Witness adamant he saw Steen at scene of Allen’s kidnapping

Staff Report

Bill Pierce testified Tuesday he saw James “Thumper” Steen strike a woman and carry her near the side door of a white van in the D&W Convenience Store parking lot the day Heidi Allen disappeared in April of 1994.
In the second week of testimony to determine whether Gary Thibodeau — convicted of kidnapping Allen in 1995 — deserves a new trial, Pierce testified he was convinced it was Steen, not Thibodeau, he saw outside the store the day Allen was kidnapped.
Defense attorneys have argued that Steen, along with Michael Bohrer and Roger Breckenridge, is responsible for Allen’s kidnapping. All three men have denied involvement.
Pierce, who previously told investigators that he believed the man he saw was in fact Thibodeau, said he changed his mind after seeing Steen’s picture in a local newspaper.
“Right then and there I knew Thibodeau was not the man that did it,” said Pierce.
Shortly after Thibodeau’s arrest, Pierce says he drew a beard on a picture of Thibodeau and felt it was “close enough.” Last July, after reading media reports that Sheriff Reuel Todd expressed disappointment that Heidi Allen had never been found, Pierce for the first time called authorities to let them know they had the right man.
“[Todd] served all these years, he deserves to know whether he had the right or wrong man,” said Pierce, who signed a statement indicating it was Thibodeau he saw. “At the time I did believe it was Thibodeau.” But days later, Pierce saw pictures of Steen, convincing him otherwise.
During cross-examination, District Attorney Greg Oakes repeatedly questioned Pierce’s certainty, pointing out that Steen would not have looked the same back in 1994.
At one point, Oakes showed Pierce a picture of several men, one of whom was Steen. Pierce said he had never seen any of them, and none of them were the driver of the van. When Oakes lifted a current picture of Steen, Pierce was resolute, saying, “That’s the guy.”
He said the recent picture of Steen shows the man he saw hit the woman in the parking lot; the older picture of Steen taken closer to the time of the incident was someone he’d never seen in his life.
“To me they look like two different people,” he said.
In October, Pierce was shown two photo arrays featuring pictures of both Steen and Thibodeau from 1994, and according to prosecutors he failed to identify either as the man he saw in the D&W parking lot. Pierce testified investigators dismissed him when he attempted to identify Steen.
“We can play games with pictures and faces,” said Pierce. “The man that I saw was James Steen.”
“Are you as certain of that as you were of your identification of Thibodeau in July?” asked Oakes.
Peebles objected to the question, and acting Oswego County Court Judge Daniel King sustained the objection.
Pierce, 79, says he was in traffic at a stoplight with half a dozen other cars at the intersection near the convenience store where Allen worked.
Though he couldn’t recall the specific time because it was 20 years ago, he said it was between 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
Pierce says he saw a woman standing near the driver’s door, arguing with the driver. He says the driver got out, struck the woman on the back of the head, caught her as she toppled, and started carrying her toward the side door of the van, which he believed he saw starting to open.
Oakes asked Pierce to describe how far away he was from the parking lot where he saw the man and woman, and Pierce compared it to the length of the courtroom.
Oakes then had Pierce mark the location of his car and the van on a diagram of the store and the intersection. Oakes pointed out the distance seemed greater than the length of the courtroom, which he estimated at 60 feet.
Pierce testified he did not stop, nor did he call authorities about what he witnessed, something he was ashamed of to this day.
“I was still trying to convince myself that I didn’t see the abduction,” said Pierce, thinking it was just a domestic dispute.
He said a woman in the car behind him was pointing in the direction of the incident, adding there are several “people out there” who saw what happened.
Onondaga County Judge Joseph Fahey, who was Thibodeau’s trial lawyer, completed his cross-examination on Tuesday, saying he would have “raised holy hell” if he had seen documents during the middle of Thibodeau’s trial showing Allen’s confidential informant information card was dropped in the D&W parking lot in 1992.
While chief assistant district attorney Mark Moody emphasized the card was dropped in 1992 — two years before Allen’s disappearance — Fahey said there would have been sanctions had such a document been presented to him six months into the trial.
Fahey testified, however, that he did see a report at least mentioning Allen’s status as an informant; last year, in an affidavit for the defense, he said he never saw such a document.
Fahey said even though he may have seen such a document, he was told by authorities that Allen wasn’t “used as an informant.” Moody also pointed out that during Fahey’s closing arguments in Thibodeau’s trial, he distanced Allen from drug use or drug sales as much as possible, because Thibodeau had been in prison on a drug charge and because two jailhouse informants testified drugs had been connected to the case.
Moody asked Fahey if Allen being an informant would have hurt his case, because it may have provided a motive for Thibodeau.
“No,” replied Fahey, arguing the jailhouse informants testifying against Thibodeau discussed a drug deal gone wrong, and adding that if Allen was an informant, she wouldn’t be selling drugs.
Moody tried to establish that Richard Thibodeau’s lawyer, now retired Onondaga County Judge William Walsh, shared documents and defenses with Fahey; Richard Thibodeau was acquitted of the same kidnapping charge after Gary Thibodeau’s conviction.
Fahey maintained they shared information and used the same investigators, and even that Walsh sat at the same desk with him during Gary Thibodeau’s trial, but he downplayed the notion that he had seen every note or piece of evidence that Walsh may have seen.
Moody also returned to the subject of Fahey’s organization, or, according to prosecutors, the lack thereof. With the defense team arguing Thibodeau did not have every bit of evidence made available to him, prosecutors have responded that Fahey was not the best at record keeping.
Fahey testified he had an “unorthodox” way of organizing paperwork, but says a reporter’s description of his office as “messy” is something that’s “in the eyes of the beholder.” During redirect examination by Peebles, Fahey testified he would have used Allen’s confidential informant status to show a motive for others to possibly do her harm.

