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Manslaughter plea reached in Glens Falls stabbing death

QUEENSBURY — The Glens Falls man who stabbed another man to death last spring after a fight over a bag of prescription pills pleaded guilty Friday to first-degree manslaughter and a felony drug count, agreeing to serve 15 years in prison.

Skylar C. Phillips, 19, admitted he stabbed 31-year-old Charles Werner to death during a brawl over Werner’s theft of Xanax from Phillips. Phillips also pleaded guilty to a felony charge of criminal possession of a controlled substance.

The pleas will result in a second-degree murder charge that had been filed against Phillips being dropped, and he will spend 5 years on parole after his release from prison. Under state law, he will have to serve at least 12.7 years before becoming eligible for parole.

Phillips spoke quietly as he told Warren County Judge John Hall that he chased Werner and stabbed him after the drugs were taken from him, but said he “blacked out” as he chased him. He acknowledged, though, that he stabbed Werner and intended to seriously hurt him.

The plea deal does not require him to cooperate against the lone remaining defendant in the case, Phillips’ roommate, Nicholas Hamel, 19.

Phillips’ lawyer, Gregory Teresi, called the plea deal a “fair resolution” to a case that was a tragedy for loved ones of the victim as well as the defendants.

“I think at the end of the day the people (prosecution) realized this was not murder,” he said. “He was set up to be robbed and he was defending himself.”

Warren County District Attorney Jason Carusone said his office determined there was a “strong case” on the manslaughter charge, but absent premeditation and other factors, not as strong for murder.

He said the plea provides closure for Werner’s family, as Phillips agreed to waive his right to appeal.

“My heart goes out to Charlie Werner’s family, because no one deserves to lose a loved one in a violent manner,” he said. “Nothing that Charlie Werner did justified his death.”

Police believe Werner was part of a group that met Phillips and Hamel to buy prescription Xanax pills, but Werner tried to steal the drugs and fled on a bicycle, leading to a fight on Union Street in which Phillips stabbed Werner in the chest multiple times. He died minutes later.

Hamel, who was Phillips’ roommate, has been charged with first-degree manslaughter and lesser counts. He is accused of having the knife that was used to stab Werner, which he told police he carried as protection whenever the two men were involved in drug sales.

Two other people who were present for the drug deal, Erica L. Cooper, 34, of Queensbury, and Richard L. Rothaupt, 25, of Glens Falls, pleaded guilty to felonies as well. Rothaupt pled guilty to tampering with evidence for taking the drugs from the stabbing scene, and Cooper for her role in arranging the drug sale.

Court records show the bag contained 150 pills of Xanax, which is a prescription sedative.

The plea came after efforts by Phillips’ defense lawyers to consolidate his case with that of co-defendant Nicholas Hamel were rejected by Hall. The cases had been severed at Phillips’ lawyer’s request last fall, but they later sought to join them for one trial when mulling a change in defense tactics.

The defense had also looked into arguing that Phillips was intoxicated by drugs and could not have formulated the intent to kill because of mental problems stemming from drug use.

Werner had battled significant drug and mental health issues but was remembered by loved ones as a good mechanic with a great sense of humor.

Two of his relatives were in court for the plea Friday, one crying as Phillips described what occurred. They did not comment on the disposition of the case before they left court.

Phillips, who faced up to 25-to-life on the murder count, is being held in Warren County Jail, pending sentencing April 11. He was scheduled to stand trial Feb. 19.

Hamel is scheduled to stand trial starting March 18.

Post-Star file photo  

Fans cheer during the State Boys Basketball Tournament at the Glens Falls Civic Center in March 2016. The tournament will be returning to the arena in 2020.

State Boys Basketball Tournament officially returning to Glens Falls
State Softball Tournament leaving Moreau Rec for Long Island site

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The tournament is coming back, and one of the area’s sorest points got some salve Friday.

The executive committee of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association formally voted to have the State Boys Basketball Tournament return to Glens Falls — its home from 1981 through 2016 — in a meeting at Embassy Suites.

The final vote was 20-2, with only Section IV’s two representatives voting against Glens Falls. There was no discussion before the vote.

Robert Zayas, NYSPHSAA executive director said, “I think it’s a positive for the tournament and a positive for Glens Falls. It’s a testament to the amount of work Glens Falls put in to the arena.”

The tournament moved to Binghamton in 2017. This year’s event is the final one of a three-year contract at the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena, which also bid for the tournament along with the Times Union Center in Albany.

In October, the State Boys Basketball Committee and NYSPHSAA staff both recommended that Glens Falls’ Cool Insuring Arena get the tournament’s next three-year contract, starting in 2020. The Adirondack Civic Center Coalition offered no rental cost — one of the enticements Binghamton offered three years ago — and $15,000 in marketing money in addition to $3 million in arena upgrades.

Three years ago, the State Boys Basketball Committee recommended Glens Falls retain the tournament, but the NYSPHSAA staff recommended Binghamton. The NYSPHSAA Executive Committee later voted to award the three-year contract to Binghamton starting in 2017, a decision that didn’t go over well in Glens Falls.

“I’m relieved and happy,” said Chip Corlew, the leader of Glens Falls’ committee to bring the tournament back. “Those are two words that probably not only express my emotions, but everybody’s on our committee. This tournament means more than basketball. We’ve made so many good friends in 36 years.

“I’m happy for the city, I’m happy for all the volunteers. These people love the tournament,” Corlew added.

