FORT EDWARD — A son and a grandson of the 95-year-old Fort Ann woman who was murdered last summer were charged Friday with felony conspiracy in connection with her death.
Gordon W. Twiss, 73, and David M. Twiss, 52, both of Hadlock Pond Road, Fort Ann pleaded not guilty in Washington County Court to two counts each of felony second-degree conspiracy, alleging they “conspired” to have Leona Twiss killed. Gordon Twiss was the son of Leona Twiss and David Twiss was her grandson.
David Twiss is a former state corrections officer who retired from Great Meadow Correctional Facility in 2016, according to state records.
Both men were released on their own recognizance pending prosecution.
Washington County Judge Kelly McKeighan pointed to the fact that the men knew the case was under investigation and charges were possible, but they did not flee, when he decided to release them. He ordered both to surrender their passports.
Both men had no comment as they left Washington County Court after the proceedings, Gordon Twiss telling a reporter to leave them alone.
David Twiss’ lawyer, Washington County Public Defender Michael Mercure, said the men maintain their innocence and were “offended” at the charges. He said the case against them was “not strong” and “highly suspect.”
“The individuals responsible for Ms. Twiss’ death have pleaded guilty,” Mercure said. “The defendants completely maintain their innocence and look forward to clearing their names.”
The charges were contained in sealed indictments handed up in recent days by a Washington County grand jury.
Another of Leona Twiss’ grandsons, Kevin L. Gonyea, and his wife have pleaded guilty in connection with the death, Kevin Gonyea having admitted choking Leona Twiss with a towel.
Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan said he could not discuss a possible motive for the homicide while the charges are pending.
“The indictment is they conspired with Kevin to kill her (Leona Twiss),” he said. “The grand jury engaged in a significant investigation after the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and State Police investigation, and it concluded with this indictment.”
Kevin Gonyea, 50, pleaded guilty last month to second-degree murder for the killing, and agreed to serve 15-years-to-life in state prison as well as cooperate against others who may have been involved in the planning of her death.
Court records filed last fall showed that his wife, Melissa Gonyea, had told police that her husband was one of a number of family members of Twiss who she said discussed killing Leona Twiss with her husband. The Gonyeas lived with Leona Twiss in her Twiss Road, West Fort Ann, home to care for her.
The Gonyeas told police they believed she fell out of her bed, but police questioned that account and had an autopsy done that found injuries to her neck consistent with strangulation.
Mrs. Gonyea’s statements include allegations that one relative told her husband how to kill Twiss, and another gave him the “go ahead.”
“They were all a part of it. I never thought Kevin would do it,” Melissa Gonyea told police in one video. “He loved his grandma.”
The Post-Star reported on her accusations last October, which were contained in videotaped police interviews, but names of the relatives were withheld because they had not been charged.
Mrs. Gonyea pleaded guilty to felony counts related to tampering with evidence and welfare fraud last fall, and faces 4-2/3 to 14 years in prison.
Mr. Gonyea’s defense lawyer, Greg Teresi, had also questioned why authorities seemed to be overlooking others who had been implicated by the Gonyeas.
He said they had a financial motive for her to die, as she was likely going to be put in a nursing home in the coming months because of issues with dementia.
Many of those who knew Ms. Twiss said her dementia was not severe at the time of her death.
Gordon Twiss’ lawyer, Taalib Horton, called the charges against his client “unproven allegations” and pointed out he did not leave the area despite knowledge of the police investigation. He said his client has no prior criminal record, and has worked as a barber in Glens Falls for decades.
The charges the men face, second-degree conspiracy, are punishable by up to 8-1/3 to 25 years in state prison. They are due back in court on April 27.
Sentencing of the Gonyeas has been adjourned without date.
About two dozen South Glens Falls students spent their winter break at school in anticipation of the South High Marathon Dance next weekend.
This year’s theme is “Prehistoric” and students were making cardboard cutouts of dinosaurs, cavemen, eggs and plenty of bones on Thursday to decorate inside and outside the gymnasium.
Senior Brooklynn Paris, head of the decoration committee, mobilized the student workforce to make sure all of the decorations are done in time.
“We are way ahead of schedule this year,” Paris said.