Administrators hold community forum on school violence reporting

Fulton Junior High School Principal Ryan Lanigan (left) and district Superintendent Bill Lynch (right) give a presentation Monday evening in response to a recent audit of the school's violent and disruptive incident reporting. Colin Hogan photo
Fulton Junior High School Principal Ryan Lanigan (left) and district Superintendent Bill Lynch (right) give a presentation Monday evening in response to a recent audit of the school’s violent and disruptive incident reporting.
Colin Hogan photo

By Colin Hogan
After an audit by the state comptroller’s office recently called Fulton Junior High School’s reporting of violent and disruptive incidents into question, district administrators laid out their side of the story in a presentation for parents Monday.
The audit was performed on the state Education Department’s Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting (VADIR) system for schools, and used Fulton Junior High as one of seven test schools. Once released, the report revealed several incidents from the 2011-12 year that school officials either failed to report, or misclassified in their reporting to the state. Auditors say, had that information been properly reported, the school might have been classified “potentially persistently dangerous.”
The report shows that Fulton reported 289 incidents that year, but auditors say they found 368 incidents that should have been considered reportable under VADIR.
During the special meeting in the junior high school cafeteria Monday evening — which was mostly attended by local media and school board members — administrators presented specifics on how the state’s system for reporting violent and disruptive incidents works, how the district handles such events, and some examples of incidents that auditors said should have been reported differently.
Superintendent Bill Lynch opened the meeting by emphasizing the district’s commitment to maintaining safe schools.
“First of all, I want you to know that we take student safety, staff safety, visitor safety in our schools extremely seriously. We’ve also taken the audit conducted by the comptroller’s office of our (2011-12 VADIR system) very seriously,” Lynch said.
Lynch said the school is focused on “providing a safe and secure learning environment,” and that the district is “fortunate we have a very supportive and caring and responsive staff for our students.”
The VADIR system breaks down violent and disruptive incidents into 28 categories and subcategories for schools to classify such events when reporting them to the state. Those categories are then weighted differently so that a formula may be used to determine how safe the school environment is. Very serious incidents, such as “Homicide” or “Forcible Sex Offenses” carry the highest weight, while things like “Use, Possession, or Sale of Drugs or Alcohol” and “Other Disruptive Incidents” are weighted less.
In their responses to the comptroller’s office, local media and parents, administrators acknowledged that, in some instances, the school could have followed the VADIR guidelines for reporting more closely. However, they’re also quick to point out that they “strongly disagree” with some of the system’s classifications.
On Monday, Lynch shared an example in which one male student “pantsed” another male student  (i.e. pulled down the other’s pants in public) while the two were fooling around. The auditors felt that and similar incidents should have been reported through VADIR as “Sex Offenses.”
Lynch said administrators thoroughly investigated those incidents and felt they were “clearly inappropriate” and warranted action. However, he said “we did not view those as a sexual offense. We viewed those as demeaning, intimidating, harassing behavior” and applied the appropriate consequences for that kind of incident.
Still, he conceded that the district should have been reporting incidents the state’s way.
“They are probably right, in terms of how the definition is written by New York state. We have to adhere to that, so we will say that we were wrong for that. But to call that a sexual incident, I think, misportrays the situation,” Lynch said.
Administrators also emphasized the school’s use of progressive disciplinary measures and the PBIS system (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports — a U.S. Department of Education-supported approach to behavioral expectations in schools.)
One of the biggest issues administrators had with the audit, according to Lynch and junior high school Principal Ryan Lanigan, was that the auditors’ tabulations only took into account the initial filing of a referral by a teacher or staff member, and not the administration’s follow-up investigations, which often resulted in new understandings of what happened.
Lanigan previously described the school’s process for investigating those referrals as such:
“Whenever a referral is written (by a teacher or staff member), we have a process that we go through. That referral is brought to the main office where myself or the assistant principal read the referral and follow due process. We meet with the student. We meet with other students who may be able to shed light on what’s occurred. A lot of times, that changes our understanding of what’s happened, and we may find that it wasn’t quite the offense it sounded like at first. We take everything into account before we decide what the consequence is,” said Lanigan.
Student Support Systems Director Geri Geitner said, by not taking into account the follow-ups to these incidents, the VADIR system only gives a “narrow” assessment of what the culture inside the school is like.
“VADIR, at its best, is a narrow focus on school climate because it only focuses on the negative incidents and the aversive consequences, instead of focusing on the overall climate of the school, the laying of the foundation of expectations and, most importantly, the interventions that follow behavior incidents in school settings. So it really omits that piece which we feel is most critical,” Geitner said.
An open question and answer period followed the 40-minute presentation, which yielded no questions from parents.
Administrators said representatives from the state Education Department will visit the junior high school on February 11 to review the school’s reporting practices and make their own recommendations.

