Friends of Fortuin rally after he is charged with arson

— Photo from Stephanie Plant

Ken Fortuin, as portrayed on the Facebook page launched by friends raising funds for his legal defense, is charged with burning four buildings on his Knox property and obstructing the firefighters who wanted to quell the flames.

KNOX — A week after Ken Fortuin was charged with setting his own house on fire, police and friends alike are focusing on the fact that he is alive. He is in Albany County’s jail, with bail set at $150,000.

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said he had worried “it would be suicide by cop or he’d take his own life.”

Cheryl Frantzen, a friend who is organizing a fund-raiser for Fortuin, said, “I’m glad it ended the way it did.”

She and her husband, Dale, are long-time friends of Fortuin, 49, a contractor whose family has lived in the Hilltowns for generations.

“It’s heart-warming to see this community wrap their arms around him,” said Frantzen, who estimates, judging by responses on the Facebook page, Defending Ken Fortuin, that, so far about 150 will be attending the Feb. 22 fund-raiser.

Knox firefighters had responded to the blaze the night of Wednesday, Feb. 5, but couldn’t get up Saddlemire Road because it was blocked with felled trees.

At 10 p.m., Knox firefighters “reached out to us,” said Trooper Mark Cepiel, spokesman for the State Police. “They requested assistance because trees were blocking the road and they had been told that anyone who approached would be in harm’s way.”

Troopers and members of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation of Troop G responded to the scene. Altogether, four buildings on the property were burned to the ground, said Cepiel. The property, listed in the name of Kenneth and Andrea Fortuin, had been for sale as the couple was divorcing.

For much of the night, Cepiel said, Troopers didn’t know where Kenneth Fortuin was; he was the only person there.

“In the early morning hours, they located him,” said Cepiel. He was in his pickup truck in a field. “He surrendered slightly after 7 a.m.,” said Ciepel, ending the nine-hour standoff.

Sheriff Apple said, using the closest-car concept, the State Police were in charge of handling the situation as sheriff’s deputies “helped with the perimeter.”

“The State Police asked for assistance around 3:30 in the morning,” said Apple. “We sent up our emergency response team.”

Once Fortuin was located, Apple said, “we more or less surrounded him.”

The three vehicles surrounding the pickup truck were armored military vehicles. The sheriff’s office used the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (known as an MRAP, designed to withstand land mines) which it got for free last fall through an act that lets the Department of Defense transfer excess military property to state and local law-enforcement agencies. The sheriff’s office also used its armored Humvee, a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. The State Police had a BearCat.

“He had nowhere to go,” said Apple. “You couldn’t have a better ending.”

Apple said that the armored vehicles “allowed our response teams to get very close.” He went on, “Years ago, we’d have to stay hundreds of yards back.”

Apple said of last Thursday morning’s confrontation, “We observed he had a firearm in his hand....No shot was fired.”

Investigator Daniel Stevens handled the negotiations, Cepiel said. Stevens is not part of a special negotiating unit, Cepiel said, but rather one of a number of State Police who take special training and earn certification to become crisis negotiators.

Once Fortuin was taken into custody, he was brought back to the State Police barracks in New Scotland, said Cepiel. “We questioned the individual, got together the facts, looked at the scene and made the appropriate charges,” he said.

Fortuin was charged with third-degree arson, a felony, and with obstructing firefighting operations, a misdemeanor. Cepiel said on Monday that the investigation is continuing.

On Monday afternoon, Fortuin appeared briefly in Knox town court before about three dozen onlookers. “They skipped the preliminary hearing to go straight to the grand jury,” said John Elberfed, a Knox resident who said he was in court to support Fortuin.

On Tuesday, Fortuin appeared before Judge Stephen Herrick in Albany County Court for a bail hearing.

“We had a conference,” said Paul Devane, Fortuin’s lawyer, describing events Tuesday morning. “The people wanted $75,000. My position was there was no risk of flight. He had wonderful support from his family and three offers of places to stay and three offers of employment by companies.”

Devane added, “He was penniless.”

The judge doubled the bail requested by the assistant district attorney, who had cited the alleged threats Fortuin had made.  “He told me he never threatened anybody,” Devane asserted.

Judge Herrick set bail at $150,000, citing the unreasonableness of the acts Fortuin is accused of committing.

Devane said on Wednesday afternoon that he had just visited Fortuin in jail and stated there were “no outward signs of instability.”

“He seems fine,” said Devane.

Devane said that Fortuin had “been engaged in family court with regards to custody.” He also said the divorce was finalized on Feb. 7.

“I don’t think there is any question,” he said, “the finality of his marriage [ending] played into the incident.”

