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Photo by Lawrence White, courtesy of ASA 

Simply Grazin Farms has had land conserved in Hartford and Fort Ann and was recently awarded an additional grant for a Fort Edward farm's land preservation. 

Chaotic videos detail fatal stabbing scene in pretrial hearing

QUEENSBURY — Videos of the chaotic moments after a Glens Falls man was stabbed to death last June were played in court Friday as pretrial hearings got underway in the case of the man charged with murder, the defendant at one point blaming the killing on a “mulatto” man who he said tried to rob him.

Numerous police officers testified in Warren County Court about their interactions with suspect Skylar C. Phillips as police sorted out who was involved in the fatal brawl and who witnessed what. Phillips’ defense lawyers are challenging the admissibility of his statements. At issue is whether the statements were voluntary and whether police should have read him his rights at the scene of the homicide.

Phillips, 19, of Glens Falls, faces counts of second-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter and lesser charges for the June 8 killing of 31-year-old Charles Werner IV. Police believe Werner met Phillips and co-defendant Nicholas Hamel, 19, to buy prescription Xanax pills, but Werner tried to steal the drugs and a fight ensued on Union Street in which Werner was stabbed in the chest. He died a short time later.

Among the videos was footage from a body camera worn by Glens Falls Police Sgt. Miguel Chico, which showed police quickly identifying Phillips as a suspect based on witness accounts. Glens Falls Police Detective Sgt. Kyle Diamond could be seen directing that Phillips be handcuffed and detained.

As Chico escorts Phillips from the scene, the teen tells police he is “dying” of thirst, and then proceeds to tell Chico and Warren County sheriff’s Officer Dan Habshi that he was counting money on the front porch of a home near the fight scene when a man stole the money and tried to run off. A man he first described as black and then as “mulatto” caught the thief and attacked him, Phillips says in the video.

“The mulatto kid came out of straight nowhere. I chased him (Werner) out of the house and the mulatto kid stabbed him,” Phillips says.

Police have said witnesses later identified Phillips, wearing a pink shirt with a big white letter “H” on the back, as the person who stabbed Werner and was seen wiping the large hunting knife clean of blood. Phillips later changed his story, and admitted he stabbed Werner.

Diamond said Phillips had blood on him.

Warren County Assistant District Attorney Travis Brown repeatedly tried to show that officers were trying to address public safety concerns as they talked to Phillips, instead of interrogating him about his possible involvement in the killing.

Defense lawyer Greg Teresi, though, questioned whether Phillips was in custody and whether police were improperly interrogating him without his rights being read at that point, in part because he had been accused by numerous witnesses at the fight scene of tampering with evidence.

When Phillips was brought back to the Glens Falls Police station, continued questioning was videotaped as well, with Diamond reading Miranda rights to Phillips and Phillips agreeing to talk with officers. The video is 11 1/2 hours long, not all of it interviews of Phillips, and it was not played in court on Friday.

Phillips spoke slowly and slurred some of his words on the videos, seeming to be under the influence of some sort of substance. At one point, he told Chico he had taken prescription medication for seizures.

Warren County Judge John Hall reserved decision on the statements’ admissibility when the hearing ended Friday night, but he ruled the prosecution can present evidence at trial of what was believed to be drug deal ledger that had Phillips’ name on it and evidence he had been selling Xanax, the hallucinogen stimulant MDMA and “mushrooms.”

In court on Friday, Phillips looked remarkably different from the skinny, shaggy-haired teen in the videos, having put on significant weight and cut his hair. He showed no outward emotion during the proceedings, occasionally staring down during testimony, though he appeared to be crying as he was escorted from court.

Phillips has rejected a plea deal offer that would include a guilty plea to second-degree murder, which could bring a sentence of up to 25-years-to-life.

Phillips is being held in Warren County Jail, pending jury selection starting Feb 19.

Hamel is set to stand trial on March 18. He has been charged with first-degree manslaughter and lesser counts.

After 18 months, taxis, Uber cars share the road

GLENS FALLS — About 18 months after ride-sharing services began to operate upstate, there appears to be room on the roads to accommodate both taxicabs and Uber.

Bob Clark, manager of Park Avenue Taxi, said he has not noticed a downturn in business.

“It’s not really that big of a bite here locally because nobody really wants to bring people around town for $4,” he said, referring to the relatively low rates set by the city of Glens Falls.

“I think you’re seeing more of it in Saratoga. Certainly, Lake George saw some activity,” he added.

Clark said he sees few ride-sharing drivers out on the roads, except for busy holidays.

“On a weeknight, there’s nobody out there for Uber or Lyft,” he said.

Flexible hours

The flexible schedule is what attracts people such as Fort Edward resident Pat Brockway to become an Uber driver.

“You can pick your own hours. You can pick when you go out,” he said.

“If the weather’s crappy, you tend to stay off the road,” he added.

