Garage gone, mystery remains
ALTAMONT — As villagers mourned the loss of Altamont’s landmark garage this week, speculation was rampant about the cause of the June 5 fire that gutted the long-time repair shop.
Corky Bruckman remembered getting his first job there at age 10 or 11, changing oil and pumping gas, which led to his career as a mechanic.
“They just don’t make them like that anymore,” he said of the brick and block four-bay garage that was built at 127 Main Street in 1946 by Bill Makarowsky, who had returned from fighting in Europe during World War II.
Robert White, chief of the Altamont Fire Department, which battled the blaze in the wee hours of last Wednesday morning, described it as “one big fireball.”
“It’s still under investigation,” said Daniel McNally, a lieutenant with the Guilderland Police Department, when asked on Tuesday if the fire was accidental or set intentionally. We haven’t ruled in any way at this point.”
Interviews have been conducted daily since the fire, he said, noting he is “in charge of the fire part” while Senior Investigator Robert Mullen with the Albany County District Attorney’s Office is in charge of the rest of the investigation.
“We haven’t sat down together,” he said on Tuesday. “We’ll meet on Thursday.”
McNally said he couldn’t confirm or deny allegations that are circulating in the village.
“We haven’t ruled out all the possible accidental causes…We’re interviewing to get to the bottom of things,” he said.
McNally concluded, “Fires burn the same whether they’re accidental or not. We have to put it all together.”
The rubble was cleared away this week and the lot at the corner of Thatcher Drive and Main Street now stands vacant.
Until the last few years, the garage had long-time owners. Makarowsky owned it until the 1960s when the Orsini brothers bought it. Ron Gizzi leased it from the Orsinis in 1982 and bought it from them in 1985. Gizzi, who is 61 and has retired to Tennessee, ran Ron’s Service Center from 1982 to 2010.
In November 2010, Gizzi entered into a contract with Geoffrey Brown, who wanted to buy the service center.
“He was supposed to have sold the building,” said Nicole Strippoli with Young, Fenton, Kelsey and Brown of Guilderland, who is representing Geoffrey Brown.
She went on “There’s an ongoing case in Supreme Court with regards to the contractual relationship between Mr. Brown and Mr. Willsey.” Strippoli was referring to the lowest level court in New York State’s three-tiered system.
Kevin Willsey, a mechanic, had run his Altamont Extreme Auto business out of the center.
“The people of this village need to know the truth,” said Brown on Friday. “I brought the devil into the village.”
He went on, “I signed a contract with Ron Gizzi, paying him $3,000 a month, contingent on coming up with the balance in one year.”
The purchase price, he said, was set at $300,000, Brown said, “I had a separate financier who was going to help me when my one year came up.”
Brown said he had initially planned to have the mechanic and “office girl” who had worked at Ron’s Service Center “come on board” when he took over. “I was to take possession on Monday, Nov. 1, but on the Saturday before, due to a prior pissing match, they took all their stuff and left.”
“Anthony Salerno,” he said, referring to Altamont’s former public safety commissioner, “recommended Kevin Willsey to me. I was caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Brown said he had an agreement that he would keep 30 percent of the business’s money, Willsey would get 30 percent, and 30 percent would be set aside in a “trust fund” for purchases down the road for the business.
“I owned the shop and Kevin Willsey ran Altamont Extreme Auto,” he said. “We were not partners.”
When the year was up, though, Brown said, “Gizzi refused to get in touch.”
He went on, “Ron met with Kevin and his mother, Maura Willsey, secretly and sells the building out from under me.”
Maura Willsey, he said, did business as a company named Twilight Management. “She got a DBA and used that,” said Brown.
Neither Maura nor Kevin Willsey could be reached for comment this week.
Gizzi told The Enterprise the afternoon of June 5 that, after learning of the fire, he had contacted the insurance company, Nationwide, and said of the management company, “They did have insurance on the building. They are covered.”
Describing his role with the property now, Gizzi said, “I am the bank,” meaning that he holds the mortgage.
Once the insurance settlement is made, Gizzi said, the management company will pay off the balance of the mortgage and have the rest “free and clear.”
In February 2012, Brown said, “I faded from the picture. I had no recourse…In March 2012, I walked out and never went back.”
A year later, in February 2013, Willsey was fined $1,250 for zoning violations, including glare, inappropriately parked vehicles, and exterior storage of parts and equipment.
This spring, Willsey was charged with three felonies, for criminal possession of stolen property and illegal possession of a vehicle identification number, and several misdemeanors, including criminal solicitation. He was also charged with misdemeanors related to environmental conservation laws.
Altamont’s police chief, Todd Pucci, described Willsey after the arrests as a “customer” of a chop shop, a place where stolen cars are disassembled into parts that are then sold.
A skid-steer loader — a large vehicle with mechanical arms steered through a skid-line motion — is what led police to the arrests. On Dec. 16, 2011, Altamont Officer Christopher Laurenzo recognized a skid-steer in the auto center’s lot, matching a description posted by State Police earlier that morning, reported stolen from the town of Worcester in Otsego County. Laurenzo checked the loader’s identification number and found that it matched.
“God is good,” said Brown this week. “I was out before the chop-shop allegations or the fire.”
Brown said that, in March 2012, he saw the skid-steer on property in back of the shop and asked Willsey about it. “He told me he got a call and the skid steer was on the back of a loader and the guy said, ‘Do you want to buy the skid steer?’ and Kevin said yes.”
Willsey initially told a similar story to police, they said. Pucci said Willsey was “not cooperative” during the initial police inquiry a year-and-a-half before his arrest but was cooperating after his arrest in March 2013.
“I wasn’t at that point the owner, but I didn’t know it yet,” said Brown, indicating he hadn’t realized then that the Willseys had cut him out of the deal.
“The next thing I know, we’ve got monster trucks; Kevin Willsey was associating himself with questionable individuals…. I brought the devil into the village,” he said again. “I felt like I should apologize to the residents.”
Brown, who runs a landscaping business, which he says is doing well, plans to open an auto repair shop on Altamont Boulevard in the next few months in the former Moisture Barriers building.
He says he’s gotten approval from both the village and town zoning boards and plans to name it the Altamont Auto Plaza.
“The village needs a garage,” he said. “My goal all along has been to provide the people of Altamont with fair, honest, dependabale automotive repairs. That was my purpose from the beinning. Unfortunately, I entrusted the wrong person.”