May 30, 2007

Homer man admits leading chase

Erik Vandenburg says he was trying to avoid third DWI


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
22-year-old Erik Vandenburg of Homer is escorted to Cortland City Court this morning.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — While being escorted in shackles from City Court to Cortland County Jail this morning, a Homer man confessed to leading police on a drunken high-speed chase Monday night in order to avoid a third driving while intoxicated conviction.
Erik Vandenburg, 22, of 2330 State Route 11, said he led officers from five police departments on the chase throughout Cortland and Onondaga counties because he was afraid of getting his third DWI in less than three years.
“That’s my third DWI so I wanted to make them work for it,” he said grinning at around 10:30 a.m. while being escorted into City Court for an arraignment with his public defender.
Following a brief court appearance, Vandenburg was more remorseful when asked again about the incident as guards led him back to jail at around 11:30 a.m. He said he was sorry for putting police officers’ lives in danger and that he was not having fun during the chase.
“I just panicked,” he said. “I just didn’t want to go to jail. I just thought I would try and get five more minutes of freedom.”
Vandenburg has been convicted of two prior DWIs, once in Homer Town Court in June 2005 and once in Cortlandville Town Court in May 2006. Vandenburg was also convicted of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, in May 2006.
Vandenburg told reporters he was scared during the chase, particularly when a city police officer shot at his 1995 Ford pick-up truck during the incident on the corner of Homer and Brown avenues.
“I felt the bullet almost hit me and I felt the windshield explode,” he said. “I felt scared.”
Vandenburg said he had been drinking all day before leading officers on the chase. He said he did not remember everything that happened and that he broke part of a front tooth at some point during the incident.
While smiling for reporters in an effort to show the broken tooth, Vandenburg said his mouth hurts and he is waiting for medical attention in jail.
“It’s sad and tragic,” he said of the chase that landed him jail, adding that he would have stopped the vehicle and faced the original DWI charge if he could do it all over again.
Vandenburg said he has had a drinking problem for several years and he hopes to get treatment while in custody.
He is facing 10 felony charges and numerous misdemeanors. He could be sentenced up to 25 years in state prison for the most serious charge of aggravated assault on a police officer, a felony.
He said he is disappointed in his actions and sorry he disappointed his parents.
During his court appearance this morning Assistant Public Defender Michael Cardinale was assigned to Vandenburg’s case. Cardinale entered a plea of not guilty to all the pending charges on Vandenburg’s behalf.
Vandenburg is being held in County Jail on $50,000 cash $100,000 bond. He is due back in City Court on June 6.

