Grays family, who live in Westchester County, sat on the left side.
Westervelt, in an orange prison jumpsuit, with his wrists and ankles manacled, sat beside his lawyer, Kent Sprotberry.
Plans to appeal
Before the sentencing, Teresi denied a motion to set aside the jury verdict because of improper introduction of prejudicial statements. A trial judge does not have the power to change a guilty verdict to a non-guilty verdict, said Teresi.
The motion, filed by Mark Sacco, one of Westervelts attorneys, had alleged that post-arraignment statements were in error and that a letter Westervelt wrote to Jessica Domery was improperly admitted as evidence.
The trial evidence was adequate as a matter of law, said Teresi, and the elements of a crime were proved beyond a reasonable doubt, he said, citing several cases as precedent.
"Evidence in this case is legally sufficient and legally adequate," said Teresi, dismissing the motion.
Westervelt plans to appeal. The Appellate Division, to which the appeal will be made, does not hear new evidence; rather, a panel of five justices looks to see if the law was followed.
Sprotberry told The Enterprise this week that there were "a bunch of errors" procedural issues at the trial but that the primary basis for the appeal will be, again, the improper introduction of prejudicial statements.
"What we learned at the trial and we didn’t know it before was my client began writing a letter to Jessica Domery before the arraignment process," said Sprotberry. "They interrupted him and took him out of the room, and arraigned him."
He went on of arraignments, "You have an absolute right to counsel in New York State. He did not have counsel." After he was arraigned, Westervelt continued writing his letter to Domery, said Sprotberry.
"All those statements should not have been admitted and they were," he said. "We stumbled into it during the trial."
Asked how significant the letter was in the trial, Sprotberry said, "It was a very, very emotional verdict; two or three jurors were crying. They had been stuck on it, talking back and forth. One never knows what may have swayed them. It may have been the single most important thing....That is why we want a retrial."
Sprotberry said that, realistically, the spring session is probably the earliest the appeal would be heard.
A sisters plea
Jennifer Gray told the courtroom last Thursday morning that, throughout the trial, her brother was referred to as "the victim," but he was so much more than that, she said, describing him as a son, a brother, an uncle, and a friend.
"Tim was extremely loyal...He loved unconditionally," said Gray. "He had a smile that would melt your heart....He said what he thought; he never held anything back."
She talked about a "bright, promising future" for the Plattsburgh State University graduate and said that nearly 1,000 people attended his wake.
"People came from all over to his wake...They truly warmed our hearts," said Gray.
She then recalled receiving a phone called on Oct. 6, telling her that her severely injured brother was at Albany Medical Center.
"I will never, ever forget what I saw," said Gray.
He was in a coma in the intensive care unit, with strips holding his skull together, she said. "I never thought I would be saying good-bye to my brother so soon," she said.
She has attended a support group, since his death, she said and learned, "The pain you feel never goes away...."
"It still feels like yesterday," said Gray. "Sometimes it’s hard to even get out of bed."
Jennifer Gray is the oldest of the three Gray siblings. Timothy was the middle child, and the youngest, a boy, "not only lost his brother; he lost his best friend," said Gray.
She also said that Gray was a great uncle to her now five-and-a-half-year-old daughter. When Jennifer Gray told her daughter that her uncle was in the hospital, she said, "Can I make him a get-well card" I think he would like it."
Gray then described how hard it was to tell her daughter that the uncle she had adored had died. When she told her that her Uncle Tim had gone to heaven, she said, "Don’t worry, Mom. Tim’s an angel now," Gray tearfully recalled.
She said she often wonders what the future holds for her daughter when she comes to grips with how her uncle died.
With the guilty verdict, said Gray, came many emotions anger, sadness, and contentment that justice had prevailed.
Gray said she recognized that the Westervelts have lost their son and brother but the big difference is they can visit him in jail, while her family can only visit their son and brother in the cemetery.
She then addressed Westervelt himself. "To Erick, I say this...It was you. You may have fooled a lot of people," said Gray, but she wasn’t fooled.
