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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, February 15, 2007

‘A real tragedy’
Rape survivor speaks out

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — At the emotional heart of residents’ fears over a juvenile detention center in this rural Hilltown is a rape and kidknapping that occurred there just over two years ago.

The rape survivor submitted a letter, printed this week in The Enterprise opinion pages, that was read at last Thursday’s town board meeting, raising concerns that mismanagement at the facility aided the crimes.

Brian Marchetti, spokesman for the Office of Children and Family Services, the state agency that runs the facility, said this week he could not comment on the December, 2004 incident. He added that the department’s investigation of the incident is now complete.

Michael Elston was arrested by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department in December of 2004. Elston was sentenced on July 21, 2005 for the felony charges of first-degree rape and second-degree kidnapping.

On Dec. 28, 2004, Elston forced a 51-year-old female kitchen worker at Cass into an office and forcibly raped her, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department said at the time. The kitchen worker and Elston were alone, and Elston had her open a locked cabinet where knives were stored and took a large knife, the sheriff’s department said.

Elston then forced the female victim into another area, where her keys were stored, and both of them left Cass in her vehicle, the department said. Elston held her at knifepoint from Cass to Albany, where he ordered her to stop so he could use the phone, the department said. Once he finished using the phone, Elston ordered her back into the car, and, as she entered the car, she kicked at Elston and was able to drive away, the department said.

Elston received seven years in prison for the kidnapping charge and 20 years for the rape charge, terms that run consecutively and are one year short of the 28-year maximum.

After prison, Elston will face 10 years of post release supervision. He will also be required to register as a sex offender and was given a 25-year court order of protection, prohibiting him from making any contact with his victim.

Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg, at last Thursday’s meeting, called the rape "a real tragedy," adding, "We’re keenly interested that something like that doesn’t happen again."

Councilwoman Myra Dorman read a letter from the rape survivor, which demands the OCFS, "be held accountable." The letter goes on, alleging the escape was planned for at least a month in advance; that the investigation turned up a map with directions and phone numbers; that a co-conspirator was involved; and that logs and counts of inmates were altered, to show Elston was accounted for.

The town board then voted unanimously to hold the Cass Residential Center and the OCFS accountable for the December, 2004 incident and any other incidents that happen in the community. Before leaving Town Hall, the husband of the rape survivor thanked the board for its resolutions.

Ed Ausborn, deputy commissioner of the OCFS, said at last week’s meeting that violent offenders have not been placed at Cass. "We would never do that," he said.

"Elston had prior sexual assault, and you knew it," said the rape survivor.

According to the sheriff’s department, Elston had been at the Cass Residential Center since the later part of November of 2004, for a violation of probation, and possession of stolen property.

Ausborn said the most recent escapee from the facility in November of 2006 "outran our staff."

Many at the town’s meeting last week asked Ausborn about offenders’ records and the state agency’s knowledge of the records. Before the facility was emptied last month, the all-male juvenile detention center had held youths between the ages of 14 and 18.

"We have a very complete file," Ausborn said of the OCFS’s knowledge of delinquents’ prior records.

"What are you going to do about the past"" the rape survivor’s husband yelled at the end of the question-and-answer period. "I’m the victim’s husband," he said, as television crews and the audience turned toward him.

"You’ve talked about what you’re going to do in the future," said the rape survivor’s husband, "but what are you going to do about the past""

Despite complaints
Cass re-opens

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Cass Residential is re-opening this week as widespread animosity and deep-rooted resentment continue throughout the community. The juvenile detention center had been emptied for two weeks after area residents signed a petition calling for it to close.

After declining an invitation to attend last month’s town board meeting, the facility’s director and an official from the state office that runs Cass told area residents last week of security improvements to Cass and outlined its programs.

"I’m not sure what act of Congress occurred to get you here, but thank you," said Bob Tomczak, who lives near the center.
Seven youths fled the non-secure detention center over the last two years, and a kitchen worker at the facility was raped and abducted at knifepoint in December of 2004. The most recent escapee broke into a nearby home, and stole money and a vehicle before fleeing to his home in Poughkeepsie (Dutchess County).

"I would like to see the camp out of Rensselaerville," said Joan Johnston, a victim of the most recent escape.