Brockway has been driving for Uber since August. He said he was looking for an opportunity to make some money after leaving the job he held with the Department of Corrections for about 20 years.

Brockway works anywhere from 10 to 30 hours per week.

On Tuesday, he spent five hours driving for Uber and racked up 300 miles on his car. He said drivers could easily put 4,000 to 5,000 miles on a car in a week.

“You need to watch the wear and tear you’re putting on the car,” he said.

To drive for Uber, he had to show proof of insurance, a driver’s license and vehicle registration. He was able to complete the application process online.

Drivers must pass a criminal background check and enroll in the Department of Motor Vehicles License Event Notification System, which reports all traffic offenses, including tickets, suspensions and revocations, to the agency. You have to be at least 19 to work for a ride-sharing company.

Brockway said he likes being able to meet people. At this time of year, he tends to see more repeat customers, as primarily local residents are using the service.

During the summer, Brockway said, he carried customers from downstate who came up to go to the track in Saratoga or visit Lake George. They are used to ride-sharing services.

“Most of the people rely on it down there, so they use it up here,” he said.

He said he gets a lot of calls for people seeking rides to Albany International Airport. He picks up passengers at a lot of the bars, but he has not had any problems with people throwing up in his vehicle. He keeps a vomit bag just in case. In addition, he can decline to pick up a passenger if he does not feel comfortable.

Driving with Uber also offers flexibility for people who have special needs. A reporter traveled from Aviation Mall to Glens Falls with a driver who was deaf. There is not much need to talk, since passengers use the app to request the ride and pay with a credit card.

Cabs offer consistency, low cost

C.J. Cribb, dispatcher for Queensbury Taxi, said he has seen more Uber drivers popping up in the area, but he has not noticed much of an impact on business.

Consistency is what sets taxis apart, according to Cribb. He said his drivers are out there, regardless of the weather.

“There’s never not been a time where there wasn’t something running to pick somebody up,” he said.

Cribb said cab companies must have a manned station at all times. That does not mean there will never be a wait for a taxi, but they will not make people wait long, he said.

Taxi fares are also less expensive. An Uber ride from The Post-Star office on the corner of Lawrence and Cooper streets in Glens Falls to Aviation Mall on Wednesday afternoon cost $9.65, including the fare of $6.87, $2.40 in fees and $0.38 for a wait time fee. There is also 26 cents for the Black Car Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides safety and health programs to for-hire drivers; and 25 cents for the state assessment on for-hire transportation companies.

That same ride for Queensbury Taxi would have cost $7.50, according to the company. They have standard fees for different zones in Warren County.

Within Glens Falls, the city sets the prices according to three zones. Zone 1 covers the core downtown area encompasses Cool Insuring Arena, Glens Falls Hospital and the Chapman Historical Museum. Fares in this area are capped at $3.75.

Zone 2 is bounded by Grant Street and Sanford Street to the north, by Cortland Street to the west, Prospect Street to the east, and the city line with South Glens Falls to the south. The maximum fare is $4.

Zone 3 encompasses the entire city boundaries and its fare is capped at $4.25.

Queensbury Taxi owner Vance Cohen has complained to city officials the rates are too low.

“Because of these low rates, we have to pick up multiple people along the way,” he said at a Common Council meeting over the summer.

The city last had a rate increase in 2015.

Another issue cited by Clark, of Park Avenue Taxi, is that Uber drivers are able to use their own personal car insurance. Uber is required to have a $1.25 million blanket policy.

Clark said only a few insurance companies offer policies covering cabs.

“Commercial insurance is extremely expensive. It’s an exorbitant amount,” he said.

Taxis are familiar

Local residents are used to taxis and not familiar with ride-sharing services, Cribb said.

“Some of these people don’t know how to use a smart phone around here. They’ve been calling us so long,” he said.

“I don’t think you’ll ever put taxis out of business,” Cribb added.

Warren County board selects Conover as chair

QUEENSBURY — Bolton Supervisor Ronald Conover was selected Friday to serve a third year as chairman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors during the board’s annual organizational meeting.

Facing a rare challenge from two other supervisors, Conover netted 551 of 1,000 weighted votes, topping Glens Falls 3rd Ward Supervisor Claudia Braymer’s 307 and Queensbury at-Large Supervisor Doug Beaty’s 142.

Conover, a Republican, said after the vote he was “humbled” by the support and looking forward to another year serving the county’s taxpayers. He said he hoped to keep the county in a “good financial situation” moving forward.

The three-way contest was unusual for a board with a Republican majority that typically falls behind its candidate anointed at a caucus weeks earlier. Beaty is a Republican who expressed dissatisfaction with his leadership, announced he wanted the chairmanship last summer, and the Democrat Braymer joined in last month.

Conover said he was particularly heartened to have gotten sufficient votes in light of the three-way race.