"I heard you call my brother a loser. But I think the real loser here is you," said Gray. She said that, when Westervelt is in state prison, his friends will move on. "In the end, you will be alone and you will be the real loser," she said.
She concluded that she wanted a sentence of life in prison without parole for Westervelt. "Erick and his family should be robbed of their futures the way my family was," said Gray.
She stepped down from the witness stand to join her family. On the way, she hugged her father, who was walking to the bench to take his turn to speak to the judge.
A fathers loss
Every parent is proud of his child, said George Gray, describing his son as a "gentle man."
Drawing from literature, he said, "Nature, time, and I have been cheated in the loss of my son."
He spoke of the void caused by the "actions of a selfish, foolish, cowardly person."
He described his sons immediate future plans: He was going to look for a condo in Guilderland and said he was going to get married. He said he had been to a jewelry store, which his father presumed was for a ring.
"I will never see Tim get married; I will never see him at my dinner table on a holiday...I will never have the chance to ask him for his advice...," said George Gray.
All this, he said, was because of "one selfish, jealous, scheming, and manipulative person Erick Westervelt."
"Tim’s grandfather, my father, died four months after the murder," said George Gray, partly because of it.
"That phone call," he said, referring to the Oct. 6 call from police, "lives in our memory, to be played forever."
He said, if it were not for his tattoos, he would not have recognized his son in the hospital, he was beaten so badly. He held his sons hand as he died, said George Gray.
"I told him I loved him and I hope he heard," he said.
He went on, then, to speak of Erick Westervelt. "His parents will always be known as the parents of a convicted murderer," he said.
He spoke, too, of how much Timothy Gray had loved his niece and of how she still looks for him; and of how "his fraternity brothers shall forever mourn the loss of one of their own."
He said that they could attest to how strong he was. He worked delivering heavy bottles for Culligan Water and he was in "top shape" as a hockey player, said his father.
"There is no way he could have been attacked face to face," said George Gray. "Tim was struck on the head from behind...This was a crime committed in a cowardly way," he said, by a jealous person who wanted to eliminate his competition.
"It was methodically planned and Tim was executed," said George Gray, stating it is the job of a father to protect his child. "The sad part is, if Erick called 911 anonymously, Tim may still be here," said his father.
"I am sickened at the sight of him," he said of Westervelt.
George Gray also said that Westervelt wrote to Jessica Domery how sorry he was but not to his family.
In an apparent allusion to the death penalty, George Gray went on, "I’m not a believer in the Biblical notion of an eye for an eye."
He said he wanted Erick Westervelt to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Westervelt maintains innocence
Assistant District Attorney David Rossi told the judge that, based on the brutality of the crime and on Westervelts refusal to accept responsibility for the act, he asked for the maximum sentence.
Sprotberry countered that Westervelt had indicated the frustration he feels, not only in the verdict but because he knows hes not the one to extend healing.
"Mr. Westervelt maintains his innocence," he said.
Westervelt then stood and spoke in a controlled voice.
"First of all," he said, "it’s tragic the Grays lost a brother, a son...I extend my deep condolences."
He went on to say it was no secret that he and Timothy Gray did not like each other. "He spread lies and rumors about me," said Westervelt. He also said he was the first and only one that police focused on.
"I was at my house that night," he said, watching a Yankees baseball game with his father.
"The only thing that connects me at all to this case are statements that are completely false...," said Westervelt. "I maintain my innocence."
He also said, "I only wish Jessica had been there when they played the Oct. 7 video with what the Bethlehem Police were saying about her..."
Westervelt called the verdict "an absolute mockery of justice in every sense" and said he looked forward to a new trial and the truth coming out.
Asked about Westervelt’s statement this week, particularly what he had meant when he said he wished Domery had seen the video, Sprotberry said, "He was very frustrated. A big part of the trial was the trickery employed by the Bethlehem Police officers to befriend Erick Westervelt.