“Rally round”

Cheryl Frantzen said it had been “pretty rough” the last week as the community absorbed the news of the fire. “I heard the chopper,” she said of the helicopter circling over Knox. When an acquaintance of her son suggested a fund-raiser, Frantzen talked to Fortuin’s brother about it.

“He said, ‘Go for it,’” she reported.

“It’s been like a rollercoaster since Thursday,” she said. Speaking of the fund-raiser, Frantzen went on, “Once word got out, it’s just been snowballing. People want to rally round.”

Cheryl and Dale Frantzen became “very good friends” with Kenneth Fortuin in the 1990s, she said. Dale Frantzen was in the Fortuins’ wedding and, Cheryl Frantzen said, “I made their wedding cake.”

“He’s really a nice guy, good hearted, and adores his kids,” said Frantzen. “He looks to help others. He’s helped us with odd things over the years.”

In 1997, he bought the family farm where he had grown up, she said. Those are the buildings that went up in flames on Wednesday night. The Fortuins had sold Christmas trees there, she said, so many in the community were familiar with the place.

Frantzen also said, “I understand some people may be in total disagreement with what we’re doing.” But, she went on, “We can’t judge someone on one bad incident.”

She cited Fortuin’s many contributions and said, “One bad, unwise decision doesn’t make the person...It’s just time to move the future forward.”

The money raised on Feb. 22, Frantzen said, will be used “to defray legal expenses. He’ll need a good legal person...They doubled the bail of what the DA was asking for.”

“Today was a blow,” said Stephanie Plant on Tuesday of the high bail set for Fortuin. “I’m trying to be strong.”

Plant, who has been dating Ken Fortuin, is helping with the fund-raiser.

She said of his being in jail, not raising bail money, “He didn’t want to inconvenience anyone.”

Plant went on, “He is the opposite of what you see on the news. He is considerate, caring, accommodating, and thoughtful.”

She cited examples of his generosity, including volunteer work he did in Schoharie after the flood. “Everybody just likes Ken Fortuin,” she said.

Of the events last Wednesday night, Plant said, “The guy had a bad day.”

She went on, “I told him I’m not going to abandon him. I’m going to support him and help him get through this.”

Plant was preparing to visit him in jail on Tuesday and said, “He’s never been in jail; it’s hard.”

She had talked with him, from prison, on the phone and reported, “He’s doing OK. I don’t think he’s depressed. I think it was situational,” she said of the events Wednesday night.

Plant told him about the hundreds of “likes” the “Defending Ken Fortuin” Facebook page had gotten and named some of the people who commented.

“He said, ‘I don’t know that person,’” Plant reported. “I told him, ‘There are so many people you’ve touched, you don’t know.’ The support of the community does help him out tremendously.”

Elberfeld, too, is helping to elicit support. He sent out e-mail blasts, inviting people to the Feb. 22 fund-raiser.

In 2002 and 2003, Fortuin had spent three months at the Elberfeld home, building a kitchen for them. “He and my wife got out a napkin and sketched a kitchen,” said Elberfeld. “Ken produced a country kitchen from scratch.”

Elberfeld described Fortuin as “an excellent carpenter” and “a very hard worker.”

“We just loved him,” he said.

Reflecting on last week’s fire, Elberfeld said, “I’m very glad nobody got hurt, in particular, him. I hope he gets the help he needs rather than have the book thrown at him.”

Amy and Russell Pokorny have also gotten involved by offering to host the event at their Octagon Barn.

Amy Pokorny said the Fortuins had a high profile in town as “both Kenny and Andrea worked on the Hill.” Kenneth Fortuin owns Knox Country Builder and Andrea Fortuin owns two yoga studios — one in Guilderland and the other in Schenectady.

“They’ve been involved a lot in the community,” said Amy Pokorny, who has witnessed much of Hilltown life in the Octagon Barn. “Kenny did work at the barn. Andrea held yoga class at the barn. Their son Zach was married at the barn.” She also described their younger children, Hunter and Hailee, as “entrepreneurs,” selling their goods at the barn — Hunter made pencils and pens while Hailee made candies and other confections.

“He was obviously psychologically distressed,” said Amy Pokorny of Kenneth Fortuin. “He was ill and he got himself into a lot of trouble. The whole family is in a lot of trouble...They’ve lost their assets. He needs psychological help.”

In a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, the Pokornys write that the fund-raiser, advertised as an effort to help Ken, “will also provide an opportunity there for people to express support for Andrea and the children.”

“We had to add that,” said Russell Pokorny. “We support, personally, all of them. Everybody’s a loser here. Everybody needs to get back on their feet.”

“We do care about all of them,” said Amy Pokorny, “and I think a lot of other people do, too. We don’t want to take sides. Their personal relationship isn’t our business. We just recognize this is a terrible tragedy.”

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