Ruth N. Waldron

Waldron OBRuth N. Waldron, 92, of Oswego, former Phoenix, N.Y. resident, passed away Monday, January 26, 2015 at Oswego Hospital. Born in Charlotte, N.C. to her late parents, Clara (Roberts) and James M. Cash on October 14, 1922, she was an employee of General Electric Co., Syracuse, retiring in 1985 after 20 years of service.

Ruth is predeceased by her husband of 34 years, Carl R. Waldron, Sr. on February 13, 1976; her sons, Derick E.  Waldron on October 17, 1981 and James E. Waldron on November 14, 2008.

Survivors include her two sons and daughters-in-law, Carl R. and Roxanne Waldron, Jr., and Austin F. and Judy Waldron, all of Fulton, N.Y.; 14 grandchildren; 30 great-grandchildren; one great-great granddaughter; several nieces, including Sharon and her husband Larry Brower of N.C.; several nephews, and many cousins.

Calling hours and a memorial service were held Thursday, January 29, 2015 in the Allanson-Glanville-Tappan Funeral Home, 431 Main St., Phoenix, N.Y.

Spring interment will be in Chase Cemetery 9450 State Rt. 48, Phoenix, N.Y.

Alfred S. Arnold

Alfred S. Arnold, 76, born July 18, 1938, formerly of Fulton, N.Y. and Muncie, Ind., passed away January 10, 2015, in Albuquerque, N.M. Fred is survived by his son, Jeff, and wife, Denise; grandchildren, Brittany and Zack; step-grandchildren, Taylor, Jordan, and Isaac; great-grandson, Brantley; daughter, Kate; grandson, Timothy; son, Harley and wife, Jennifer; grandson, Jimmy; step-grandchildren, Mackenzie, Maria, and Kenneth; sister, Marian; numerous cousins, extended relatives and plenty of friends. Fred was preceded in death by his parents Glen and Ella Arnold. Fred enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1957 and served in Germany, Korea, and two tours in Vietnam. He was a decorated Army sharpshooter, avid motorcyclist, gun enthusiast and master mechanic. His nickname to bikers and trikers was “Festus.” A Memorial Service will be planned at the convenience of the family. Condolences may be sent to Gabaldon Mortuary at www.gabaldonmortuaryinc.com. In lieu of flowers, please send memorials in Alfred Arnold’s name to a Vietnam Veterans Organization of your choice.

Granby residents opposing gravel mine expansion

By Colin Hogan

A group of Granby residents is asking state regulators to prevent the expansion of a gravel mine on county Route 85.

