Chiefs, legal beefs, goodbyes: Diverse mix of 2013 headlines for Berkshires
PITTSFIELD -- Police chief turnover. A fight between developers over the new lodging establishments that they hoped to establish in Pittsfield. An emphasis on issues surrounding military veterans after the body of a Berkshire vet was found on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington.
These lead off the list of top 10 stories that affected Berkshire County in 2013, as chosen by the staff of The Berkshire Eagle.
1. Police chiefs: Four Berkshire towns turned over their police chiefs in 2013, while in a fifth the chief's position is currently in limbo. In Egremont, Lee and Hinsdale the situations were controversial.
In Egremont, Police Chief Reena Bucknell, the first full-time female police chief in Berkshire County history, was suspended in February following a no-confidence vote from her officers, then fired in September after failing to sign a severance agreement with the town.
In Lee, Police Chief Joseph Buffis was fired in August for improperly billing the town for his cellphone use. He was also charged with extortion and money laundering in federal court in Springfield for allegedly coercing a Lee couple into donating $4,000 to a town toy fund he controlled in exchanging for him not going forward with prostitution charges against them.
In Hinsdale, Police Chief Nancy Daniels, who had replaced former Chief Christian Pedoty in January, was placed on paid administrative leave by the town in November because she had not completed the training that is mandated by the state for all full-time police officers.
In Stockbridge, Police Chief Richard Wilcox, who had held the job since 1985, announced that he planned to retire in late February. He will be replaced by Robert M. Eaton Jr. of Rhode Island. In Adams, Police Chief Donald Poirot retired in April, and was officially replaced by department veteran Richard Tarsa in November.
2. Hotel wars: A bevy of legal skirmishes involving three hotel operators and two large potential lodging projects located within quarter mile of each other broke out in Pittsfield.
The dispute began after the Toole Lodging Group, interested in building a 92-room Courtyard by Marriott on Dan Fox Drive, legally challenged a building permit granted to Prem Management for the construction of a 95-room Hilton Garden Inn on South Street. The start of both projects was delayed in 2013 by either legal or permitting challenges.
A corporate entity with ties to Toole also purchased a small parcel along the driveway to the Hilton building site, and has challenged the use as a right-of-way for the lodging establishment in Berkshire Superior Court.
The third operator entered the fray in October, when the owner of the Comfort Inn on South Street -- located across from the proposed Hilton site -- also challenged the building permit that had been granted to Prem Management. That appeal was rejected by the city's Zoning Board of Appeals.
Toole's project also was held up when an environmental group challenged its permit to build near a wetlands area. The Toole Group has since announced that it intends to move the project to Lenox, but last week the builder of the Hilton Garden Inn stated he was interested in constructing another hotel in Lenox, too.
3. Veterans affairs: In May, authorities found the body of U.S. Marine veteran Edward Passetto of Pittsfield on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington.
The 28-year-old Passetto's death was ruled a suicide, and the incident sparked a debate on veterans issues in the Berkshires when it was learned the Lee native had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and had written to President Barack Obama about the long delays associated with his disability claim that had been filed with the Veterans Administration.
Also in May, U.S. Army Spec. Mitchell K. Daehling of Dalton was killed in action in Afghanistan. Scores of people, many holding small American flags, lined North Street to greet the motorcade procession when Daehling's body was returned to the Berkshires.
And in March, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Roger W. Muchnick Jr. was buried in Lenox in a service that attracted more than 1,000 mourners and was one of the most elaborate funerals the town had ever seen. Killed during a training exercise in California, Muchnick was the grandson of Bob and Mary Ann Coakley of Lenox.
4. City Charter overhauled: An overhaul of Pittsfield's decades-old City Charter had been debated for years, but it was formalized in November when voters approved the measure as a ballot question during the general election.
Following an eight-month review process, the 11-member Pittsfield Charter Review Study Committee endorsed the document on May 1, while the state Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick granted final approval last summer. It is the first significant overhaul of the City Charter since 1932. A key provision in the new document increases the mayor's term from two years to four beginning in 2015.
5. Lewis Lent/Jamie Lusher: In July, law enforcement authorities announced that convicted serial killer Lewis Lent Jr., a former North Adams resident, had provided them with information that he had placed the body of 16-year-old James Lusher of Westfield in a pond in Becket. Lusher had been missing since November 1992. The announcement came 17 years after Lent had pleaded guilty to abducting and killing 12-year-old Jimmy Bernardo of Pittsfield in 1990.
State Police dive teams from Massachusetts and New York conducted a three-day search of 88-acre Greenwater Pond in Becket for Lusher's remains, and came up empty, but promised they would re-visit the waterway in the future (divers also were spotted on Greenwater Pond in August).
6. Dollar General: After opening an outlet in North Adams in September 2012, the Tennessee-based Dollar General retail store chain announced in 2013 that it planned to open additional Berkshire stores in Lanesborough, Pittsfield, Sheffield and Williamstown.
