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US says it will hold N. Korea to its promises ahead of summit

WASHINGTON — The White House tried to swat away criticism Friday that the U.S. is getting nothing in exchange for agreeing to a historic face-to-face summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said North Korea has made promises to denuclearize, stop its nuclear and missile testing and allow joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. But questions remained over exactly what North Korea means by "denuclearize" and what the U.S. might be risking with a highly publicized summit that will build up Kim's stature among world leaders.

"Let's not forget that the North Koreans did promise something," Sanders said, responding to a reporter's question about why Trump agreed to a meeting — unprecedented between leaders of the two nations — without preconditions.

She added: "We are not going to have this meeting take place until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea."

Still, the White House indicated that planning for the meeting was fully on track.

"The deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the World. Time and place to be determined," Trump tweeted late Friday.

The previous night's announcement of the summit marked a dramatic turnaround after a year of escalating tensions and rude insults between the two leaders. A personal meeting would have been all but unthinkable when Trump was being dismissed as a "senile dotard" and the Korean "rocket man" was snapping off weapons tests in his quest for a nuclear arsenal that could threaten the U.S. mainland.

North Korea's capabilities are indeed close to posing a direct atomic threat to the U.S. And the wider world has grown fearful of a resumption of the Korean War that ended in 1953 without a peace treaty.

The prospect of the first U.S.-North Korea summit has allayed those fears somewhat. The European Union, Russia and China — whose leader spoke by phone with Trump on Friday — have all welcomed the move.

North Korea's government has yet to formally comment on its invitation to Trump. South Korea said the president agreed to meet Kim by May, but Sanders said Friday that no time and place had been set.

The "promises" on denuclearization and desisting from weapons tests were relayed to Trump by South Korean officials who had met with Kim on Monday and brought his summit invitation to the White House. Trump discussed the offer with top aides on Thursday. Some expressed their reservations but ultimately supported the president's decision to accept it, according to U.S. officials who were briefed on the talks and requested anonymity to discuss them.

Still, some lawmakers and foreign policy experts voiced skepticism about the wisdom of agreeing to a summit without preparations by lower-level officials, particularly given the lack of trust between the two sides. North Korea is also holding three American citizens for what Washington views as political reasons.

"A presidential visit is really the highest coin in the realm in diplomacy circles," said Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, adding that Trump "seemed to spend it without getting anything in return, not even the release of the three U.S. captives."

Some say Trump could be setting himself up for failure amid doubts over whether Kim has any intention to relinquish a formidable atomic arsenal that he has made central to his personal stature and North Korea's standing in the world. 

Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official experienced in negotiating with North Korea, warned there is a disconnect between how the North and the U.S. describes "denuclearization" of the divided Korean Peninsula. For the U.S. it refers to North Korea giving up its nukes; for North Korea it also means removing the threat of American forces in South Korea and the nuclear deterrent with which the U.S. protects its allies in the region.

"The fundamental definition of denuclearization is quite different between Washington and Pyongyang," Revere said, noting that as recently as Jan. 1, Kim had vigorously reaffirmed the importance of nukes for North Korea's security. He said that misunderstandings at a summit could lead to "recrimination and anger" and even military action if Trump were embarrassed by failure.

"There is good reason to talk, but only if we are talking about something that is worth doing and that could be reasonably verified," said former Defense Secretary William Perry, who dealt with North Korea during President Bill Clinton's administration. "Otherwise we are setting ourselves up for a major diplomatic failure."

The White House maintains that Kim has been compelled to reach out for presidential-level talks because of Trump's policy of "maximum pressure."

"North Korea's desire to meet to discuss denuclearization — while suspending all ballistic missile and nuclear testing — is evidence that President Trump's strategy to isolate the Kim regime is working," Vice President Mike Pence, who has visited the region, said Friday in a written statement.

'I thought I was going to die'
Campano sentenced to 30 years in state prison and 5 years on parole for armed robbery, shooting at Hague Market in April

QUEENSBURY — The Warren County store owner shot five times during a robbery last spring confronted the man who shot him Friday, saying it was only “luck or divine intervention” that kept him from dying.