Syracuse Sand and Gravel, which owns the pit, has asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for permission to expand the mine’s pond size from 32.1 to 46.6 acres.

About 60 residents living in the vicinity of the mine, though, sent a petition to the DEC saying that even at its current size, the operation is harming their properties with water pollution and unacceptable levels of noise and dust.

Christine Bassett, of county Route 85, said this is just the latest in an ongoing struggle she and her neighbors are having with state regulators over the mine’s operations.

“They have been very non-communicative. We were calling the DEC complaining about dust, they said ‘don’t call us anymore’ and instead gave us a point person with the company. They have not called us at all or communicated at all with us on this problem, and it’s a major issue,” Bassett said. “It’s like the louder we get and the more we protest, the more we get deflected.”

In a letter to the DEC, which accompanied the petition, residents say they are “strongly opposed” to the proposed expansion, citing a variety of impacts the operation has already caused at its current size.

Topping the list is that the assessment made of nearby residents’ water wells, which was performed in October 2012, is not current, and does not reflect the status of their drinking water.

The letter — which is signed by Bassett and fellow county Route 85 residents James Kush and Lynn Lyons — states that if Bassett’s well were to be examined today, it would show “evidence of substantially increased sediment in water.”

For the last couple years, the Bassetts have had to change their in-house sediment filter “at least every two weeks.” Prior to that time, they only had to change it every couple months, according to the letter.

Bassett, who has lived in her home for 35-plus years, describes her filter as “usually jet black with sediment” after two week’s time lately. She said in prior years, before it needed to be changed so often, it would come out only “slightly gray.”

Another nearby household, owned by the Lyons family, reported on Dec. 20 that their water supply has been “discolored with a visibly yellowish hue,” according to the letter.

The letter also states that the water assessment failed to take into account wells of many households located downhill from the mine.

The residents also “protest the current and ongoing lack of dust control” on trucks traveling from the mine.

“Dust and rocks dragged by the trucks from the bed onto county Route 85 (and into our yards and homes) have been unresolved and increasing problems for year,” the letter states.

In response to earlier complaints about the dust, DEC officials told Syracuse Sand and Gravel it needed to install a truck wheel wash at the site. Granby Town Supervisor Ed Williamson said it was his understanding that the wheel wash was supposed to be installed by the end of January.

Syracuse Sand and Gravel Supervisor Tim Harrison said Monday that the wheel wash is currently on site, but has not yet been installed. He said the company was told by the DEC to have it installed by March, and is waiting to do so until the air temperatures aren’t so cold.

“Even if we installed it right now, you can’t run it, because the water would freeze,” Harrison said.

Harrison noted that, because the ground is currently frozen, the trucks aren’t carrying nearly as much dirt on their wheels. The pit’s activity has also been very slow in January, with only about 20 truckloads leaving all month, he said.

Harrison said the company and the drivers who travel from the mine adhere to the state’s laws on covering loads to manage dust.

“It’s really an open law, and it’s the driver’s discretion whether they tarp loads or not,” Harrison said, adding that a cover is usually only necessary when hauling sand.

“The only loads in question would be when we haul sand out of there, and all those loads get covered,” he said.

A request for comment to the DEC’s regional office was not returned as of press time Monday.

Williamson said he has also sent a letter to the DEC requesting that, in keeping with his residents’ wishes, any permit issued stipulate that the mine not operate on weekends or outside of the hours 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays; that drivers be required to keep the roads clean; and that truck traffic on town roads be as limited as possible.

He said he is also wary of the company digging below the water table.

Williamson called the matter “a tough situation,” saying he has strong sympathy for the affected residents, but also noting that “business is progress.”

FCSD 2012 capital project to wrap up this spring

By Colin Hogan

Fulton City School District’s two back-to-back capital projects remain on schedule, with the 2012 endeavor likely to wrap up this spring, according to district officials.

With the exception of work around the entrance way at Fairgrieve Elementary, and few last-minute punch list items, the $8.8 million 2012 project is “pretty well wrapped up,” facilities director Jerry Seguin recently told the board of education.

Major components of that project include the replacement of the stage curtain, lighting and rigging at the Education Center; a partial roof replacement at G. Ray Bodley High School; technology upgrades and new computer facilities at both Fairgrieve and Volney elementary schools; security upgrades, asbestos abatement, ceiling tile/grid replacement, removal of classroom lockers and new ductwork/relief fans at Fairgrieve; and a partial roof replacement at Volney.

