Saturday, January 03, 2009

Did the luck of the Irish pull friends through police chase?

The dark-red SUV exited the Northway and swung onto Ballard Road, a police car in pursuit.

After being forced to come to a halt at a railroad crossing to allow a speeding train to pass, the man inside the SUV kept an eye on the passing train that was blocking his escape route.

Another eye followed the pair of officers who exited their squad car and were fast approaching the van on foot.

A few miles away, Niall Roche sat inside a silver Toyota Camry, his father, Billy, and his brother-in-law, Patrick, along for the ride.

Billy and Patrick had made the journey from their native Ireland to visit Roche, his wife, Nikki, and the couple's 22-month-old daughter at their new home in Saratoga Springs.

Roche was working in New York City when he got the chance to relocate his family upstate last spring.

"This seemed to us like a nice neighborhood in a nice town," Roche said. "That day, we were leisurely driving on our way home.

"The funny thing is that 20 seconds before it happened, my father was commenting on how courteous and polite the drivers here are," Roche said about the day two weeks ago when the three men navigated their vehicle onto East Avenue, right into the middle of a police chase.

At the Ballard Road railroad crossing a few miles away, a police officer fired two shots at the man in the SUV, missing his target. The SUV's driver pushed down on his gas pedal, burst through the gates of the crossing and turned onto Route 50, speeding toward the mall.

Alerted to the pursuit of the suspected armed bank robber, more than a dozen other police cars joined in the chase, which zoomed past the mall and toward the city of Saratoga Springs.

Inside the Camry, Roche watched the traffic light above the Route 50 intersection turn to green.

On the left horizon stood the Covell Avenue ridge. On the right was a small billboard with an arrow pointing to the Gateway Motel. Their car rolled forward.

There was the green light, then -- "bang," Roche recalled.

"I saw the SUV doing a roll on its roof and all of a sudden all these squad cars were zooming past us. There were cops everywhere," he remembered. "They told us to stay in the car and not to move. We were in shock. At that point, you think, 'What the hell just happened?' "

The police captured the suspected bank robber, and besides sustaining some minor injuries, Roche, his father and brother-in-law seemed none the worse after the ordeal.

"It could have been a lot worse. We feel pretty lucky," said Roche, who may have been graced by the luck of the Irish at holiday time.

He said he plans on opening a new pub, which he will call Irish Times, on Phila Street in Saratoga Springs on St. Patrick's Day.

published in The Post-Star, Friday, Jan. 2, 2009
Thomas Dimopoulos may be reached at

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Loss, redemption, hope - and the end of 2008

It is not possible today to know whether history will look back upon 2008 as the dark year that everything fell apart, or as the first sign of rebuilding from the ashes.

Perhaps the most appropriate ending for this final column of the calendar year is to wave goodbye with a remembrance of three events that marked the passing of time, an acknowledgement of a lifetime's worth of demons and the hope that was exhibited by a group of college students for a better future.

Goodbye, Joe (and where's the money going to come from?): In late June, state Sen. Majority Leader Joseph Bruno announced he was stepping away from the political theater after 32 years of service.

The announcement set off a wave of competitors vying for the vacated seat that included Saratoga Springs County Supervisor Joanne Yepsen, Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand's district director, Mike Russo, and Assemblyman Roy McDonald.

Before leaving office, Bruno made one final appearance in the Spa City in July to say he was delivering on a previous promise to secure an additional $6 million from the state Dormitory Authority to help fund the expansion of the Saratoga Springs City Center. Bruno had previously delivered $6 million for the project in 2006.

In a display of financial deliverance that, in hindsight, should have provided a clue that the senator was thinking about leaving, Bruno visited a pair of local organizations one month before he stepped down from his seat. At the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Bruno delivered $2.5 million in state funds to renovate the amphitheater. At Skidmore College, he announced a $4 million state grant to be used to complete a new 54,000-square-foot music center on the campus of his alma mater.

McDonald proved to be the eventual winner of the seat in the 43rd Senate District, but even his supporters were left wondering how effective the junior senator could be compared to the longevity of his predecessor.

Come on, be happy: Much to the surprise of the 250 people attending the Aug. 12 fundraising gala for The Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Council of Saratoga County, guest speaker David Cassidy revealed that his reasons for accepting the invitation to the event went deeper than simple fundraising.

"Tonight, I am publicly stating that I am an alcoholic," the 58-year-old singer told the largely stunned crowd at the Hall of Springs.

"I was in denial about it and the problem was getting worse," explained Cassidy, who was joined by his wife and his 17-year-old son at the podium.

Cassidy explained shortly after accepting the invitation to speak about growing up with an alcoholic father, he came to the realization that he needed to face his own personal demons and checked into the Betty Ford Center.

During the event, Cassidy announced that he had been sober for two months.