The Sheffield proposal became embroiled in legal action when the chain's developer, Primax Properties of Charlotte, N.C., filed an appeal in state Land Court in July after Sheffield's Zoning Board of Appeals rescinded the company's building permit in May, claiming it violated several town bylaws. During a special town meeting in November, voters by 62 votes rejected a citizen-petitioned article that would have allocated $30,000 in town funds for Sheffield's use on the legal suit. In December, Primax said it intended to continue to pursue legal action, claiming the town had failed to respond to two requests for settlement offers.
7. Crime: Three crime stories stood out in 2013: the alleged sexual assault of two teenage boys at a sports camp in Otis; a Connecticut man with numerous drunken driving convictions pleading guilty to charges associated with a 2012 motor vehicle accident that killed a Sheffield woman; and the ongoing legal actions involving the county's upcoming triple murder trial.
In August, 36-year-old Frederick Weller of Newtown, Conn., received an 18-year state prison sentence after pleading guilty in Berkshire Superior Court to numerous charges involved in the motor vehicle accident that killed Sheffield resident Moira Banks-Dobson in February 2012. Weller had at least six previous operating under the influence convictions, has a criminal record in four states, and had been on probation since 2005.
In September, 17-year-old Galileo Mondol of Somerville and two 16-year-old juveniles were accused of sexually assaulting a freshman boy on the Somerville High School boys' soccer team with a broomstick while the team was attending a team building retreat at Camp Lenox on Aug. 25. Mondol, who has pleaded not guilty, also tried to sexually assault two others, who fought off the attacks, according to court testimony.
Legal maneuvers surrounding the triple murder case have taken place since the slayings of three Pittsfield men were committed in 2011, but in 2013 a trial date for the most notorious of the three defendants, Adam Lee Hall of Peru, was scheduled for Jan. 6 in Springfield. In November, a judge ruled that the trials for Hall, and his two co-defendants, David Chalue of North Adams and Caius Veiovis of Pittsfield, should be held outside of Berkshire County due to the "sensational" media reports surrounding the case.
8. School building projects: In October, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams officially dedicated the $30 million Fiegenbaum Center for Science and Innovation. The 65,000-square foot structure, which opened in September, is the first new building constructed at MCLA in 40 years.
In November, voters in the towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge approved a $56 million renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington by six total votes. But the project was held up when in a separate measure voters in Great Barrington rejected an override of Proposition 21 2 to fund the initiative. In December, the Massachusetts School Building Authority informed the Berkshire Hills School District by letter that it would have to approve the school project by July 31 or lose the $25 million in state funding that is slated for the project.
In Pittsfield, action on the construction of a new high school at the Taconic High School campus continued to take place. Two design firms favored by the School Building Needs Commission to do the initial work on a Taconic High School building project made it to the interview stage after a review at the state level.
9. Notable deaths: In November, well-known Berkshire County entrepreneur and philanthropist Jane Pratt Fitzpatrick of Stockbridge died nine days before her 90th birthday. With her late husband, John, who died in 2011, Jane Fitzpatrick founded the Country Curtains retail and mail order business. In 1968, the Fitzpatricks purchased the iconic Red Lion Inn, saving the historic lodging establishment from destruction and turning it into a destination for travelers.
In September, former city councilor and long-time Pittsfield resident Paul M. Dowd died at age 66 in North Carolina following a three-year battle with ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Dowd, a cancer survivor, also helped form the local Jimmy Fund Council. Dowd first came to Pittsfield as a minor league pitcher in the Boston Red Sox system. The baseball field at Wahconah Park was named after him in 2011.
In March, businessman/philanthrophist Donald S. Fiegenbaum of Pittsfield died at age 87. With his older brother Armond, Donald founded the General Systems Co. of Pittsfield, an engineering firm that designs and installs operational systems for corporations worldwide. Like the Fitzpatricks, the Feigenbaums also were generous benefactors who provided funding for several initiatives through their charitable foundation, including $5 million for the science center at MCLA that bears their name.
10. Popular restaurant closes: In April, the Dakota Restaurant in Pittsfield closed suddenly leaving 50 employees in the lurch and hundreds of patrons holding unused gift cards. The Dakota had been a mainstay in Pittsfield since it opened in 1984.
The San Diego-based company that owned the Dakota had been beset with financial problems after coming out of bankruptcy. In August, the South Street property was purchased by the owners of a Japanese restaurant in Pittsfield who said they planned to open an Asian-themed eatery known as "Da'Koto" on the South Street spot in early 2014.
Honorable mentions: City Councilor Paul Capitanio of Pittsfield was arrested by state police in August and charged with tipping off a drug dealer whom he had allegedly purchased oxycodone from about an upcoming drug raid. Capitanio has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is currently free on $500 bail. Capitanio, who had represented Ward 3 since 2009, did not run for re-election in November.
Former Pittsfield Mayor Evan S. Dobelle resigned as the president of Westfield State University in November following a three-month legal battle with the school's trustees and state Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland over what some people considered extravagant spending on travel, according to the Associated Press. Dobelle, who still lives in Pittsfield, was elected the city's mayor in 1973 and 1975.
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