"They frequently were telling him she was beaten up by this guy; they were not casting her well. He defended her, and it worked. He ended up saying what they wanted him to say that he beat up Timothy Gray.
On the video tapes, Sprotberry said, the police "call it mutual crap." He reported the police saying, "We know it happens. Two guys get in a fight over a girl."
Sprotberry went on, "They never told him the person was dying. He thought he’d say, ‘Yeah, I got in a fight," and he could go home."
Asked, though, if Westervelt hadnt confessed to beating Gray with a hatchet, Sprotberry said that police, towards the end, told Westervelt that Gray was hurt more than just with fists, so Westervelt tried to think of something hard that wouldnt be harmful like a knife. He thought of the souvenir hatchet hed had since he was a boy and named that, Sprotberry said.
"He was just trying to come up with something not a knife that would really hurt," said Sprotberry.
Asked if he believed Westervelt is innocent, Sprotberry told The Enterprise, "My beliefs are neither here nor there. I wouldn’t share them with you. The important point is the tactics employed by the Bethlehem Police Department. He absolutely confessed to something he didn’t do."
Asked about Westervelt’s calmness and lack of emotional expression during the sentencing, Sprotberry quipped, "I hit him with a rubber hose enough times to get him in line." Then he went on, in a serious tone, "He’s holding it together; he’s focusing on getting a retrial; he’s putting his hope in that."
Sprotberry went on to say of his Albany firm, "We do serious criminal defense." He said it has been his experience that clients with an "upper-end sentence like 15, 20, 25 years to life" don’t usually get out on parole but "essentially serve a life sentence."
He said of Westervelt, "When he finally does get before a parole board, they like to see remorse. He’ll say, ‘I didn’t do it.’ I don’t expect him to ever make parole."
After hearing Westervelts statement, Judge Teresi told Westervelt that he attacked Gray, leaving him in a pool of his own blood, to die a slow and painful death.
In preparation for this, the judge told Westervelt, he stalked and harassed him "as a jilted lover."
He went on to tell Westervelt, "You’ve demonstrated a total lack of remorse...You’ve shown absolutely no empathy for your own family. You’ve taken no responsibility for a heinous crime."
Teresi then sentenced Westervelt "to a term of your natural life," a 25-year minimum term.
The members of the Gray family tearfully hugged each other on hearing the sentence.
Westervelts family remained immobile.
As Westervelt was ushered out the center aisle by officers, he caught the eye of his father.
"We know you’re innocent," John Westervelt quietly told his son.
The television cameramen, whom the judge had asked to leave the courtroom, waited in the fourth-floor hallway, outside the courtroom door.
Westervelt had proclaimed his innocence as he was escorted past the gauntlet of cameras and Jennifer Gray told the reporters afterward, "He’s a liar."
She went on, "It was definitely a planned murder...He did research on the Internet."
She said, though, that she did not blame his family. "The Westervelts have suffered as much as we have," said Gray.
The sentence, she said "closes this chapter, but the grief will never go away....Even if he confessed, I would never forgive him."
Rossi told the press of the Grays’ statements before the sentencing, "The family wanted the world to know more about Tim."
Asked about the allegations of a coerced confession, Rossi said of Westervelt, "He was read his Miranda rights six or seven times."
Asked about the lack of forensic evidence, he said, "It’s not like TV...The jury considered all that."
The Westervelts and their lawyer did not speak before the television cameras.
John Westervelt, however, told The Enterprise, "Justice is blind in this case."
Asked what he and his wife and his son Jason were feeling, John Westervelt said, "We’ve been devastated since this started. All he was guilty of was a false confession."
Asked how his son was holding up in prison, he said, "How would you be doing if you were innocent and put in jail"...
"He’s doing as best as can be expected. He’s innocent. He was with us all that night. There were no marks on him. Whoever attacked Timothy Gray is still out there."
Couple dies in home Department mourns after McKownville fire
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The families of Helen Fisher and William Slater are dealing this week with their tragic deaths.
The husband and wife died last Thursday in an early-morning fire in their home in suburban Guilderland, at 206 Woodscape Drive.
