FORT EDWARD — The Fort Ann man who is accused of strangling his 95-year-old grandmother last summer is considering a plea deal offer that would send him to prison for 22 years to life.
Kevin L. Gonyea was in Washington County Court for a pretrial hearing Tuesday that was to focus on the admissibility of the statements he made to police last July, after his grandmother, Leona Twiss, was found dead in the bedroom of her West Fort Ann home.
Instead, his lawyer, Greg Teresi, spent at least five hours conferencing with Gonyea, Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan and Washington County Judge Kelly McKeighan as a possible resolution to the charges was discussed. The day ended with the case adjourned until Jan. 19 for a ruling on pretrial motions and establishment of a trial date, if no guilty plea occurs.
Teresi said his client maintains his innocence, but was considering a plea deal to avoid the potential of a longer sentence if he were convicted at trial.
“At this point, he is willing to consider all the options that have been put before him,” Teresi said. “He’s still adamant this wasn’t him, and there were other people in the vicinity who had a motive and accessibility to the victim.”
Gonyea, 50, is accused of choking Twiss with a towel July 9 as she battled dementia and the family was considering putting her in a nursing home. Gonyea and his wife had moved from Florida to care for Twiss and her husband, who died in November 2016.
Prosecutors believe Gonyea killed Twiss because he wanted to return to Florida.
Gonyea’s wife, 35-year-old Melissa Gonyea, was charged with helping him dispose of the towel allegedly used to kill Twiss, and she pleaded guilty to seven charges last month, agreeing to testify against her husband in exchange for a 4-2/3- to 14-year prison sentence.
The Gonyeas told police they believed Twiss fell out of bed before she died, and she did not have any obvious serious injuries. But an autopsy found she had been choked to death, and a police investigation led to the Gonyeas being charged two days later.
She told police that her husband came out of Twiss’ bedroom crying, said “It’s done” and told her to dispose of the towel he had, court records show. She took police to a remote part of West Fort Ann, where the towel was recovered days later as she accompanied police.
Jordan said plea discussions occur to avoid a trial for a number of reasons.
“Trials bring uncertainty and they bring difficulties for the family,” he said. “We’re ready to go to trial, but Mr. Teresi wanted to keep that door open for his client.”
Gonyea was given until Monday to accept the plea offer, or it will be withdrawn. In addition to a second-degree murder count, he also faces charges related to alleged welfare fraud before Twiss’ death, which could result in additional consecutive prison sentences.
He is being held in Washington County Jail without bail.
GLENS FALLS — More than two years after he first ran for the office, Bennet Driscoll will be joining the Warren County Board of Supervisors.
The Glens Falls Common Council on Tuesday voted 4-2 to appoint Driscoll to the county board representing Ward 5. He replaces Matt MacDonald, who resigned because of a job promotion.
Driscoll, who lost to MacDonald in the 2015 election, said he was eager to get to work. Among the issues, he said he wants to focus on his exploring more collaboration and shared services and looking to reduce Medicaid costs through public-private partnerships.
Driscoll, who was endorsed by the Democratic and Conservative parties, was one of three people who applied for the position. The other two were Robert Stedman and Nick Ignazio. The council interviewed them on Monday, and Mayor Dan Hall gave each of them a chance to state their case publicly.
Driscoll served on the Common Council from 2006 to 2013 and he said he developed skills for connecting with people.
“I think it’s important in making decisions that you know the people,” he said.
Driscoll works for Catholic Charities of Warren, Washington and Saratoga Counties.
Ignazio has spent the last 2 ½ years as senior customer account manager for Quad Graphics in Saratoga Springs. He said he is not a politician, but decided to apply because he wanted to get more involved in how county decisions are made.
“It’s time to quit complaining about it,” he said.
He said his business experience is an asset.
Robert Stedman is a retired state investigator who went on to start his own insurance fraud company.
“I know how to manage people,” he said.
He also serves on the city’s Board of Public Safety and said he is very familiar with the people on the county board.
MacDonald had recruited him to take his place and he appeared on his behalf at the meeting.
“I think Mr. Stedman will continue to bring a presence to the board that will be unbiased of political pressures, with a steady, thoughtful approach to the process,” he said.
Ward 4 Supervisor Bill Loeb said Driscoll has been highly visible despite leaving public office at the end of 2013 — appearing at many community events.
