July 18th, 2006
Grand jury to hear Dryden poisoning case
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Henry Hanson, seated, listens to his attorney, Wesley McDermott of Ithaca, during a preliminary hearing in Dryden Town Court Monday night. Hanson is charged with second-degree attempted murder, accused of putting medication in his landlord’s milk in an effort to poison him.
DRYDEN — The case of a Dryden man accused of trying to poison his landlord will now go before a grand jury.
Town Justice Christopher Clauson held Henry Hanson for grand jury action on charges of second-degree attempted murder after hearing testimony on Monday night in a preliminary hearing in Town Court.
After hearing arguments from Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson and Hanson’s assigned counsel, Wesley McDermott, Clauson decided in favor of the prosecution and remanded Hanson to the Tompkins County Correctional Facility where he awaits grand jury action.
Hanson, 51, of 1 Brightday Road was arrested on July 12 and is being accused of trying to kill his landlord, Herb Benjamin, 75, of the same address, after Benjamin found 10 unknown pills in his milk.
Monday’s hearing, however, was not over the attempted murder charges. Wilkinson explained to the news media that for the purposes of Monday night’s hearing, the prosecution only had to show that there was reason to believe that Hanson committed a felony, in this case second-degree attempted assault.
By showing there was reason to believe Hanson attempted to assault Benjamin, the prosecutor can now move the case before a grand jury where Wilkinson said she plans to build an attempted murder case.
Wilkinson said after the hearing that a lesser class E felony was chosen rather than a second-degree attempted murder charge, a class A felony, because she is still waiting on lab results and blood work as medical evidence.
She added that Hanson is still formally charged with the higher felony. If convicted of second-degree attempted murder, he could be sentenced to as many as 25 years in jail.
During the hearing, Wilkinson argued that Hanson had put the unknown pills into his landlord’s milk with the intent to harm him after he had been given an eviction notice.
Wilkinson made her case based on the testimony of Benjamin and State Police Investigator Richard G. Haas.
During the prosecution’s questioning, Benjamin testified that he had been feeling weak since the beginning of June but did not know why.
He added that around the same time his milk started tasting bitter. Benjamin said he drinks four to five glasses of milk a day.
“It was bad long before the expiration day (on the carton),” he told the court of his milk. “I was buying it from Aldi’s so I switched to Clark (a local food store), thinking that was the problem.”
During cross-examination, McDermott attempted to poke holes in Benjamin’s recollection of May and June, the time period that Benjamin had said he began to feel “weak and shaky.”
Benjamin also testified that he began to have high blood pressure and had wrecked his car as the result of the problem. He could not recall when he had the accident.
Haas then testified that he had responded to Benjamin’s complaint and found “bi-layered, blue and gray pills” that had reportedly come out of a milk jug. Haas said that after a brief interview on July 11, Hanson was arrested on July 12.
He was then interviewed at the police station off and on for the entire day.
Hass said it was during that time that Hanson’s room was searched and that police found three medications, including the painkiller Dilaudid, which Hanson had prescriptions for. A number of other unidentified pills were found, Hass said.
Haas said that during the interview, Hanson told police that two of his friends wanted Benjamin dead, and then later admitted to putting pills in his landlord’s milk.
“He admitted that he put stuff in Mr. Benjamin’s milk,” Haas said. “When questioned further, he ultimately said ‘Dilaudid.’ He said he did it a bunch of times.”
Haas explained that after Hanson told police that he had put pills in Benjamin’s milk, he took troopers to the Dollar Store in Dryden to show them the drug he used. According to Haas, Hanson came back to the State Police station with an array of “supplements,” although he did not elaborate.
It was after that trip that Hanson changed his story again and said he had put the Dilaudid in the milk, not the drugs purchased at the store, Haas said.
Dilaudid, a painkiller, is listed in “Drug Facts and Comparisons,” a reference book used by CVS pharmacists, as an opiate that if overdosed on could cause death as a result of respiratory depression.
A CVS pharmacist said that Dilaudid is no longer commonly used.
After Hanson told police that he had been putting Dilaudid in Benjamin’s milk he was asked if he was aware of the consequences of his actions, Haas said.
“He was confronted with the fact that it could cause death and indicated he was aware of that but said that no one died,” Haas testified.
Haas also testified that throughout the interview Hanson expressed anger and animosity “numerous times” toward Benjamin over his pending eviction.
During cross-examination, Haas became visibly agitated with McDermott, often raising and furrowing his brow when the defense attorney picked at the investigator’s word choice and questioning procedures.
When McDermott asked Haas if he had given Hanson food during the questioning period, Hanson shook his head, “No.” Haas testified that police had provided Hanson with pizza for lunch, which the investigator said he personally warmed up, and then said police took him to McDonald’s restaurant for dinner on the way to the Dollar Store. Haas added in an annoyed tone, “and I believe he ordered a No.8.”
During cross-examination, McDermott did establish that none of the pills that were purchased at the Dollar Store, or found in Hanson’s room, could be visibly matched with those found in the milk jug.
Haas also said during McDermott’s questioning that Hanson never told police that he wanted to hurt Benjamin, just that he wanted to “annoy” him.
McDermott argued that the case should be dropped, saying that there was no medical proof that Benjamin was ever sick, and added if he was feeling weak it may just have been a sign of old age.
After the hearing, Wilkinson told the news media that it is hard to tell how long it would take to get the lab results back from blood work Benjamin had at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, as well as test results from the pills.
“Some of the case hinges on it,” she said when asked how important the blood work and pill test results were to the attempted murder charges.
“If the lab test comes back that the pills were sugar, the prosecution could have a serious problem,” she said.
Judge Clauson remanded Hanson to Tompkins County Correctional Facility on $50,000 cash or $100,000 bond. A grand jury date has not been set.
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SUNY Cortland checks sports hazing claim
Seeking a change in NCAA hazing laws, William Schut started a Web site last spring where he has been posting pictures he believes depict hazing incidents from college athletic teams across the country. Among the schools Schut has set his sights on is SUNY Cortland and its varsity women’s lacrosse team.
Schut, a self-proclaimed NCAA watchdog, has posted links on his Web site, www.thencaaisweakonhazing.blogspot.com, of what he says are pictures that are “alleged” to show the team participating in initiation ceremonies, activities that may be considered hazing.
As a result of Schut’s findings, SUNY Cortland athletic officials are investigating possible hazing across the board, included one unnamed varsity team.
The pictures Schut is attributing to the Cortland women’s lacrosse team, a team that lost in the semi-finals of the Division III National Tournament to Gettysburg College in May, are labeled “rookie party,” and were originally posted on a Webshots community page by an unknown person.
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Cortland principal to return to Homer
Two years ago Doug Van Etten, 35, became a principal at Cortland Junior-Senior High School after having taught science at Homer Central School since 1995. Now Van Etten is going back to Homer, this time to be the assistant principal at Homer High School.
Van Etten on Aug. 14 replaces Evelyn Sammons, who retired at the end of the school year. His 2006-07 salary is $87,066, said Superintendent of Schools Douglas Larison, the same that Sammons would have received if she were in the job.
“It’s a decision for my family,” said Van Etten, who explained that the position in Homer is 11 months, whereas the Cortland position is 12 months so the Homer position allows him more family time. He and his wife, Kimberly, have two young sons, Zachary, 2, and 6-month-old Tyler.