Saturday, August 16, 2008

Vendor and Victim

---------A once-eminent GreeneLander has figured recently in two newsworthy events. Francis J. McDonald, who is now an octogenarian, won distinction during World War II and thereafter for feats of inventive engineering. In later years he served as a Catskill Village Justice and as a local Conservative Party stalwart.

----------Last month Mr McDonald sold a historic property. Soon after completing that transaction, he was the unwitting victim of a grand larceny-scale robbery.

The property sold by Mr McDonald on July 21st , once known as the Wiltse Foundry, fronts on Water Street in Catskill and runs westward down to Catskill Creek. Brick buildings and ruined walls on the site date back to Civil War days. Work done there reputedly played a part in the construction of the Union Army ironclad vessel known as The Monitor. Mr McDonald too used the site as a foundry and machine shop, as well as for the three-floor bookstore that for many years was by his late wife, Barbara.

The property’s buyer is Hudson River Development Corporation, which is owned by Michael Ferro, the scrap metal mogul. When contacted by Seeing Greene, Mr Ferro said the venerable brick building that housed the bookstore, unlike the adjoining building, has “great old beams” inside and has “real restoration potential.” Both buildings, however, are now “full of junk”; “it’s a pigpen.” They must be cleaned out, some demolition is required, and the site must be purged of pollutants that have yielded a “brownfield” classification (no sleeping or eating allowed on site).

Two features of that transaction struck real estate-savvy local people, contacted by Seeing Greene, as surprising.

---------One was the provision that the buyer acquires title to a strip of land that in the distant past was the completion of Canal Street, a lane that runs from Main Street down to Water Street. The contract states that Mr McDonald and his wife, Barbara, acquired that strip of land from the Village of Catskill by way of the legal process known as adverse possession. The claim here is that since the parcel was occupied exclusively (since July 1959) by the McDonalds, was fenced “so as to preclude…use by the Village…and the public in General”; and was “neither improved, maintained nor entered upon” for at least 40 years, it stopped being Village-owned land. Seeing Greene was advised, however, that the law of adverse possession does not apply to municipal property.

The other surprise occasioned by the McDonald-Ferro transaction was the price. As listed in the deed filed with the County Clerk on July 24th , it is $112,000. That figure, knowledgeable sources opined, is a “colossal bargain,” “hard to believe,” “incredibly low.”

Among the astonished commentators was Jim Cunliffe, whose company , owns the land adjoining the former McDonald property, running south from that site down to Bridge Street. Mr Cunliffe is transforming the former Oren’s Furniture warehouse, which also dates from Civil War days (when it was flour mill and then an Union Army uniform manufactory) into a residential condominium complex. He had expressed interest in acquiring the McDonald property two years ago. “I offered him $350,000,” says Mr Cunliffe of Mr McDonald “and he agreed, back in September 2007 or thereabouts, in writing. But when it came to finalizing the contract, he started putting in a bunch of conditions. The deal lapsed—as had a couple of previous agreements.”

As for the robbery, the chief suspect is Michael Conine, 39, of West Bridge Street in Catskill. (On account of how he hobbles on his peg leg while drunk, we hear, he is known in some circles as “Kickstand”). He presently resides in the Greene County Jail, in lieu of posting $25,000 bail or $50,000 bond. Two of his friends also reside in the jail (as of 8/15), charged with receiving stolen property. Three more friends face the same charge.

Our account of aspects of the case should not be taken at face value. Police Chief Dave Darling has refused access to the relevant incident and arrest reports (on the spurious ground that “the investigation is ongoing”). District Attorney Terry Wilhelm and his chief assistant, ‘Chip’ Tailleur, have not returned our calls. Neither has Mr McDonald.

----------At any rate, according to the story we have pieced together, Mr Conine and some friends decided in late July to have a party. But nobody had money. Mr Conine believed, on the basis of past experience stemming from part-time employment, that Mr McDonald kept a case of vodka in the trunk of his car on Livingston Street in Catskill (just east of the Village post office). He went off to steal a few bottles. When he opened the car’s trunk, he beheld several {brown} paper sacks that, upon due inspection, proved to be stuffed with cash: $100,000 or more in value. {According to a second-hand source, the actual sum was $138,000}. This windfall did fund{an all-day} party and, according to charges filed, Mr Conine shared some of the loot with {his half-brother} Donald Roe, 41, of Palenville, with Tracy Jo Szpessy, 40, of Cairo, with Sheryl Wnenta, {53}, and with Debra Kelly, 53.

Mr McDonald learned of the theft only after police officers brought it to his attention. And they got wind of it when, we understand (perhaps incorrectly), one of the suspects, who was not known to be a member of the financial elite, undertook to buy his girlfriend a new car with $30,000 in greenbacks.

According to another story, authorities got wind of the case in consequence of a complaint from the chief suspect. Mr Conine called police after he went to the Red Ranch Motel, summoned a call girl, and paid her generously in cash. After leaving, he reportedly complained, she summoned a pair of thugs who proceeded to beat {him} nd steal his (so to speak) money.

----------As authorities follow the money trail, they expect to make more arrests. ( { } denotes addition or correction made after initial posting.)

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