The volunteer firefighters who rushed to the scene in the black of night are dealing with the loss, too.
"Fire fighters give up their time and their family time to respond to calls all hours of the day. They come from all walks of life and all stages of life," said David Clancy, chief of the McKownville Fire Department, which was first on the scene of last Thursday’s fire.
"Their mission is to protect life. And it’s tough to deal with when you can’t do that," he said. "You have a sense of helplessness. You’re not doing what you were trained to do."
Stephanie Pelham, Fisher’s daughter, said the family is asking that memorial contributions for her mother be sent to the McKownville Fire Department. "I sent them a letter to thank them," she said. "It had to be very hard for them."
Fisher, who was 70, had been in frail health and Slater, 58, was devoted to caring for her in recent years, said James Slater, William's younger brother.
William Slater was one of nine siblings, raised in rural Granville, N.Y. His parents had died when he was a child. "He watched over us; he was a big brother," said James Slater. "That’s what he did for Helen, just like when we were kids."
Before Fisher got sick, Slater said, the couple enjoyed antiquing, picnicking, gardening, and cooking.
Slater was a mechanical engineer who, among many accomplishments, designed the machine that puts the back pocket on Levi jeans, said his brother. Fisher, an Albany native, had pursued a variety of careers after earning a masters degree in social work from Columbia University. (See obituaries.)
"She excelled and won awards in whatever she did," said her daughter. Fisher loved words, and was skilled and confident enough to do the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen, said Pelham.
James Slater described the fire as "an awful shock," a terrible way to lose someone.
"You can't prepare for that," he said.
Answering the call
"The call came in about 1:30 in the morning Thursday," said Clancy, after a neighbor had seen the flames and called 911. Woodscape Drive is in McKownville, not far from the firehouse.
"Because of its location, we were off the floor very fast," said Clancy, adding that 206 Woodscape is right behind the home of one of the firefighters.
"It only takes five or six minutes before we’re at the station," he said. "Some of the guys come out of their house and can run to the station."
The crew knew, driving to the scene, that there would smoke and flames; it wasnt a false alarm.
"We had a visual already," said Clancy. There were also initial reports "of the possibility of residents being in the home," he said. "These were conflicted as this progressed," he said, with some reports saying that Fisher was in the hospital, and not at home.
"When you get a Signal 30," he said, referring to a building that’s fully involved, "you’re aware someone’s belongings, someone’s property is burning. You’re aware of trying to save people’s belongings. Lots of times, they’re outside, watching their life history burn...."
The thought that someone could be inside the blazing house "definitely changes your psyche," said Clancy.
"It ups the ante," he said. "It makes you more aware and in tune. Everybody is at a heightened awareness. The urgency is even greater."
As the McKownville crew rolled up to 206 Woodscape Thursday morning, several things happened at the same time, Clancy said.
"For the first truck in, the primary focus is search and rescue," he said, "and you want to secure a water source."
He went on, "Then, you look at other resources that are needed mutual aid, EMS, Niagara Mohawk to shut off power."
Help arrived on the scene from the Westmere, Fort Hunter, Guilderland, and North Bethlehem fire departments, said Clancy and from the Western Turnpike Rescue Squad and Guilderland EMS.
These various groups are coordinated through a chief incident command, which is established immediately, said Clancy. Tony Cortese, the assistant chief of the McKownville Fire Department, was the first officer on the scene so he assumed the lead until Clancy arrived.
"Tony and I had a visual and verbal exchange," said Clancy. "I assumed incident command and was in charge from then on in."
Clancy, 45, has been with the department for 15 years. He works for General Electric Plastics and had been involved earlier in a GE industrial fire brigade, he said.
His McKownville neighbors, long-time volunteer firefighters, talked him into joining the department, he said. What keeps him at it" "It’s a link to the community," he said.
Hes been chief for three years, a job that takes 15 to 20 hours a week. He credits his wife, Maura, for making his volunteer work possible. The Clancys have three young children.
