FORT EDWARD -- Steven McComsey pleaded guilty Thursday to a reduced charge in the July 2011 house explosion that killed six people, agreeing to serve a 1- to 3-year prison sentence but not admitting any wrongdoing as part of a plea deal.
McComsey quietly replied “guilty” when Washington County Judge Kelly McKeighan asked him how he pleaded to a felony count of criminally negligent homicide, a reduced charge from the six counts of second-degree manslaughter he had faced.
The guilty plea came without the standard admission to the conduct that was underlying the charge, as McComsey’s plea deal allowed for him to enter a so-called “Alford Plea” to the count that does not require he acknowledge the acts that led to the prosecution.
“You are willing to plead guilty even though you deny committing the crime you’re pleading to?” McKeighan asked.
“Yes,” McComsey replied quietly, showing no emotion.
The proceeding lasted no longer than 10 minutes in a case that focused on the July 13, 2011, deaths of six people and injuries to five others when the Route 29 Salem home where they gathered exploded. McComsey and his girlfriend lived there, and the explosion was linked to propane gas that McComsey was blamed for releasing.
The plea deal will result in the manslaughter counts being dropped and McComsey waiving his right to appeal.
Washington County District Attorney Kevin Kortright said his office did the best it could with a circumstantial case.
McComsey made no admissions and repeatedly denied that he was to blame, but also made a number of false and conflicting statements throughout the inquiry that made it apparent he was responsible. But he was uncertain how a jury would view that evidence.
“There was no smoking gun. It wasn’t an easy case but we hope this (guilty plea) gives the families of the victims some solace,” Kortright said.
Kortright said there was no belief that McComsey meant to kill anyone or even cause an explosion that day, but his actions were reckless.
“He was angry with his landlord. He was being evicted and he was dumping gas from the tank to get even with the landlord,” Kortright said.
McComsey, 34, of Johnsburg, was originally charged with six felony counts of second-degree manslaughter in connection with a July 13, 2011, explosion that destroyed a home at 4383 Route 29 in Salem, killing McComsey’s girlfriend, Tammy Palmer, 41; Clarissa Porlier, 19; Darrell Durham, 20; Durham’s 2-month-old daughter, Niah Lynn Durham; Lawrence Berg II, 19; and Robert Sanford Jr., 16.
McComsey was accused of causing propane gas to be released into the basement of the home, resulting in a massive blast authorities said was sparked by a water pump. He was not accused of intentionally causing the explosion, but was alleged to have acted recklessly.
The gas was somehow released from a spare tank behind the home.
McComsey and four others who were in or just outside the home survived the explosion.
About two dozen loved ones of the explosion victims were in court for the proceeding, and they left court with mixed feelings about the plea deal.
Some were satisfied that the Washington County District Attorney’s Office did all it could with the evidence that could be turned up, while others wanted a longer prison sentence and more of an admission of guilt than the Alford plea entailed.
Linda Porlier, mother of victim Clarissa Porlier, said she was “a little relieved” that there would not be a trial in the case. But she said she would have rather seen him admit what he did.
“His admission is: ‘I’m afraid because of the evidence you’re going to find me guilty so I better take the easy way out,” she said.
She added that his acceptance of a plea deal that includes a state prison sentence is not the action of an innocent man.
“You don’t just lay down and give up if you really had nothing to do with it,” she added.
And Wayne “Butch” Hurlburt, Tammy Palmer’s uncle, said he understood why the district attorney’s office offered the plea deal it did after he met with State Police and prosecutors who explained the strengths and weaknesses of the case.
Hurlburt agreed with Kortright’s explanation as to why McComsey did what he did that day.
“He was very angry he was being evicted,” Hurlburt said. “I don’t believe he intended to blow the building up or kill any children. He didn’t know what would happen.”
Kayla Mabb, niece of victim Tammy Palmer, said she believed a longer prison sentence was warranted, adding that McComsey was “heartless.”
Robert Sanford Sr., the father of Robert Sanford Jr., broke down as he discussed the case, walking away from reporters as he said the plea “did not help at all” in terms of closure.
A woman identified by police as McComsey’s girlfriend, Jennifer Box, left court near tears as well, cursing the plea deal and saying McComsey was “innocent.”
McComsey’s lawyer, Washington County Public Defender Michael Mercure, said McComsey has not wavered from claiming innocence despite the guilty plea. He took the plea deal to avoid the possibility of a prison sentence of up to 15 years if convicted of manslaughter, according to Mercure.
“When my client was allowed to maintain his innocence and avoid the possibility of a significantly longer prison sentence, he accepted the deal,” Mercure said.
He would not comment when asked if McComsey had a theory about what happened to cause the explosion that day.
Families of the victims have retained a number of lawyers to explore the possibility of civil lawsuits, and McComsey’s guilty plea will undoubtedly have an effect on the prospects for civil litigation.
Efforts to blame the propane supplier, landlord or others with financial resources who had a hand in the home setup will likely be hindered by the plea, though the Alford plea may lessen that impact. A call to the lawyer representing a number of the victims’ families was not returned Thursday.
Kortright praised the State Police, local and state fire investigators and emergency responders who worked at the devastating scene that day and then followed up with months of investigation.
McComsey is being held in Washington County Jail pending sentencing Dec. 13 at 2 p.m.