Conover announced a number of board priorities for 2019:

  • Develop a countywide “capital infrastructure program” going forward to prioritize road, bridge and other projects and finding funding for them, with Horicon Supervisor Matt Simpson heading the effort through the board’s Public Works Committee.
  • Work to put emergency medical services response in the county on “sound financial footing” amid concerns about costs and response times.
  • Complete the next phases of the Warren County courthouse renovation.
  • Continue progress on dropping expenditures at Warren County Airport.
  • Complete negotiations for new contracts with unionized county workers.
  • Figure out what will be done with the county-owned railroad corridor, as a “request for proposal” is sent out for possible operators in light of the demise of Saratoga & North Creek Railway last year.

All 20 supervisors were present for the meeting, and Conover narrowly got the 551 votes needed for a majority. Had one supervisor with 50 or more weighted votes swung toward one of the other candidates, he would not have had the majority votes needed.

Beaty said he did not regret his effort to seek the chairmanship, and that late defections by supporters who voted along party lines or went with Braymer affected what would have been a close tally.

“I was the only candidate who had bipartisan support,” he said.

Braymer said she believed the three-way race and split vote showed “movement toward change, and I’m encouraged by that.”

What that means for the board’s agenda going forward remains to be seen.

A number of supervisors have called for sales tax distribution changes to aid towns that don’t have lakefront property, claiming the current distribution system is not fair to many towns.

Lake Luzerne Supervisor Gene Merlino, who has been critical of Conover’s lack of interest in pushing for sales tax distribution changes, said he was swayed by Conover’s pledge to make the sales tax issue the “highest priority,” though the issue was not mentioned in Conover’s address Friday after the vote.

Braymer was nominated by Johnsburg Supervisor Andrea Hogan, a Democrat, who said that she had concerns that of four women on the Board of Supervisors, only one was chosen to head a committee last year.

“It is time to signal all issues are heard equally in this room,” she said.

The board will have two female committee chairs for 2019. Conover said after that committee chairs are determined through seniority, requests and ability, without regard for gender.

Queensbury at-Large Supervisor Matt Sokol was selected as board vice chairman, and chairman of the board’s Finance Committee. Stony Creek Supervisor Frank Thomas will continue to serve as budget officer and Warrensburg Supervisor Kevin Geraghty as Personnel Committee chairman.

Despite their challenges to and criticism of Conover, Braymer was selected to chair the Environmental Concerns and Real Property Committee, while Beaty was given two committee chairmanships. Conover said both were chosen based on their involvement with the committees and issues in the past.

More will be posted on this story later Friday.

Stefanik breaks ranks with party in votes to end shutdown

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, voted with Democrats in the House of Representatives on Thursday for legislation to end the government shutdown and fully fund the Department of Homeland Security.

The measure to fund government operations through Sept. 30, which does not include additional money for border security, passed the House by a vote of 241-190.

Stefanik said in a phone interview on Friday that she has opposed government shutdowns, so she voted for the bills to fund the government and to provide money for the Department of Homeland Security.

“I have been consistent in supporting to fund the government,” she said.

She said her office reached out to people in her district who work on the northern border and many of them are working without pay.

“It’s very important that the hardworking families of my district have consistency and are able to earn the payback for the work that they do every day,” she said.

Funding the government will give both parties additional time to discuss border security funding. Stefanik said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer should come to the table with President Donald Trump. Trump has requested $5 billion for a border wall.

“Speaker Pelosi has to be absolutely willing to compromise with increased funding for border security,” Stefanik said.

Stefanik supports a strategy to protect the southern border with increased technology, additional personnel and physical barriers when necessary.

Stefanik was one of seven Republicans who broke ranks with their party to support the measure to fund government operations. Other Republicans from New York who voted in favor were John Katko of Camillus and Peter King of Long Island.

Also voting in favor were Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Will Hurd of Texas and Greg Walden of Oregon.

Stefanik was one of only five Republicans to vote in favor of funding for the Department of Homeland Security, along with Katko, Hurd, Fitzpatrick and Chris Smith of New Jersey.

Now the bills head to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he has not taken them up because they do not contain money for the wall.

Rules package

The other major piece of legislation taken up by Congress on the first day of session was a rules reform package, which included adding a new select committee on climate change and adding some tighter ethics disclosure rules.

Stefanik voted in opposition to that measure, which passed 234-197.

“While there are some bipartisan government reform provisions that I support, this rules package allows Democrats to sneak in provisions that make it easier to raise taxes on hardworking constituents and undercuts the House’s ability to tackle the national debt,” she said in a news release. “The House should not be in the business of stifling our growing economy.”

Stefanik said she supported the increased financial disclosure requirements and other ethics reforms that were in the package. She was disappointed the reform package did not include term limits for committee chairs. She said it is important to have new leadership, especially with so many new members coming into Congress.

Her office sent out a follow-up email stating that Stefanik is not in favor of adopting the “Gephardt Rule,” which would automatically raise the debt limit if the budget Congress passes exceeds it and would remove requirements that increases in spending must be offset by revenues.