"I don't think any of us could do this without a supportive spouse," he said.
Last Thursday morning, those who arrived on the scene first "gained entry into the house," said Clancy, "but they were driven back."
He went on, "I ultimately made the decision not to send them back in; it was too dangerous."
The crew had made it to the top of the stairs in the two-story frame house, he said, but had been driven back by the heat and flames.
"They did a primary search into the living-room area," he said. "It was absolutely black at that point. It’s all done by feel. A lot of smoke banks down inside the structure. Even if it’s the brightest daylight outside, it’s very dark inside," he said of a building that is fully involved.
"It took about 45 minutes to get it under control," said Clancy. "At that point, we were fighting hot spots or small isolated spots. We went in on secondary searches and again we didn’t find anything."
Word had come back, he said, that Fisher had been released from the hospital and was home.
"We went back in and located the first victim," said Clancy. That was William Slater’s body, he said; Helen Fisher’s body was found after that.
Clancy declined commenting further on where the bodies were found or on the cause of the fire. He said that information will be released when the Town of Guilderland Fire Cause and Origin Team releases its findings.
The team is working with the investigative unit of the Albany County District Attorneys Office and with the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control.
Sergeant Daniel McNally, with the Guilderland Police Department, told The Enterprise Tuesday that he couldn’t comment on the cause of the fire. "It’s still under investigation," he said. "There are still things that have to be put together."
McNally said it took time to get coroners reports, autopsy reports, and toxicology reports and to coordinate with the different agencies involved.
He estimated it could be another week before information is released to the press and public.
Asked if he could comment at least on whether findings show if the fire was accidental, McNally reiterated, "It’s still under investigation."
Clancy did tell The Enterprise that, although there had been initial concern because of several fires in the Albany area caused by arson, "I feel fairly certain this was an accidental fire."
Clancy also reported that one cat died in the fire, but the couple's two dogs were rescued by neighbors and police off the back porch area.
McNally said he had heard 14 different families had offered to adopt the dogs.
Richard Savage, director of animal services for Guilderland, confirmed that 14 families had expressed interest in adopting the dogs. He is waiting until he talks to Slaters and Fishers family members, he said on Wednesday, before making any decisions.
The dogs a boxer mix and a Jack Russell terrier are staying at Albany County Veterinary Hospital, said Savage. Guilderlands animal shelter is under reconstruction and not currently housing animals, and the dogs are comfortable with Albany County Veterinary, Savage said, because thats the practice Slater and Fisher had used.
"The dogs are in excellent shape," said Savage.
"The healing process"
After the fire was out, Clancy made the decision to call in a crisis stress management team for a debriefing.
"Up until eight months ago, we hadn’t had a significant fire in McKownville in six years," he said. "Within a month-and-a-half, we’ve had two on Woodscape. And now, to have fire-related deaths, that’s unusual for us. That hadn’t happened in at least 30 years."
Clancy went on about his decision to call in the crisis management team through the Rensselaer Sheriffs Department.
"My observation of the emotions in the crew drove me to seek this out," he said. "I observed some reactions and I was worried they may be longer lasting. I had no experience with it."
Clancy declined commenting on the emotions his crew experienced, but, he said, "I can speak directly of my own. When you make a decision no one is to enter," he said, referring to his call not to let a crew search the house again after flames and heat drove the first crew out, "it gives you cause to pause. It’s a tough action to take. It has to be dealt with."
The crisis management team worked with the group of firefighters as a whole, Clancy said. "You share your emotions and your feelings to start to deal with it," something that is not always easy for a fire fighter, he said. "That allows the healing process to begin."
Clancy went on, "Our town departments as a whole are a close-knit group. And we’re tight within the departments. We socialize together. Our spouses and children play together. Support comes out of that group. We’re leaning on each other to get through this...
"You’ll never get me to say it will solve the problem," Clancy said of the debriefing session. "But it will help us to move forward. The crisis team did a phenomenal job. Over time, this department will heal.