Councilman Bill Collins said the council has been grappling with the choice.
“This was the hardest decision that we’ve had to make. It’s that important to us,” he said.
Councilman Jim Clark said Driscoll and Stedman are both “seasoned veterans,” but he commended Ignazio for putting himself out there.
Collins made the motion to appoint Driscoll and Councilwoman-at-Large Jane Reid seconded it. They and Jim Campinell and Diana Palmer voted in favor. Clark and Councilman Scott Endieveri voted in opposition. Hall did not vote because, according to the city charter, the mayor only votes in the event of a tie.
Endieveri said they were both good candidates, but he believes Stedman did a better job in the interview.
“It was a dead heat to me,” he said.
Clark shared the same view, adding that either would have done a good job in the position.
Driscoll’s appointment will last until November’s election. He would have to run again to be elected to the last year of MacDonald’s term and again in 2019 if he wanted to be elected to his own two-year term.
Driscoll’s appointment slices the Republican majority to 10 to 9. Chester Supervisor Craig Leggett is the lone independent.
MacDonald ran on the Independence line.
A number of Warren County supervisors are questioning whether the board’s chairman retaliated against a supervisor who supported the chairman’s opponent during the board’s annual organizational meeting by freezing her out of committee leadership positions.
Glens Falls 3rd Ward Supervisor Claudia Braymer was not assigned any committee chairmanships during last week’s meeting, while one supervisor has two chairmanships and two new supervisors were given chairmanships. She was also taken off the Facilities Committee, which she sat on last year.
Braymer questioned whether the move was retaliation for her support of Glens Falls 2nd Ward Supervisor Peter McDevitt as he challenged Bolton Supervisor Ronald Conover for chairman, sentiments that at least two other supervisors and one former supervisor supported. McDevitt, a Democrat, lost to Conover, a Republican, last week. Braymer is also a Democrat.
In particular, Braymer questioned why she was passed over for leadership of the Environmental Concerns and Real Property Tax Services committee when she had played a major role with the committee in 2017 and last year’s chairman left the board. Braymer remains on the committee, but Lake George Supervisor Dennis Dickinson was chosen as its chairman.
Conover said the committee assignments were chosen well before last week’s meeting and there was no retaliation involved in the selections.
He said not everyone can chair a committee when there are 20 supervisors and only 15 committees and Braymer’s assignment to eight committees was a significant workload. Supervisors can attend and participate in committee meetings for committees on which they don’t sit.
“We have an open system of committees. All supervisors are welcome to participate at committee meetings,” he said. “That (alleged retaliation) is not how I operate.”
Those who saw Braymer nominate McDevitt for the chairmanship, and the acrimonious debate that followed, believe she was singled out because of her support of McDevitt, which was known for weeks before the meeting.
Queensbury at-Large Supervisor Doug Beaty said the decision not to put Braymer, who is in her second term as a supervisor, as chairman of Environmental Concerns and Real Property Tax Services seemed indefensible. He said he has asked Conover for an explanation, but has not gotten one.
“Merely explain why the most qualified supervisor (an environmental lawyer) who has been running this committee for the last six months was denied the chairmanship when that became open,” he wrote in an email to Conover. “Please supply facts as to why you have chosen a far less qualified supervisor to chair that committee.”
Former Glens Falls Supervisor James Brock, who chaired the Real Property and Environmental Concerns Committee last year, said in an email to The Post-Star that Braymer should have been assigned to chair the committee.
“She took a risk in challenging Ron Conover and was rewarded by not getting the Environmental Concerns and Real Property Committee chairmanship,” he wrote. “As chair of this committee last year, I can tell you she essentially ran it. In addition, she helped make significant improvements to the ‘last chance’ meeting, which The Post-Star reported on.”
Braymer pointed out her employment as a lawyer who specializes in environmental issues and handles real property matters seemed to make her uniquely qualified to lead the committee.
“I certainly think I am qualified on these issues,” she said.
McDevitt and Beaty continue to chair the committees they chaired last year: Economic Growth & Development for McDevitt and Shared Services for Beaty.
Conover said he made selections based on experience, interests and background and knew heading into it that not everyone would be pleased.
QUEENSBURY — Former Councilman Doug Irish is taking much of the blame for the town election that swept Democrats into the majority for the first time ever.
