CLAVERACK—Darrin Buffa, 40, of Taghkanic was charged with third degree arson, a class C felony, when a sealed Columbia County Grand Jury indictment was opened in County Court shortly after noon, July 22.
Mr. Buffa, who leased and operated the Historic Blue Stores Restaurant, is accused of intentionally starting a fire to damage the building on March 15. He pleaded not guilty in court,Tuesday.
The three-story, 200+ year-old building, which is owned by Livingston Supervisor James Guzzi and is located on U.S. Route 9, just south of the intersection of county routes 31 and 8 in the Livingston hamlet of Blue Stores, was heavily gutted by a fire that broke out at March 15 at 1:38 a.m. Fourteen fire companies were called to battle the blaze in the sprawling structure.
Mr. Buffa turned himself in to State Police at the Livingston barracks the morning of July 22 and was escorted by troopers into a courtroom at the temporary courthouse in the old Claverack School wearing handcuffs.
He is represented by Attorney Dietrich Epperson of Forrest Hills.
Livingston Fire Chief Paul Jahns, Taghkanic Fire Chief William Hilscher, Claverack Fire Chief Michael Cozzolino, Churchtown Fire Chief James Marsh and County Fire Coordinator John Howe were all present in the courtroom along with many of Mr. Buffa’s family members.
Columbia County Judge Richard Koweek immediately announced that he had just learned that Mr. Buffa is first cousin to the husband of his confidential secretary. The judge said he wasn’t sure if he needed to recuse himself based on that relationship but he wanted to hear from both sides whether they had any objections to him conducting the arraignment or presiding over the trial in the future. Both sides said they were okay with moving forward with the arraignment. Judge Koweek gave the defense a week to decide if it had any objection to him presiding at trial.
Mr. Epperson entered a plea of not guilty on his client’s behalf and asked the judge to entertain setting bail.
District Attorney Paul Czajka asked the judge to reserve on bail until the defendant takes a position on the judge’s disqualification. The DA said bail would be best left to the presiding judge.
Mr. Epperson said Mr. Buffa had earlier spoken to a bail bondsman and he would prefer that bail be decided now rather than letting his client sit in jail for a week.
DA Czajka asked that bail be set at $750,000 cash or bond, because that was the face value of an insurance policy on which Mr. Buffa was a payee if something were to happen to the restaurant. The DA said there was a likelihood that Mr. Buffa would flee. While Mr. Buffa has no criminal history, he does have a misdemeanor driving while intoxicated charge pending and though his license is suspended he has been driving, said Mr. Czajka.
Defense Attorney Epperson said bail is not gauged to financial loss but rather the strength of the case against his client. He went on to detail Mr. Buffa’s longtime, deep roots in the community and family ties. He said third degree arson is not a violent felony and that if found guilty his client would be subject to one to three years incarceration. He said he believed the prosecution’s case was based on circumstantial evidence.
Mr. Buffa had poured “his inheritance, savings and blood sweat and tears” into the restaurant, said Mr. Epperson, noting he fully intended to take the case to trail and asked the judge to consider setting “reasonable bail” at $20,000.
Judge Koweek set bail at $30,000 cash or $60,000 bond, which Mr. Buffa promptly posted.
A trial date of January 26 was set.
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