Armed man flees burning home, surrenders

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Through a screen of trees in Knox, the dying flames of three burning buildings on Saddlemire Road were visible at 11:45 p.m. Wednesday.

Pacing: Rick Fortuin, a Knox fire fighter, waits on Saddlemire Road in the wee hours of Thursday morning for news of his brother, Kenneth, as police try to negotiate with him.

KNOX — Firefighters watched from afar as Kenneth Fortuin's buildings burned at his Saddlemire Road residence, unable to get to the scene on Wednesday night. Their path to the fire was blocked by cut-down trees and Fortuin, said to be armed, threatened to harm anyone who approached the scene, police said.

The building contractor fled his burning home early in the morning, according to State Police, and was found in a field nearby in his vehicle early Thursday morning; Fortuin, 49, surrendered and was arrested at 7 a.m. on charges of third-degree arson, a felony, and obstructing fire-fighting operations, a misdemeanor, with other charges possible. He was arraigned in Knox Town Court.

"At least one structure located on the property at the scene of the incident did suffer structural damage due to the inability of fire officials to properly fight the fire," according to a release from the State Police.

Altamont, Berne, East Berne, and Gallupville had all sent equipment and volunteers to Saddlemire Road. The Guilderland paramedics were also on hand. The road had been blocked with felled trees and, behind the barrier, police tried to negotiate with Kenneth Fortuin, who said he didn't want anyone near the house and he would harm those that tried, according to State Police.

Flakes fell from the starless sky as, at about 11:30 p.m., fire companies started to head home. The paramedics went back to the Knox firehouse, and waited.

The property at 75 Saddlemire Road, a small lane off of Street Road, with several buildings clustered on a cul-de-sac, is owned by Kenneth and Andrea Fortuin, according to tax rolls.

Kenneth Fortuin’s sister-in-law, Kimberly Fortuin, confirmed at about 11 last night that the Fortuins’ home was on fire, and said the family was awaiting news of unfolding events.

Kevin Sherman, assistant fire chief for the Knox company, said that trees had been felled to block the road and that police had told fire departments to stay away from the scene on standby. 

In the wee hours of the morning, in the bitter cold, the snow-covered lane was lined with large, dark police vehicles. State Troopers, carrying assault weapons and dressed in camouflage uniforms, also wore helmets and bullet-proof vests. The state police called aviation units and a special operations response team while his location was unknown.

They grouped and regrouped in small clusters, speaking in low tones. Firefighters and, later, Troopers, had brought chainsaws to the scene, but the night air was still, without the buzz of a saw.

A television news crew and a newspaper reporter stood on the other side of a police line at the foot of the road that said, “Do not cross.” The line would be lowered for SUVs to cross.

Rick Fortuin, Kenneth’s brother, wearing firefighters’ gear, was on the far side of the barrier, sometimes talking on a cell phone. Many of the other firefighters waited back in the Knox firehouse in the hamlet.

A petit woman spoke to a State Trooper, telling him she had received a text message. “He told me he loved me,” she reported to the Trooper, “and he was done and goodbye.”

“Raised to push and work hard”

Kenneth Fortuin’s name is woven through the correspondents’ columns of The Enterprise, typical of small-town life. In the 1980s, details of his training in the United States Army reserve are reported. He was promoted to sergeant in 1985.

That year, he also attended a turkey and ham shoot in Canajoharie, and enjoyed a “performing party” of the country band Southbound. He was an usher at his brother’s wedding in 1991 and, in 2000, friends “all went to Andrea and Kenneth Fortuin’s for cake and ice cream.”

A year ago, when The Enterprise wrote about Kenneth and Andrea Fortuin’s son, Hunter — then a Tech Valley High School senior working on a social networking site aimed at revamping human productivity through the Internet — Mr. Fortuin spoke as a proud father.

A contractor, Kenneth Fortuin told of how he had a friend who was a member of the Westerlo fire department and Hunter volunteered to make a website for the department. Then, Kenneth Fortuin’s brother in the Knox department talked to him and said, “We’re looking for somebody, too,” his father reported.

On his father’s Knox farm, Hunter was always thinking about ways to do his work more efficiently.

“It’s helped me love more than just the Internet,” he said of growing up there. “I love doing things that are hands-on. You’re picking up rocks, stacking wood. There wasn’t a lot of virtual, growing up. I think that’s a thing I’ve recently adopted in the past four years.”

Kenneth Fortuin spoke at length about how the Tech Valley program, with its team-based, problem-solving approach had benefitted his son, and he also spoke with feeling about his son’s character.

“The thing with Hunter,” he said, “is, ever since he was a little kid, everybody liked Hunter. Everybody wanted to be around him. It didn’t matter what level. You’ve got the jocks, the nerds...but he fit in with everybody.”

His mother said that, when Hunter was younger and the Fortuin family organized packages of winter clothing for homeless people, Hunter enjoyed serving dinners at the city Mission. “You’d think he was some kind of little minister,” she said.

Mr. Fortuin mentioned Hunter’s younger sister, then 14, and older stepbrother, then 26.

Mr. Fortuin was impressed with his son’s poise. “I heard he was a good speaker,” Kenneth Fortuin said, “so I decided to stay and watch. He spoke for 10 minutes like he had been practicing the speech for months. It was just amazing. I was so proud.”

Mr. Fortuin said he hadn’t been to college himself and shied away from computers. “The computer’s just everything to the kid,” he said. “I’m kind of illiterate in that sense.”

But he thought he might have shaped his son’s work ethic.

The elder Fortuin said, “I worked a lot. Of course to make things good, to make life good, to make money and be successful, so he watched me do that and accomplish that.”

Mrs. Fortuin, he said, started a yoga studio and then owned two studios.

“He’s watched both of us strive for something that we wanted and make it work, as far as business goes,” Mr. Fortuin said.

Of construction work, though, he said, “He wants no part of this sort of business. I had him come to work for me a few different times and he has no interest in it...It’s getting harder and harder to find kids who want to work and sweat. It’s a hard living....My body hurts and I’m 48 years old. I was raised to push and work hard. I was there to make him money. That’s just the way it was.”

He also said, “The home front might not have been ideal in the last couple of years.”

More Hilltowns News

  • Following the closure of Rensselaerville Volunteer Ambulance, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office has had to offer an ambulance with an emergency medical provider as well as a paramedic in a fly car. This has led to an increase in the costs for the three Hilltowns served: Berne, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville.

  • The Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education is putting up for a Nov. 2 vote two propositions for capital projects — for $15 million and $5 million. After a lengthy debate over whether the capital project was a “blank check” or a means of improving student education, three board members voted yes, one voted no, and one abstained.

  • Former Berne-Knox-Westerlo treasurer Stacy King-McElhiney is stepping up to be the district’s newest business manager.