At midnight on Election Day, a shaggy haired man draped in American flag and resembling a young Abbie Hoffman, stepped out from the darkness and into the bright lights of Broadway.

The young man led hundreds of Skidmore College students in a spontaneous march to Caroline Street where the assembled mass raised their arms to the sky and chanted to the beat of drum: "Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can."

Congratulations, graduates: A 19-year-old former Saratoga Springs High School graduate streaked across the stage of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center wearing a giant penis costume during his Alma mater's graduation ceremony on June 26.

Shooting canned string at diploma-bearing graduates, the man startled the crowd of 5,000 who gathered for the ceremony honoring the class of 491 students. After leaping off the stage in an attempt to flee, Calvin Morett, of Wilton, was eventually captured by police in an adjacent lot and taken into custody.

He performed 24 hours of community service working for the city's DPW and, after several unsuccessful tries, eventually completed his sentence by penning acceptable letters of apology to the school and to the community.

The most remarkable moment of the day, however, belonged to Brittany Ruggiero. Four years after being critically injured when she was struck by a car on West Avenue on her way to get ice cream with her friends, the 18-year old graduate decided at the last moment to attend the graduation ceremony. When her name was called, Ruggiero made it to the stage with her mother at her side, taking one step at a time as her cap-and-gown-draped peers stood and applauded the achievement of their classmate and friend.

Loss: The community lost a 17-year-old high school student, and a family lost its 44-year-old husband and father when Michael A. Arpey crashed his pickup truck into a vehicle driven by Edward Loomis, a junior at Saratoga Springs High School, on June 4 in the town of Greenfield.

Loomis was on his way back to his home, where he lived with his mother, after visiting his girlfriend. His death left many of his friends devastated, both at the high school and at the Saratoga Diner, where he and his mother both worked. Arpey left behind a wife and a young child.

Three months after the crash, toxicology tests were released that showed Arpey had nearly three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood at the time of the crash.

How many lawyers does it take to ...? There was the case of sexual abuse that began with three arrests in February and proceeded to drag on for the better part of the year. It involved school bus driver Douglas Conrad, his roommate James Wiley, four teenaged male victims and the mother of two of the victims.

The case involved eight lawyers, four of them prosecutors from their respective district attorney's offices spread out over a four-county area.

The case was eventually resolved, for the time being, when Conrad and Wiley were sentenced to serve prison terms.

It was a busy year for the new city government.

There was the $210,000 restoration of the City Hall stairs; heated debate over the city's $6.5 million recreation facility that is already being paid for by taxpayers but still has yet to be built; the vote against what would have been the city's first roundabout, which would have been located near the hospital on Church Street, and the attempt to sustain a $2 million financial hit in the form of lost VLT revenue.

There was also the on-again, off-again volley of worries about the potential disappearance of the region's big three acronyms: NYRA, AMD, and the NYCB.

The year started quietly enough, with three newly-elected members of the five-man City Council hosting their inaugural gathering on Jan. 2. From this reporter's notebook: "The first meeting of the new council was brief, to the point and noticeably absent were some of the more boisterous interchanges by both the public and members of the council in previous meetings."

Things would change as the year wore on. There were memorable summer concerts at SPAC that included Bob Dylan -- who plunked on his keyboards and performed with his back to the crowd for much of the night -- and Motley Crue, who were memorable as much for the sideshow distractions as for their music. Most distracting of all, perhaps, was the one scantily clad female fan who sat in reporter's row and remained topless for the duration of the band's 90-minute set.

There was an appearance by John Ashcroft at Skidmore College in April, who arrived to collect his $25,000 speaking fee the day after a poster advertising the event was scarred by a handmade swastika.

Inside the packed Gannett Auditorium, Ashcroft delivered a dramatic 75-minute reading of the new American apocalypse that was based on a post-9/11 world and included the verbal fumbling of the names "Obama" and "Osama."

On a rain-filled night in July, 26-year-old Missy Whalen stepped outside of the auto parts store where she has worked for the past year, lit up her cigarette and watched the sheets of rain careen off the awning when she was approached by a small group of people.

"Two guys and a girl walked up to me, and they had another guy with them inside of a shopping cart. One of them said, "I need for you guys to do me a favor. My friend is dead. Can you call 911?" she recalled.

The man had a pulse, but it was very weak, said Whalen, who ignored the heavy smell of alcohol coming from the man and proceeded to give him CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She estimated his age to be somewhere around 60.

It was later learned that the man had a lifelong history of substance and alcohol abuse problems, dating back to his early teenage years. He was first arrested at the age of 16 and had attempted to commit suicide. He spent a considerable number of his adult years being homeless.

None of this mattered to Whalen, however.

"Everybody needs a chance, no matter who they are," she said. Paramedics raced to the scene and transported the man to the hospital. He died in the emergency room. He was 49.

Saratoga Bureau writer Thomas Dimopoulos can be reached at