Ed Ausborn told the heated crowd at town hall last week that the juvenile center now has added security, and its residents will be between 13 and 16 years old. Ausborn, who supervises all of the Office of Children and Family Services’ 31 facilities, outlined Cass’s plans, which include erecting a 16-foot-tall perimeter fence and installing a Community Alert Network system, that would call area homes and businesses in cases of emergencies.

"We believe we can manage the security of the facility," said Ausborn.

Brian Marchetti, spokesman for OCFS, quelled rumors this week that Ausborn retired after the meeting. Ausborn had been planning to retire at the end of 2006, after 32 years of state service, but decided to stay on until the spring and will be retiring in May, Marchetti told The Enterprise this week.

Locals remained skeptical throughout last week’s meeting, questioning the facility’s ability to control its offenders and prevent future escapes. Residents also questioned the cost to taxpayers for rehabilitating the state’s delinquents. Angered citizens lashed out, with the rape survivor’s husband calling Ausborn "a liar."

Prior to a question-and-answer session between Ausborn and the audience, Councilwoman Myra Dorman, a member of the Cass Residential Advisory Board, read a letter from the rape survivor. (See related story.)

Tim Kelso, the facility’s director, outlined security measures, which include: 32 cameras; a new entranceway, equipped with coded locks; additional radios; an increase of head counts; all movements of residents cleared through shift leaders; residents supervised by staff while working with kitchen staff; installation of a lock system; and exterior security lighting.

Kelso outlined the horticulture and food preparation programs offered by Cornell University at Cass. Kelso said that, once getting their certificates, Cass residents could then obtain jobs in the food service industry or grow flowers in lawn-and-garden stores, such as Home Depot, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart.

"Or grow marijuana," a member of the audience said.

Resident Robert Bolte questioned the programs, saying they are "low-paying jobs," while employers in the area "are dying for people," who know trades like carpentry or plumbing.

"I don’t know why you would put a criminal in a kitchen with a knife," Bolte said.

"Everybody has to start at the bottom and work up," Kelso responded.

"We plan on demonstrating; we want this closed; we want them out of here," Bolte told The Enterprise this week.

Following the most recent escape in November, many area residents asserted the facility’s youths are "hardened" criminals.

The youths the facility will hold, said Ausborn, will be 13 to 16 years old with prior misdemeanor and "property crimes," none having a history of "person-type" crimes.

Youths will be arriving at the facility today, according to Marchetti.

"You’ve been putting some serious effort forward," Alexander (Sandy) Gordon, an Albany County legislator, said to Cass officials. Gordon, state Assemblyman John McEneny, and state Senator Neil Breslin met with Cass officials at the end of January and took a tour of the facility. Gordon said last week that he thinks Cass can still be "one of the potential employers in Rensselaerville." The facility employs 33 workers, although Bolte said only three are from Rensselaerville.

Gordon said he had recently encountered a tile mason who had been "a patron" of Cass Residential in the 1970’s, adding, "I never would have known." Gordon said the facility has turned its residents into people who have made "positive contributions."

"We don’t know who they are," he said, "but they’re out there."

"These kids have done things and turned their lives around," Ausborn agreed, adding, "Those kids never get much attention."

"None of them had a record of violence that we know of," McEneny told The Enterprise last week, of Cass residents. He said that he congratulated one resident who had just successfully completed his General Equivalency Diploma and was about to return to his hometown.

"They sure avoid the tough questions," said Tomczak of Cass officials after the meeting. "People were not comforted by what they heard here today," he said.

"My concerns are with some of Ed’s answers. It sounded like he had no control," Nickelsberg said of Ausborn after the meeting.

The last standing soldier

David Baitsholts said escapes and theft by Cass residents have been "a common occurrence," with youth stealing fire trucks and tractors.

"Since I was a kid, we had tragedy after tragedy," he said. Baitsholts asked Ausborn if the security measures Kelso had outlined earlier in the meeting were in place at the time of the November escape.

"If [they were], my confidence is going down real fast," said Baitsholts.

Ausborn said the security measures were in place, adding that the youth didn’t get through the facility’s security, but "outran our staff."

Ausborn called the youths "troubled, impulsive children," and said of the perimeter fence, "That, by itself, will resolve the issue. We think the fence is the answer to that." Ausborn called the fence "the last standing soldier."

"It’s not a situation that can be remedied by a fence," Vernon Husek, chairman of the town’s land-use planning committee, told The Enterprise this week.