Police recount high-speed pursuit, arrest


Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — As a city police officer pointed a gun at him and demanded he get out of his truck, the Homer man who led police on a two-hour car chase Monday told the officer to “do what you gotta do,” before continuing the chase.
Police Chief Jim Nichols recounted the incident during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
The driver, Erik W. Vandenburg, then rammed police cars positioned on either bumper to block him in — prompting the officer to “fear for his life” and fire four shots at the truck — before continuing what Nichols called a dangerous “game of cat and mouse” with law enforcement.
Vandenburg — who, after leading five different police agencies through much of the northwestern portion of Cortland County and into Onondaga County, was captured in the woods near Homer-Baltimore Road — was arraigned in city court Tuesday. He was charged with at least ten felony charges from state and city police, including the attempted assault of a city police officer, six misdemeanor charges and dozens of Vehicle and Traffic Law violations.
Vandenburg is being held in Cortland County Jail on $50,000 cash or $100,000 bond, and more charges are likely, with the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department and Homer Police expected to add charges.
According to Cortlandville Town Court, Vandenburg was convicted of misdemeanor assault and DWI in May of 2006.
Archives of the Cortland Standard also document a DWI arrest in Homer in June 2005.
When he was brought in for booking, Vandenburg, who has been charged with DWI by state police, had a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent, police said.
Nichols — who gave a narrative of the pursuit that included Vandenburg swinging his car through the parking lot of the Wilson Farms convenience store on North Main Street while nearly striking pedestrians, driving backward down Arthur Avenue and leading police the wrong way down the one-way portion of Main Street — said that Vandenburg showed “a complete lack of respect for our community’s safety.”
“This person was using his vehicle as a deadly weapon … We’re very fortunate that he did not injure or kill anyone in this dangerous pursuit,” Nichols said.
The officer who first confronted Vandenburg— whom the department declined to name, citing the ongoing investigation into the incident— “feared for his life,” Nichols said, and fired four shots into the vehicle before Vandenburg drove away.
Nichols also revealed that during the chase, Vandenburg was in cell phone contact with the county dispatch center and warned he was armed with a shotgun.
A search of the truck, a 1995 Ford pickup Vandenburg later abandoned for another vehicle, found bullets and a large knife, Nichols said, but no gun.
Nichols would not reveal what else Vandenburg told the dispatch center, but he said the possibility that Vandenburg was armed went out to all police agencies pursuing him. About a dozen police vehicles were involved in the chase, according to state police.
The assistance of Onondaga County’s Air-One helicopter was invaluable, Nichols said, as the helicopter followed from the air, allowing the pursuing police cars to stay a couple of hundred yards back.
“They were trying to maintain a safe distance and give this individual a chance to calm down and come to his sense, although unfortunately that never happened,” Nichols said.
Vandenburg drove down a dirt road, likely meant for farm equipment, off East Homer Crossing Road, said Lt. James Land, of the State Police’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
He switched vehicles, to what Nichols described as an older model Chevrolet Blazer. The Blazer, which was unregistered and uninsured, appeared to belong to Vandenburg, Land said, but police are unsure how it came to be parked in the wooded area.
After switching vehicles, Vandenburg emerged out of the woods through a cow pasture back onto Route 13 and led police to East Homer Baltimore Road.
He was captured in a wooded area off the road after State Police found him parked and hiding on an ATV trail, Land said.
Vandenburg became violent when officers ordered him out of the vehicle, Land said, and police sprayed him in the face with pepper spray.
Vandenburg kicked his way out of the vehicle and ran, and when police caught up to him, he continued to kick and punch, Land said, resulting in a cut on the wrist for one officer, and a chipped tooth for Vandenburg.
City police are looking for witnesses to any portion of the chase, Nichols said.
Nichols pointed to a number of recent pursuits by police elsewhere that ended tragically— most significantly the death of Trooper Craig J. Todeschini, who was killed in April 2006 in a high-speed chase.
“We’re very fortunate to have had this come to a successful conclusion,” he said.
Besides minor injuries to Vandenburg and the state trooper, the only other significant damage was done to two city police cars, city police said this morning, which sustained approximately $3,000 in damage apiece.


Commission OKs Holiday Inn site plan

The 74-room hotel on Locust Avenue will replace Clinton Avenue Holiday Inn

Staff Reporter

The city Planning Commission Tuesday approved a new 74-room Holiday Inn Express on Locust Avenue, which will replace the current Holiday Inn franchise nearby on Clinton Avenue.
Although some residents have been vocal about the increase in traffic and the appearance of the four-story hotel, the commission approved the project in a 5-2 vote.
Members Doug Van Etten and Joe McMahon voted against the proposal.
The commission will review the project’s signs at a later date.
Commission engineering advisor Chuck Feiszli also recommended, and the board decided to include, an inspection to ensure that some of the excess stone fill on the lot that appears to impede the absorption of water would be removed prior to the actual construction of the building.
The president of Ithaca-based project-developer Lady Jayne Hotel Corp., Daniel Homik, had been directed by the commission at its April meeting to find out if Holiday Inn would be willing to rotate the building 90 degrees from its position facing Interstate 81 in order to make the visual impact on the neighbors less intrusive.
Homik said Holiday Inn was not willing to make the change to have the hotel face Route 13.
Also, because his company owns 12 to 15 acres on the hillside next to the site and that the neighboring Saunders Ready-Mix concrete site has been the subject of developers’ interest, the proposed orientation would be conducive to further commercial development of the surrounding area.
The hotel location is included in a state Empire Zone.
Van Etten felt Homik’s failure to provide renderings of the structure, as it would be seen from nearby residential neighborhoods, did not provide him sufficient proof that the hotel’s appearance would be acceptable.
Homik repeatedly pointed out that the neighbors abutting the property were in favor of the development.
Commission member Tom Terwilliger said he felt the development would be an improvement to the site, which is often used as a stop for semi-truck traffic from I-81.
Commission members believed the proposed 90-foot sign pole for the business would be excessive, and hoped that nothing taller than the Denny’s Restaurant’s sign — which commission member Bill Kline estimated at about 40 feet — would accompany the Holiday Inn Express development.
However, in keeping with the commission’s standard practice, the sign discussion was held over until a later date.
Citing Holiday Inn’s substantial resources, Van Etten felt Homik was negligent in his failure to provide views of the hotel from areas such as nearby housing development on Cherry Lane.

