FORT ANN — A Fort Ann man was charged with murder early Wednesday after police determined he strangled and killed his grandmother in what may have been a “mercy” killing, police said.
Kevin L. Gonyea, 50, of Twiss Road, was charged with second-degree murder for the Sunday night death of 95-year-old Leona Twiss in the home the family shared. He and his wife reported finding her dead in the home, apparently of natural causes.
The death was determined to have been a homicide during an autopsy on Tuesday, and Washington County sheriff’s officers and State Police determined Gonyea was responsible and his wife aided in attempting to cover up the killing, police said.
Washington County sheriff’s Capt. Tony LeClaire said Melissa Gonyea, 35, was charged with felony counts of hindering prosecution and tampering with physical evidence for her alleged role in hiding unspecified evidence in the case. Kevin Gonyea was also charged with hindering prosecution and tampering with physical evidence.
Court records show a towel was used to kill Leona Twiss, and that Mrs. Gonyea disposed of it at her husband’s request. Police would not say whether it was recovered.
Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy said deputies who responded to the 911 call Sunday night requested an autopsy after they questioned whether the death was “possibly suspicious.” Neither he nor Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan would elaborate on what they saw that made them question what was being reported to police.
“It was observations of the victim and their sense at the scene,” Jordan said.
Fort Ann murder news conference, court appearance
Kevin J. Gonyea faces multiple charges including second-degree murder of his 95-year-old grandmother in their 9 Twiss Road residence in Fort Ann. Authorities held a news conference at the Washington County Sheriff's Office and Gonyea reappeared in Kingsbury Town Court.
Murphy called the killing a “sad case” where a person who was supposed to care for an elderly relative instead ended her life.
Mr. Gonyea also has a criminal record of domestic violence in Florida, and police had been called to the Twiss Road home on two occasions in recent months for complaints of domestic strife between the Gonyeas, Murphy said. No charges were filed either time, and no injuries were reported.
Both Gonyeas were arraigned early Wednesday in Kingsbury Town Court and sent to Washington County Jail, pending further court action.
No bail was set for Mr. Gonyea, who was also brought to court later Wednesday to inform Justice Michael Keenan as to whether he wanted a preliminary hearing in the next week. On the advice of his counsel, Washington County Public Defender Michael Mercure, he waived the hearing and his case was adjourned until Aug. 2.
Mr. Gonyea had no comment as he was led to and from Kingsbury Town Court.
Mrs. Gonyea is being represented by lawyer Robert Gregor, who said he had no comment on the case Wednesday. Her bail was set at $30,000 cash or $60,000 bail bond.
Police said the investigation was ongoing as of Wednesday afternoon.
LeClaire said the death of Leona Twiss was not initially considered suspicious, as she had no apparent injuries, until evidence found during an autopsy performed at Albany Medical Center led to the conclusion she was choked to death.
“The autopsy showed she was strangled,” LeClaire said. “They were the only two present in the home and living with her.”
Police would not say whether the Gonyeas made admissions when they were questioned.
“Our theory is it was a mercy killing. She had forms of dementia and was supposed to go into a nursing home,” LeClaire said.
Jordan praised the thoroughness of the police investigation, which involved sheriff’s patrol officers, investigators, State Police investigators and the agency’s Forensic Identification Unit.
The Gonyeas came to Fort Ann from Florida last year to care for Leona Twiss and her elderly husband, Walter Twiss, his maternal grandparents, in their home. Walter Twiss died last fall at the age of 95, and the couple had been married for 74 years.
Neither of the Gonyeas had been working locally in recent months.
He was taken to Glens Falls Hospital for treatment of a medical problem in November and died there several days later. LeClaire said it had not been determined whether that death would be reviewed in light of Leona Twiss’ death.
Twiss Road is a short road in West Fort Ann near the west side of Hadlock Pond, named after Walter and Leona Twiss. The last name is a fairly common one in the West Fort Ann area.
“It’s a large Washington County family,” Murphy said.
Relatives of Twiss were in shock Wednesday, two saying the family had no comment as news broke of the arrest.
The small, white single-story home where Leona Twiss lived for decades had a van parked in front of it with Florida license plates, beer cans strewn around the driveway and an empty cardboard 18-pack container next to them.
Neighbors described Leona Twiss as a friendly woman who was beloved in the neighborhood but hadn’t been seen out of the home much in recent years as her illness progressed.
“She was a really nice lady,” said neighbor Nick Strainer.
One man, though, said he instantly suspected Gonyea of harming her when he saw police cars at the home Tuesday night. He said he did not have a good feeling when seeing Gonyea around the neighborhood.
“We would see him tooling around and wonder what he was up to,” he said, declining to give his name.
Twiss was a fixture at Grumbellies Eatery on Catherine Street in Fort Ann, where a memorial for her was being organized for Thursday night during the establishment’s “open mic” night. Twiss frequently attended open mic events at the restaurant.
“Jeff (Hamblin) and I adored Leona and will miss her so much!!!,” Grumbellies owner Irma Hamblin wrote in a Facebook post.
Police said Gonyea had a criminal record in Florida that included at least one violent offense, though details were not immediately available.
He faces up to 25 years to life if convicted of second-degree murder, while hindering prosecution and tampering with physical evidence can each bring 4-year sentences.