James Rypkema gave a victim’s impact statement in Warren County Court for the sentencing of Vittorio “Vito” Campano, who shot Rypkema last April when he held up The Hague Market.

Rypkema was choked up as he described the terror and pain he went through after he was left bleeding on the floor of his store, wondering if he would survive.

“I thought I was going to die,” he said.

He explained the damage that five shots from a .22-caliber handgun did, breaking a rib, puncturing a lung and shattering a vertebrae, two shots passing through an arm and causing permanent nerve damage. At least three of the bullets remained lodged in Rypkema.

He said doctors dubbed him “Mr. Lucky” for surviving the shots.

“If it hadn’t been for luck or divine intervention, you would be sentencing this man for murder,” he told Warren County Judge John Hall.

Campano, 26, of Thurman, was “nonchalant” as he quickly fired the gun after looting the cash register of about $350, Rypkema added. Campano didn’t even realize how many shots he fired, as he told Hall during his guilty plea that he fired four shots.

Rypkema said he at first thought the robbery attempt was a joke, but that he quickly complied with the demands and walked away from the cash register.

In court on Friday, Campano apologized, saying he was “sincerely sorry.”

“Nothing I can say will ever take back what I did,” he said.

Campano’s lawyer Warren County Assistant Public Defender Brian Pilatzke, said his client had no prior criminal record but had a mental health history for which he was being treated. But he told Hall that a medical professional’s decision to allow Campano to stop taking an anti-psychotic medication seemingly led to the crime spree.

He said Campano and his family realized the decision was a bad one, but the psychiatrist would not restart the medication and his “mental health deteriorated.”

“Ultimately, that led to the acts that were charged in this indictment,” Pilatzke said.

Rypkema and Warren County First Assistant District Attorney Matthew Burin asked about a comment that Campano made during his Jan. 11 guilty plea, when he said he believed he was “justified” in shooting the store owner.

Burin said Rypkema was unarmed and cooperative after Campano pointed the gun at him and asked for money. He shot Rypkema “for the thrill of it,” Burin said.

Campano was sentenced for the shooting that took place April 25 as well as a spate of home burglaries around Warren County that he and his fiancee committed before the robbery and shooting. Several guns, including the handgun used to shoot Rypkema, were stolen during the burglaries.

He pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree murder and second-degree burglary, with Hall sentencing him to 30 years in state prison and 5 years on parole per a plea agreement.

Campano and his fiancee, Christine W. Tomko of Queensbury, also committed eight home burglaries in Warren County.

Tomko served as a lookout during the holdup and assisted during the burglaries, and she has also pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

State Police arrested the duo two days after the shooting, focusing on them thanks to surveillance videos from homes in Hague that showed a Pontiac Vibe hatchback coming and going on Lake Shore Drive before and after the robbery. Troopers later found a car matching that description, and noted that the occupants matched the description of the robbers.

Campano and Tomko admitted to the robbery and to at least eight home burglaries in the weeks beforehand.

Police said it was not clear why the duo went on their crime spree, other than a desire for money. Campano, who was unemployed, had posted on Facebook shortly before his arrest that he was in need of funds.

Campano and Tomko will also have to make an estimated $14,200 restitution for medical bills and cash and property stolen during the robbery and burglaries.

Students planning walk-out next week to show support to gun victims

Students in some local districts will join with others across the country in walking out of class Wednesday to mark the one-month anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 14 students and three staff members.

Two local districts are displaying differing reactions to the walkouts, which are calling attention to the issue of gun violence in schools, with Queensbury school officials providing a venue for the protest, while Hadley-Luzerne is warning students they will be disciplined if they participate.

Queensbury Superintendent Douglas Huntley said student leaders approached Principal Damian Switzer, and school officials have made sure the event will be conducted safely. The Warren County Sheriff’s Office has accepted the district’s invitation to be present.

Huntley said the event was not organized by the school.

“It wasn’t our idea. It’s not our initiative, but once they’ve decided to do it, I think it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re safe and everything goes smoothly,” he said.

Students will be out of class for 17 minutes to symbolize each life lost in the tragedy on Feb. 14. They plan to go to the gymnasium and some student leaders will make statements and there will be a brief performance, according to Huntley.

“They’re going to have a banner that the student body can sign, notes and cards to send all of this to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” he said.