Seguin said the entrance way work that remains at Fairgrieve is the installation of some ceramic tile and the display cases that are placed near the entrance. He said the tile should arrive in time for workers to install it over the February break, and the display cases should be set for installation in March.

“We were hoping to get that started over Christmas break, but had some delays in getting the materials. The plan is to start installing them during the February break,” Seguin said. “We’ll get everything wrapped up as much as we can during the break so we can close that up and then put those cabinets in during second shift.”

When the referendum on the project was passed in December 2012, district officials anticipated it would be completed by spring of 2015. Seguin said that projection should hold true.

The $4.4 million 2014 project — which includes roof replacements at Granby and Lanigan elementary schools, a gym floor replacement at Lanigan, a new athletic storage building and the replacement of locks on classrooms and offices across the district — is also moving mostly according to schedule, Seguin said.

The replacement of the Lanigan gym floor and the new athletic storage building have both been completed, Seguin said, and the plans for the roof replacements are currently being reviewed by the state education department.

“The roof projects are still pending SED approval, but that’s expected at this point. We’re still on the original timeline. If that keeps up, we should be done with the roofs over the summer,” Seguin said.

Superintendent Bill Lynch said he anticipates SED will finish its review of the plans sometime in early February.

The installation of the new locks throughout all schools, however, is lagging behind a bit.

Seguin said the bids for the lock replacements are in and “look good” but are still in the process of being reviewed.

“We’re a little behind on the installation of lock sets. We thought we would be able to get those in earlier, but we’ll start working on them during second shift. It still looks like we’re going to be able to do all of that before school’s over, but it’s going to be tight, because there’s probably a 10 to 12-week lag time once they order the materials,” he said.

As they work on replacing the locks, Seguin said they may find some doors need to be upgraded or replaced. Still, he said the lock replacement looks like it may end up costing about 3 percent less than the original estimate stated.

State aid is covering about 96 percent of each project’s costs, with the district relying on capital reserves to fund about 3 percent, and the remaining 1 percent coming out of the tax levy.

 

Walter D. Scruton

Scruton OBWalter D. Scruton, 75, of Oswego, formerly of Hannibal, passed away Tuesday at the Syracuse V.A. Medical Center. He was born in Oswego, a son to the late Walter S. and Beryl M. (Weber) Scruton and lived most of his life in Hannibal. Walter graduated from Hannibal High School and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was a design engineer with Atlantic Inland Design in Syracuse for several years. Walter enjoyed being outdoors, fishing, camping and sitting beside the campfire. In addition to his parents, Walter was predeceased by his brothers, Carl Leonard Scruton, who died in 1992, Gary L. Scruton, who died in 2001 and Thomas E. Scruton, who died in 2010; a sister, Joyce J. Santore Johnson, who died in 1988 and by a son-in-law, Mark Hudson. Walter is survived by his son, Walter D. “Skip” Scruton, Jr. of New Smyrna Beach, Fla.; three daughters, Eileen Sharkey, Kimberley Scruton and Michelle Hudson all of Oswego; four sisters and one brother as well as several grandchildren. There are no calling hours or funeral services. At Walter’s request his body was donated to SUNY Upstate Medical University for the advancement of medical research. Foster Funeral Home, Hannibal has care of arrangements.

 

Grace M. Smith

Smith OBGrace M. Callahan Smith, 90, formerly of Kellogg Rd., Hannibal, passed away on Tuesday, January 20, 2015 at Michaud Residential Health Services. She was born March 2, 1924 in Syracuse, a daughter to the late Joseph and Maude Myrto Callahan. Grace retired from Hannibal High School as a lunch aide and was a communicant of Our Lady of The Rosary Catholic Church. She enjoyed her crafts.  Along with her parents, Grace was predeceased by her husband, Robert J. Smith, Sr. in 2010; son, Robert Smith, Jr. in 2009; daughter, Dorotha Bennett in 2014 and son-in-law, David Shoults in 2011.

She will be greatly missed and forever loved by her four children, Joann (Michael) Mays of Kansas, Mary Jean (Larry) Swiger of Tennessee, Hazel Shoults of Oswego and Joseph Smith of Hannibal; 16 grandchildren; several great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

Calling hours and a service were held Friday at Foster Funeral Home, 837 Cayuga St., Hannibal. Spring burial will be in Hannibal Village Cemetery.

 

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