Decision delayed on West Court Street apartment proposal

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The city Planning Commission on Tuesday again delayed a decision on a West Court Street apartment complex, asking for more details and time to consider changes made by local developer John Del Vecchio.
The Del Vecchio project and other recent development proposals have raised concerns about development throughout the city for the past few months.
About 40 community members filled the rows of benches in the Common Council chambers for Tuesday night’s meeting.
Although the commission demanded Del Vecchio and his Syracuse-based real estate attorney Paul Curtin provide more detailed information about the project’s site plan engineering, some commission members felt the overall effect of such a significant development was objectionable in principle.
A vote on the project was postponed after several commission members said they were opposed to the project as it stood, and Curtin seemed to realize that there would have to be some tweaking before the commission would be happy.
Del Vecchio presented a somewhat scaled back proposal for the development of the George Brockway house near the base of college hill, bordered by a mostly residential neighborhood on the fringe of the SUNY Cortland campus on one side, the city’s downtown business district on the other.
The project includes four apartments in the house and a new, six-unit apartment building in the back that would replace a dilapidated garage.
Rather than the 40 residents originally proposed in the 10-unit apartment complex, the property would house about 30 residents because Del Vecchio eliminated one bedroom from each apartment unit in both buildings.
There would be 20 on-site parking spaces, meeting code regulations, and Del Vecchio has said that he would rent spaces in nearby lots if need be. According to county Real Property Tax Services, the lot is 132 feet by 180 feet.
Del Vecchio also revised the design on the new structure to include architectural features reminiscent of the house.

Few objections raised at Cincy hearing on bingo, games of chance

Staff Reporter

CINCINNATUS — The town will hold referendums Aug. 1 on two local laws that would allow the fire department and other local groups to hold bingo and games of chance as fundraisers.
Following a public hearing at which the public overwhelmingly supported the local laws, the board voted 4-1 to schedule the referendums.
Voting is planned from 2 to 8 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Town Hall.
The fundraisers bring in a lot of money for the town, said board member Jon McKee, who voted in favor of the referendum.
“It’s good for the town,” he said. “Anything that’s good for the _town ...”
Town Supervisor Dale Bates was the one board member who did not vote in the favor of the referendum. He said after the public hearing that he personally believes gambling should not be allowed.
“The people that can least afford to give are sometimes the ones that end up giving the most,” Bates said of gamblers.
Bates said he supports groups going around door-to-door to collect money instead.
The town is considering adopting local laws allowing groups to raise money through bingo and games of chance because it currently does not have such laws on its books, and groups want to be able to do the fundraisers legally.
Realization that the town does not have those laws prompted the fire department to stop conducting raffles or any other game of chance in November. The fire department, however, secured a state waiver allowing it to continue bingo fundraisers.
Mearl McUmber, president and business manager of the fire department, estimated that the fire department is losing $1,000 a week as a result of not holding the raffles.
Almost 25 people attended Tuesday night’s public hearing, and all but four of them were volunteer firefighters with the Cincinnatus Fire Department, said Ron Smith, an assistant fire chief.
All of the 10 or so people who voiced their opinion about bingo and games of chance supported local laws allowing the games.