“I should’ve resigned,” he said, adding that he will try to help future candidates learn from his mistakes.
“Including never letting ego influence your decisions,” he said.
Democrats won in an election that had the highest voter participation in recent history for local Queensbury elections. Last year, 42 percent of registered voters participated in the election. By comparison, in the last contested supervisor race in 2009, the turnout was 34 percent.
So many people voted in 2017 that turnout rivaled the last governor’s election in 2014, when 49 percent of registered voters voted in Queensbury. It did not come close to the participation rate for the presidential election. In 2016, turnout was 77 percent.
But actions by various Republicans motivated many people to come to the polls last November. Irish said he realized, too late, that the Republicans running for office should repudiate him.
The losses were partly due to his actions, he said, adding that he takes so much blame that he would say only that the losses were “not completely my fault.”
Irish had refused to resign from his Town Board seat despite moving to North Carolina in July to take a full-time job. He was also one of three Republicans in an email conversation in which Irish proposed having others campaign for Ward 1 candidate Hal Bain, who no longer wanted to run for office. He told Bain he could resign after winning and the Republicans would be able to pick someone else.
At the polls, voters said they did not like the idea that they were voting for an unwilling candidate who would be replaced by an unknown person.
Irish realized that voters were turning against Republicans over those issues, and resigned on Oct. 23, two weeks before the election. It wasn’t enough to turn the tide.
“I should have resigned in August,” he said. “She (Seeber) should’ve been smart enough to say, ‘Doug, you should resign.’”
He told her to call him out.
“I told her if you have to take a hard line, do it,” he said. “I think one of the problems was, Rachel is loyal to a fault.”
Seeber has called the election a “perfect storm” in which other issues were not discussed as thoroughly as the ethical problems. But Irish isn’t convinced.
“I do think the issue was more about me not resigning and her not calling me out on it than about the issues,” he said. “Overall, it was as she described ‘a perfect storm,’ but it would have been nice to have it decided on the candidate’s platforms than on multiple opinion pieces and negative stories in The Post-Star linking (Councilman) Brian Clements and Rachel Seeber to an issue they had nothing to do with.”
As for the Hal Bain campaign, Irish blames Bain. The 72-year-old man had just been appointed to a vacancy on the town Republican Committee and had never campaigned door-to-door before. While Bain said he got out because the race turned “negative,” Irish said he clearly didn’t want to do the work of campaigning.
“The driveways are really long, the dogs are really big,” he said. “I think I made a big mistake with trusting Hal Bain.”
Irish resigned from the GOP committee, but Warren County Republican Committee Chairman Mike Grasso asked him to accept a reappointment. Irish accepted it and voted by proxy in the crucial organizational meeting in which some thought Grasso would lose his chairmanship. He kept it, but agreed to let a new executive committee take over some of his work.
“I shouldn’t have a role and did resign,” Irish said. “He asked me to stay on as long as I can and I agreed. If I have any knowledge of ‘landmines’ that can help other candidates, I’m glad to help.”
His main ‘landmine’ lessons so far: Resign if you move away, don’t listen to your ego and don’t pick a fight with a newspaper, he said.
Seeber disagreed with Irish’s assessment, saying her loyalty to him was not a factor in the election.
“Loyalty has nothing to do with this. My loyalty is to the people of Queensbury. It’s their voice I wanted to represent. I ran to represent the citizens of Queensbury. Period,” she said.
She strongly supported the idea of video-conferencing. But she added that Irish knew she thought he should resign when the Town Board would not allow him to attend meetings by videoconference.
“I told voters this on their doorsteps,” she said. “As I have said many times, Doug Irish makes decisions for Doug Irish. I can only control my own actions. And as you know, I’m not afraid to speak up or out, evidenced by my continual advocacy for people in our community. I’m disappointed in the election results, but the people spoke and they made their decision.”
She and Irish both said that The Post-Star focused too much on Irish’s residency and the Hal Bain situation and not enough on Seeber’s platform, leaving her to be linked to the “drama,” as Seeber put it.
“Despite social media and door-knocking, I was unable to overcome it,” she said. ”If you want to reflect upon loyalty, perhaps it’s your paper’s loyalty to (Supervisor) John Strough and slanting a narrative versus letting voters read the facts and decide for themselves. The Post-Star worked very hard for John Strough and the Democrats. I can only assume that was because of loyalty.”