They were also constructing a pterodactyl — that students have named Phyllis — made of wire, tissue paper and lights. Another pterodactyl called Phillip will be hung from the ceiling for the dance.
Students and art teacher Tom Myott are also hard at work making a volcano, which will be the first of its kind made for the Marathon Dance. The approximately 15 foot high sculpture — framed with wood and made of cardboard and papier-mache — will cover the wall near the entrance to the gymnasium.
As a Marathon Dance tradition, inspirational words are painted on huge banners, which were also being painted on Thursday. The two sayings will be: “The dance before time” and a song lyric from Lindsey Stirling’s song “Love’s Just a Feeling,” which reads, “I wanna dance like nobody’s around.”
This year’s dance will be held March 2 and 3 and will benefit 42 recipients. Students hope to top last year’s fundraising total of $823,614.91.
For more information on the dance, visit shmd.org.
A proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to drastically change the state’s laws regarding bail for accused criminals has drawn praise from some and concern from others in the criminal justice system.
Cuomo’s proposed 2018-19 budget includes reforms to bail practices as well as other court procedure changes, mirroring bail changes in other states.
“When New York’s laws governing bail were enacted back in the 1970s, they were among the most progressive in the nation,” Cuomo said last month. “Unfortunately, the status quo is no longer acceptable.”
His proposal is to all but do away with bail for those accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, and have them released on their own recognizance or supervision pending trial, has caused trepidation for many in law enforcement, who worry it will affect public safety and raise costs for some agencies.
(The proposal does also call for a new system that would allow for “preventive detention” for some accused of violent felonies and deemed a significant flight risk or threat to public safety, however).
Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan points to crime statistics that show New York is already among the safest states in the country.
“This is a drastic overhaul of a system that is working,” he said. “If we are safe, what are we looking to fix?”
Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy said the changes would pass on costs to county agencies that will be required to monitor more people who are out of jail. The recent additions of centralized arraignment programs, with mandatory defense counsel present, has already improved the arraignment system, he added.
Defense lawyers and advocates for those accused of crimes, however, believe the change will allow many who are accused of crimes to better assist with their own defense, and will lessen the impact that a person’s financial status has on whether they can get justice.
Queensbury lawyer Tucker Stanclift, chairman of the New York State Bar Association’s Criminal Justice section, said the defense bar believes the proposed changes are overdue, because the bail system “effectively punishes our citizens pre-trial” and “forces” guilty pleas from defendants who want to get out of jail.
He said the proposal balances needed changes with protections for public safety
There would still be allowances for judges in cases with circumstances that necessitate a defendant being held in jail.
“The ‘risk of flight’ analysis will not be changed,” he said.
Jordan said his office’s analysis of the issue found that of 81 people in Washington County Jail at a recent check, only six were there awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges. Two of those cases included extenuating circumstances, such as warrants or other court holds.
“When you look at their records, they are people who were appropriate for bail due to failure to appear (in court) or lengthy criminal records,” he said.
Jordan pointed out that drug sale charges and homicide counts such as second-degree manslaughter are considered nonviolent felonies, so people peddling deadly drugs such as heroin and Fentanyl will be put back on the street when they shouldn’t be.
He also questioned why Cuomo was having a public policy issue added to the budget, instead of vetted through the Legislature as most major legislative changes are.
David Gideon, a central New York town justice and president of the New York State Magistrates’ Association, said the organization of judges has not yet taken a formal position on the proposal, but will discuss it at a meeting in the coming weeks.
He said the plan raises questions that have not yet been answered. For instance, will judges be able to set bail for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies when the defendant has already failed to appear in their case? he asked.
“For the most part, our judges understand that bail is to be used to secure a person’s appearance in court,” Gideon said.
Former Washington County District Attorney Robert Winn, who operates a private law practice and a bail bond company, said a lot of the changes are based on misinformation as to how many people charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies are being held for lack of bail. Most are already released on their own recognizance, and the ones who aren’t deserve to be in jail because of their criminal records or other factors, he explained.
He echoed Jordan’s comments about the changes addressing a problem that doesn’t seem to exist in our region.