"At some point, they’ll look at the facility and wonder why they’re not putting more violent criminals in there," said Husek, adding that it may not happen for years, but he thinks it’s "a real possibility."

"How can you justify this expense for so few people"" Husek asked.

If a fence is erected at the non-secure facility, it will no longer be eligible for about $300,000 in federal aid, McEneny told The Enterprise last week.

"If the fence is erected, they will lose the annual federal aid," he said. "The day it goes up over 25 residents, or a fence is put up, they will no longer be eligible for that money," he said.

Ausborn said construction of the 16-foot high fence will begin in the spring and be completed in five to seven months — "as fast as humanly possible."

"That’s the best I can do on that," he said.

Ausborn left brochures about Cass, a briefing sheet about the security measures to the facility, and an "almost final draft" of the perimeter fence at town hall. Ausborn also suggested that Cass officials get on the town board’s agenda quarterly, a couple of times a year, or on a rotating basis.

The meeting was adjourned prematurely after a scathing argument between Nickelsberg and resident C. Howard James, who said he was "bumped" from the board’s agenda. (He had wanted to speak about the new practice of limiting public comment; see related letter to the editor.)

Before leaving the hall, few people picked up the papers Ausborn had left.

Police coverage

Following the November escape, locals have recalled harmony in past years and said times have changed.

Bolte, who was a member of the Cass Residential Advisory Board, quit his role three to four years ago. Bolte recalled collecting Christmas gifts for Cass residents.

"I will not go back up there," Bolte said this week.

"I’ve seen them out once in the last two years," Councilwoman Pine told The Enterprise of Cass residents, adding that, 10 to 12 years ago, the kids stopped coming out in the community.

"In Rensselaerville, we’re not protected by the police," said Husek. "That’s the risk that I find unacceptable."

Rensselaerville has no town police but is patrolled by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, which responds to calls from the Hilltowns through its communications center in Voorheesville; the center is approximately 20 miles from Cass.

"They do come. They will come," Husek said, adding that sheriffs’ response time is slow because the patrol station is many miles away.

"It’s not at all unusual to wait for half an hour for a sheriff to show up," he said. In routine situations, he said, it takes a sheriff’s deputy 20 minutes to respond.

In that time, "A kid can go a long ways," he said.

"We have been regionalizing placement," said Ausborn. Youths, he said, are being placed in facilities close to their homes. He added, "We’re now at about 75-percent." Cass residents will be from Albany, he said.

Pine, who lives near the center, questioned the placement, saying youths know that once they find Route 85, they’re almost home.


Cass Residential, which opened in June of 1962, sits atop a hill, surrounded by farmland in the heavily-forested rural Hilltown. It is one of 31 OCFS-run juvenile detention centers in the state; the facilities are classified as non-secure, limited secure, and secure. Cass is non-secure.

Located in the southwestern part of Albany County, Rensselaerville has multiple phone exchanges, some from the nearby towns of Berne and Westerlo, and some from neighboring counties.

Cellular phone reception is poor, often non-existent.

"For us to call certain areas [within the town], it’s long-distance," Pine told The Enterprise this week. Pine said she gets cellular phone reception in town in certain areas, but it is sporadic. It is long-distance, she said, to call Cass Residential from her home, located a mile away.

Some area residents have Internet access. Information is received slowly, though, since many have a slower dial-up connection.

OCFS will be offering a Community Alert Network system, said Ausborn, which will be rolled out state-wide in four to six weeks, with a consultant having all numbers of area residents who wish to be notified in its database.

"This is the first place we’re coming," said Ausborn.

"Why would you duplicate the service of 911 that has been updated"" Bolte asked this week.

"Is it something they’re doing so they don’t have to let the police know"" the rape survivor asked The Enterprise this week.

An emergency notification system, or "reverse 911" call, was issued to surrounding residents the night of the November escape by the sheriff’s department. Many residents did not receive the call, and those who did received misleading information; the message said, "A 15-year old boy was last seen in the area of Cheese Hill."

Last month, Craig Apple, deputy chief of the sheriff’s department, updated residents at the town’s board meeting on what went wrong. Apple said the sheriff’s department does not know the charges of Cass residents or who is at the camp.

"We don’t know who’s coming and going," he said.

"I think it is ridiculous that our sheriff’s department can’t tell you what level offender is coming to this very small town," said McEneny at the town’s January meeting, adding that the townspeople are "very vulnerable" and "very isolated."