The State Boys Basketball Tournament features the semifinals and finals for teams in five classes that play in the NYSPHSAA.

“I think the product itself is pretty darn good,” Corlew said, “especially how we make people feel at home, and we’ll continue to do that. But any time you’re in the business of putting on an event, you can always get better.”

In other developments, the State Softball Tournament will be leaving Moreau Rec in 2020 in favor of Moriches Athletic Complex on Long Island. The vote was 20-2 with Section II voting against the move.

Moreau Rec has hosted the State Softball Tournament since 2014, with 2019 the final year of its second three-year commitment. Prior to Moreau Rec, the tournament was held in Queensbury at the Adirondack Sports Complex and Morse Athletic Complex from 2011-13.

The Moriches Athletic Complex features four artificial turf softball fields and lights, something few other facilities in the state have. Moreau Rec has four dirt-and-grass fields and no lights.

Hudson Valley Community College will continue to host the State Girls Basketball Tournament through 2022. The vote was 16-6, with Sections I, III and IV voting against and, in a separate vote, for Corning High School.

Schroon church fire started in sanctuary

SCHROON — The fire that destroyed Schroon Lake Community Church began in the church’s “sanctuary area,” but investigators have not been able to pinpoint what started it.

The church and an attached parsonage were destroyed during a Jan. 2 fire that tore through the historic Main Street buildings, which dated back to the 1800s. But how the blaze began remains a mystery, at least as far as the lead investigative agency is willing to say publicly.

After an inquiry from The Post-Star this week, the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control released a one-paragraph statement Friday to update the investigation.

“OFPC Investigators, alongside personnel from Essex County Emergency Services, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Schroon Lake Fire Department, examined the structure and physical evidence at the scene in the days immediately following the blaze,” wrote Colin Brennan, a spokesman for the state office. “To date, the investigation has determined that the fire started in the sanctuary area of the church, however a cause has yet to be identified.”

Brennan said the investigation was ongoing, but the agency had no further comment on it as of Friday.

Don Jaquish, Essex County fire coordinator and emergency services director, said county investigators opted to have investigators from the Office of Fire Prevention and Control serve as the lead investigators because of the type of building involved and extent of the loss.

Religious fanatics sometimes target churches whose beliefs they oppose, with a church in nearby Pottersville destroyed by arson in 2006. The firebug in that case was prosecuted and went to prison.

Jaquish said some possible causes have been identified, but investigators have not yet been able to confirm what was to blame. He said it was not considered suspicious.

“There wasn’t a lot left to work with,” he said.

The buildings have not been demolished, and the property has not yet been released by investigators to the church for demolition.

The church’s pastor, Lynette Cole, was in the parsonage when the fire broke out and escaped with her dog.

She has not responded to phone calls and emails from The Post-Star since the fire. An online fundraiser for her online on GoFundMe had raised $4,400 as of Friday.

Parishioners have been temporarily using the nearby Our Lady of Lourdes Church for Sunday morning services, but plans are being made for a move to a temporary location next month.

Terry Johnson, the church’s lay leader, said Friday the church will relocate to the former Tavern at Schroon Lake at 1531 Route 9, starting March 3.

She said there are “a lot of rumors around town” about the fire, but church leaders have gotten no word from investigators as to what caused it.

Church leaders plan to rebuild at the site of the fire, Johnson said. She said she could not discuss the status of the insurance claim for the loss.

Courtesy of Andrew Gushee 

Firefighters use ladder trucks to put out hot spots from a fire that engulfed Schroon Lake Community Church in Schroon. The investigation has thus far pinpointed a location for where the fire began, but a cause is yet to be determined. This photo was taken using a drone.

Cuomo: Still time to get pot legalization done by April 1

ALBANY — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday he remains confident the Legislature can vote to legalize recreational marijuana as part of the state budget, which is due on April 1.

The optimistic comments came after Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-the Bronx, questioned whether lawmakers would have enough time to resolve thorny questions surrounding legalization while also working their way through a $175 billion budget.

While both the Democratic governor and Heastie support legalization, there’s not yet an agreement on the details, such as tax rates and rules about how the product should be sold and regulated.

Cuomo said that while getting a good bill passed is more important than the timing of the vote, he’s not giving up hope of adding New York to the list of states like California, Massachusetts and Colorado that have lifted penalties for using the drug.

“We’ll work very hard to get it done,” Cuomo said on WCNY radio. “In this business, six weeks is a lot of time. If we can’t do it right, then we’ll do it later.”

Attaching complicated proposals to the state budget — even if they aren’t strictly an issue of state finances — is one way Cuomo has used to get leverage over the Legislature. Removing the issue from the budget could complicate the negotiations over legalization, and potentially delay passage.

One possible sticking point: Heastie wants legalization accompanied by legislation expunging the criminal convictions of low-level drug offenders as an attempt to respond to decades of racial and economic inequities during the war on drugs.

Heastie’s comments expressing doubts about a quick vote on Thursday angered legalization advocates who questioned why it should take so long when New York has examples of other states to look to.

“With eight states now having enacted regulatory structures and launched consumer sales over the last five years, it’s certainly less of an unknown now,” the pro-legalization group NORML wrote in a tweet to Heastie.

Heastie responded to his critics with a plea for patience.

“I didn’t say we can’t,” he tweeted in an exchange with another advocate. “I just said I’m not optimistic. I want to get it right rather than beat a ‘time clock.’”