“Many judges will tell you bail is important to keep the court system running efficiently,” he said. “The claim that vast amounts of people are being held on small amounts of bail is untrue.”
The proposed changes will be negotiated as part of the ongoing state budget process, which will wrap up in or around April.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's governor announced plans Friday to put more armed guards in schools and to make it harder for young adults and some with mental illness to buy guns, responding to days of intense lobbying from survivors of last week's shooting at a Florida high school.
Gov. Rick Scott unveiled his school safety proposals as teachers returned for the first time to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School since the shooting nine days ago that killed 17 people. While criticized by some as not going far enough, the measures were significant in a state that hasn't passed any type of gun control since Republicans took control of state government in 1999.
The shooting sparked an intense push to restrict access to assault rifles fueled by student activists who swarmed the state Capitol demanding concrete gun control measures.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump told conservatives Friday that even Second Amendment supporters can get behind steps to fight gun violence in schools, offering a red-meat call for arming teachers and suggesting they would be more likely to protect students than a security guard who "doesn't love the children."
Trump tailored his talking points Friday to his conservative audience, pushing the idea of arming some teachers who are "gun-adept people" but making no mention of another proposal he's advanced in recent days that is opposed by the National Rifle Association: increasing the minimum age for buying assault rifles from 18 to 21.
However, "I am totally against arming teachers," Broward schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said. "They have a challenging job as it is."
Scott, a Republican widely expected to run for the Senate, outlined his plan at a Tallahassee news conference. In addition to banning firearm sales to anyone younger than 21, the governor called for a trained law enforcement officer for every school — and one for every 1,000 students at larger schools — by the time the fall 2018 school year begins.
Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which has more than 3,000 students, had one armed resource officer who never entered the building under attack while a gunman was shooting people inside, officials said.
That failure was compounded by confusion about what was being shown to police on school security cameras the day of the shooting and the lack of meaningful response to reports to the FBI and local police that 19-year-old suspect Nikolas Cruz might become violent, had guns and possibly would attack a school.
Trump said the armed officer who failed to confront the gunman in last week's school shooting in Parkland, Florida, was either a "coward" or "didn't react properly under pressure."
"He was not a credit to law enforcement," Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Florida's House speaker called it an "abject breakdown at all levels." Cruz is jailed on 17 counts of murder and has confessed to the shootings, investigators say.
A woman close to Cruz warned the FBI on Jan. 5 that he had rifles and said, "I know he is going to explode," according to a transcript of the tip to the FBI's call center, which was obtained Friday by The Associated Press. The FBI has acknowledged it failed to investigate the tip. The woman described Cruz's short temper and said he had the "mental capacity of a 12 to 14 year old." She said Cruz posted pictures of weapons on social media and he wrote, "I want to kill people."
Among other things, the governor's $500 million plan would create a "violent threat restraining order" that would let a court prohibit a violent or mentally ill person from purchasing or possessing a firearm or any other weapon under certain circumstances.
The proposal would also strengthen gun purchase and possession restrictions for mentally ill people under the state's Baker Act, which allows someone to be involuntarily hospitalized for up to 72 hours. Scott is seeking $50 million for initiatives that include expanding mental health services by providing counseling, crisis management and other mental health services for youth and young adults.
"No one with mental issues should have access to a gun. It is common sense. It for their own best interest, much less the best interest of our communities," Scott said.
The governor's plan made no mention of arming teachers on school grounds
However, the Legislature's Republican leadership proposed letting teachers carry a gun if they have had law enforcement training. The legislators' plan also calls for a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases, with exceptions.
Democrats said neither plan goes far enough.
"Unfortunately, both plans omit a third, critically important piece of legislation Democrats have been and continue to push for: a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines," said state Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon. He added that recent mass shootings show that "so long as these high powered weapons of war remain available for purchase these killings will continue."
Talia Rumsky, a 16-year-old Stoneman Douglas High student who was at school during the shooting, was among those who traveled to Tallahassee on Wednesday to lobby lawmakers about gun control.
She said Scott's plan to make it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to buy a gun is a start, but said she doesn't think it goes far enough.
"This is a great first step and we appreciate it," the sophomore said. "But it's not enough, and we're going to make sure they know it's not enough and is not solving our problems."