BKW mulls teaching foreign language in grade school

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board reconsidered foreign language studies for its elementary students last week, after the chair of the After-School Foreign Language program told the board that the program has outgrown itself.

The program, sponsored by the PTA, offers Spanish, French, German, and Latin lessons to elementary school students on Wednesdays from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.

"We are not trying to eliminate the after-school program, but it would be best if it was in conjunction with an in-school elementary foreign language program," said Jean Forti, chair of the PTA program. Forti said future after-school programs may include Arabic, Russian, and sign language.

"Frankly, it is getting to the point where we cannot handle these large numbers of students," said Forti, who reported that 80 kindergarten through fifth-grade children are enrolled in the program from January through March.

Numbers in the program, Forti said, are increasing, and some students’ schedules can’t accommodate the program.

Board members were receptive as Forti and PTA President Michelle Tusco recommended their program work in conjunction with the school’s classes. Both were concerned about voter approval for the district’s budget and raising public awareness.

"We did petitions a few years ago," said Forti.

Superintendent Steven Schrade said further research needed to be conducted regarding the cost of offering the classes, where it would fall in the school day, and the language that would be chosen.

"I think we support it," said school board President Joan Adriance, later saying foreign language study allows students to "adapt more readily."

Board member John Harlow has been a strong proponent of starting elementary students on Chinese in order for American students to stay competitive on the international stage.

"If you look at countries, the greatest economical force is China," said Harlow.

"I would rather teach the economics," school board Vice President Edward Ackroyd said last week, "because in any language, two and two is four."

Prior to its meeting last week, Harlow submitted "Moving Schools Out of the 20th Century," a Times magazine article, for board discussion.

"Kids spend much of the day as their great-grandparents once did: sitting in rows, listening to teachers lecture, scribbling notes by hand, reading from textbooks that are out of date by the time they are printed," says the December article in Time by Claudia Wallis and Sonja Steptoe.

"Kids are global citizens now, even in small-town America," Wallis and Steptoe say.

"Today’s economy demands not only a high-level competence in the traditional academic disciplines but also what might be called 21st Century skills," Wallis and Steptoe say, outlining these skills as: knowing more about the world, thinking outside the box, becoming smarter about new sources of information, and developing good people skills.

The article cites the John Stanford International School, a Seattle, Washington public elementary school, where students take classes in Japanese or Spanish; have social-studies units on Asia, Africa, Australia, Mexico, and South America; and video-conference, exchange messages, and join in charity projects with sister schools in Japan, Africa, and Mexico.

"I’m not against it," Ackroyd told The Enterprise this week, adding that he thinks the board needs to do more research than discussing one article.

"What are you going to give up"" he asked, adding he thinks the district has a full curriculum.

"I think you’ll find more community support now than you did four years ago," Schrade said to Forti last week.

Christine Margiotta, the district’s communications specialist, said she will be writing an article for the March school newsletter on PTA after-school programs.

Other business

In other business, the school board:

— Appointed West and Company to a five-year contract as its independent auditor.

David Weiser, who began as business administrator in December, recommended the district continue with West and Company, based in Gloversville, adding that the contract should be "under careful watch."

Prior to his recommendation, Weiser said he had looked at the firm’s five-year plan and its hourly rate, had checked references, examined its response to the district’s proposals, and looked at its experience with school districts.

"There have been challenges in the past in timeliness," Weiser said, adding, "I believe they’ve reconciled that situation."

Weiser attributed past problems to a key employee’s sickness.

"Whoever we choose, it is my recommendation that we send them a confirmation letter, restating our expectations," said Weiser.

Board member Maureen Sikule was concerned about deficiencies in West and Company’s 2006 audit of the district.

Schrade said this week the district has used West and Company since 2002;

– Approved the amendments to the sliding-scale tax exemptions for elderly and disabled people on limited incomes for a four-year period ending at the close of the 2009 fiscal year. The sliding scale, effective July 1, 2007, offers a 50-percent reduction for households with an annual income of $27,000 or less, and a 5-percent reduction for households with an income of $34,500 or more but less than $35,400; and

— Approved tape-recording school board meetings. The board will continue using typed minutes for record-keeping, and use tapes as a "back-up" and erase or discard them after clerk Noreen Shunney types a written record of the minutes.

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