LEE -- A local couple accused of sex for sale at their inn -- a case that led to the downfall of former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis -- is trying to sell the lakeside lodging.
Tara Viola and Thomas Fusco, owners of the Inn at Laurel Lake, have listed the century-old inn with Harvest Moon Realty based in Chester, according to a local realtor website. The Berkshire Multiple Listing Service has the asking price at $995,000 for the 19-room building and the two acres it sits on overlooking Laurel Lake from Route 20. For tax purposes, the Lee Board of Assessors have the property valued at $917,000.
The inn went on the market just after Thanksgiving, but whether Viola and Fusco are still in business is unclear as the property seems deserted. The Eagle was unable to contact the owners' attorney for comment on the couple selling the inn or the criminal case against them.
Next month, Viola and Fusco are scheduled to appear in Southern Berkshire District Court where they face charges of soliciting sexual favors for a fee, keeping a house of ill fame, and conspiring to promote prostitution at the inn. The two defendants pleaded not guilty to the allegations in October with the case continued until Jan. 13.
Built by the William W. Boardman family in 1881, the inn first opened its doors to travelers in 1900, according to the current owners website. The lodging changed hands several times, before Fusco and Viola purchased it in 1996. They added a deck that overlooks the inn's private beach. The couple advertised the inn as a three-season resort that specializes in large group events during the off-season from November through April.
Viola and Fusco were originally brought up on prostitution-related charges in January 2012 following an investigation by Lee police assisted by the Berkshire County Drug Task Force. The case was settled the next month in a closed-door show cause hearing, the results of which were sealed.
A subsequent FBI investigation, initiated by the Berkshire District Attorney office, led to a federal indictment against Buffis alleging the ousted police chief struck a deal with Viola and Fusco to forgo the criminal complaint in exchange for a donation to a holiday charity he managed. Federal authorities claim he then used the money for personal use.
Buffis has denied the charges and is due back before a U.S. District Court judge in Springfield next month.
After the federal indictment was made public in early August, Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless vowed to re-instate the charges against Viola and Fusco.
"We can't ignore serious allegations like prostitution," Capeless told The Eagle.
According court documents, Lee police had alleged at the time that Viola and Fusco attempted to discretely advertise the prostitution service on the Internet under the guise of Viola's massage business conducted at the inn.
Local authorities said they were alerted to the online advertisement that had been posted for some time.
Capeless had said the Lee Police had asked the task force to help in the investigation and that one of the officers went in undercover at the inn.
A month later, in February 2012, Buffis allegedly coerced the couple to donate $4,000 to the Edward J. Laliberte Toy Fund, a holiday toy fund he controlled.
In return, he said he would not pursue the charges, according to the U. S. Attorney's Office.
When the charges didn't go forward against the couple, the DA's office and the task force looked into what had happened.
Because of the close working relationship between local prosecutors and the police on various criminal matters, the case was handed off to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office, according to Capeless. Almost a year later, a federal grand jury returned four indictments: one count of extortion and three counts of money laundering.
According to federal prosecutors, Buffis made the couple sign an agreement that prevented the disclosure of the deal.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has said the former chief then transferred the money to his personal account, spent it at various places, including a liquor store and lied to investigators about what became of the money.
Buffis, a Lee native who has spent 34 years on its police force, faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted of the charges.
He no longer manages the fund, which was suspended in 2012 but returned this year under new management.
Town officials eventually fired Buffis for a matter they say had nothing to do with the federal case against him.
On Aug. 20, the Board of Selectmen, on the recommendation of Town Administrator Robert Nason, terminated Buffis' contract for allegedly billing the town $5,000 to cover his family cellphone plan.