"Our loss, our grief is nowhere near what the family suffers...," said Clancy, his voice trailing off.
However, he concluded in a robust tone, "I’m confident the crews did absolutely everything they could have done. What it is is what it is. The work was outstanding."
An overview Local primaries
By Nicole Fay Barr, Matt Cook, and Holly Grosch
Although there are no local Democratic or Republican primaries this year, several candidates are vying for endorsements from the Conservative and Independence parties.
The primaries will be held on Sept. 13. They are open to those enrolled in the Conservative or Independence parties, so that those voters can chose which candidate will be endorsed by their party in the general election on Nov. 8.
All of those candidates on the small-party primary ballots are also large-party candidates, running as either Democrats or Republicans. Large-party candidates often seek small-party lines because, in addition to the limited number of Conservative or Independence votes they may win in the general election, enrolled Democrats or Republicans are often more willing to pull the lever on a small-party line rather than the rival big-party line.
In Guilderland this year, the two candidates for town justice are vying for both the Conservative and Independence lines.
Long-time Republican Judge Steven J. Simon is running for another four-year term and says its his experience that qualifies him.
"I enjoy the job and I feel I have something to offer since I’ve been here for 25 years," he told The Enterprise earlier. "My experience helps in making my decisions."
He is being challenged on both lines by Democrat Denise Randall, an attorney. For almost six years, she has been the prosecutor in Guilderland Town Court.
"I’ve watched the courts and how they work," she said earlier. "I have ideas on how it could be more efficient and flexible in scheduling."
Guilderland has two town justices who each serve four-year terms. Democrat John Bailey was elected two years ago to replace Judge Kenneth Riddett, who retired after two decades. Bailey is the first Democrat in the towns 200-year history to serve as judge.
Four candidates will be listed on the Conservative ballot because they have received the party endorsement: Ed Clark for supervisor, Andrea Gleason and Douglas LaGrange for council seats all with GOP endorsement and Tom Dolin, a Democrat, for town justice.
Write-ins will also be allowed. (See related stories.)
Incumbent Supervisor Clark is running for his third two-year term as he pushes for the town to put together a comprehensive plan. Clark had served as the mayor of Voorheesville for 17 years.
Eight-year veteran to the town board, Gleason, a retired Voorheesville school teacher, is running for her third four-year term. She said she brings a senior citizens perspective to the board.
Republican LaGrange is an eighth-generation Feura Bush farmer who runs a family dairy farm with his brothers. He was narrowly defeated in a run for council two years ago, losing by just 22 votes. LaGrange is on the towns planning board.
Dolin is is the only Conservative Party endorsee who is not running on the Republican ticket. He has been a New Scotland town justice for 12 years. He currently runs a private law practice out of his home, but had been an attorney for the countys Surrogate Courts, and an attorney for the towns zoning and planning boards.
Independence voters may cast a ballot for either Dolin or Susan Aron-DeFronzo. A lawyer, she is making her first run for town justice, on the Republican line.
"I’ve been in public service since I came out of law school...This seems like the next natural step," she said.
In the Hilltowns, primaries for town offices will be held in Berne, Knox, and Rensselaerville.
In Berne, incumbent Kevin Crosier, an Albany firefighter, is running unopposed for the Conservative Party nomination for town supervisor. Councilman James Hamilton, a technology teacher at Hudson Valley Community College, is running unopposed for the Independence Party nomination.
In Knox, the Conservative and Independence parties nominations for tax collector are open to write-in candidates.
In Rensselaerville, the Conservative Party nominations for supervisor and councilperson are open to write-in candidates, and Sean McCormick is running for a nomination for assessor. The Conservative Party nomination for a second assessors position is open to write-in candidates.
Also in Rensselaerville, Robert Lansing, the current supervisor and a retired school business administrator, is running for the Independence nomination for councilperson. A second nomination for councilperson is open to write-in candidates. Incumbent Eric Sutton is running for a nomination for assessor, and a second nomination for assessor is open to write-in candidates.
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