Huntley said teachers would be staying with students who choose not to walk out.

Hadley-Luzerne Superintendent Beecher Baker said in a letter to parents posted on the district’s website that students would be subject to discipline if they walk out of school, which could include suspension and exclusion from after-school activities.

Baker said in a follow-up interview that the school made this decision for safety and academic reasons. He said he does not have a lot of staff to supervise students who walk out of class.

“I can’t guarantee their safety in any way. We certainly feel uncomfortable with that,” he said.

He added that he does not think it is wise for students to advertise that they are going to be a certain place at a certain time, with the potential for people who want to do harm.

Baker said he does not want the students to lose 17 minutes of instruction. He preferred if the students would have this event before school or during an activity period after school.

“When it’s during a class period, we see that as being divisive. There’s going to be some kids who go and some who don’t,” he said. “You’re looking at ostracizing the kids who don’t go.”

Baker also said he does not believe the school should get involved in political issues.

“That’s not what we do as a school,” he said.

He noted that there is another protest on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting, where students are instructed to walk out and not come back.

“Where does this end?” he said.

At Moreau Elementary School in South Glens Falls, parent Liz Miner is organizing a walkout. She said her boys, ages 9 and 11, wanted to do something.

Miner said she and her sons plan to stand by the flag at Moreau Elementary School for 17 minutes. She plans to show a brief presentation on her tablet with some facts about gun violence and to honor the 17 people who were killed.

Miner said she and her husband grew up hunting with their fathers and plan on teaching their children about gun safety. She would like to see changes in gun laws, including having nearby states such as Vermont and New Hampshire to adopt gun restrictions similar to New York’s.

People convicted of multiple drug-related offenses and felons should not be allowed to own firearms, she said, and civilians have no need for military grade weapons.

“First, these killing machines have no place in hunting, as our regular hunting rifles do the trick. Second, a Glock or hunting rifle will protect you the same as a rapid fire gun against a military tank, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she said in an email.

South Glens Falls is not sanctioning the walkout and students will face disciplinary consequences under the code of conduct, according to a statement on the district’s website.

The district has activities at the middle and high schools planned for the day. Students will be able to write legislators and express their support for the students at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School.

A student walkout is also taking place in the Saratoga Springs City School District.

Other events are occurring across the country on that date, loosely organized by Women’s March Youth Empower, which is calling for Congress to pass gun control legislation.

Dewatering site owner sues Fort Edward over assessment

FORT EDWARD — The owner of the former General Electric dewatering site is suing the town of Fort Edward while Washington County tries to find a way to get taxes owed on the property.

WCC LLC has sued Fort Edward to get a lower property assessment on the two biggest parcels it owns. Both parcels are entirely inside town limits, so the case does not affect Kingsbury. But any reduction in assessment would affect the town and village of Fort Edward, the school district and the county.

Washington County officials are now trying to decide how to handle the situation. WCC has already defaulted on $3.8 million in taxes and is poised to default on the current year’s taxes as well. That could have a detrimental effect on the county’s savings.

The county could go to court to take WCC’s property in a little more than a year if the company misses its tax payments again. That means the county is about to be embroiled in its own legal case against WCC. But for now, county officials are considering whether to support Fort Edward in the tax assessment case started by WCC.

It might be reasonable to reduce the property’s assessment, said Hebron Supervisor Brian Campbell.

The assessed value for the two dewatering plant parcels was lowered from a combined $72.6 million to nearly $37.5 million. That reduced the tax bill from $3.8 million for 2016 to $1.9 million for 2017. WCC is now suing to get it lowered further.

The county could support Fort Edward financially or get involved in the court case, said County Attorney Roger Wickes.

No decision has been made yet.

“We’re still mulling the extent of our participation,” he said.

The town has assessing authority, and the county has no role in those assessments. But the county and school district would take a hit if the assessment is reduced.

“If they settle, it’s going to affect us too,” Wickes said.

Campbell acknowledged that the county has limited choices in how it can handle the case.

“We’re concerned,” he said. “But we also know this is the way the system works, and there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it.”

WCC spokesman John Davidson would not comment, explaining that his lawyer advised him not to talk about pending litigation.