Arson suspect charged in Blue Stores blaze

District Attorney says Darrin Buffa, who leased restaurant, acted alone

CLAVERACK—Darrin J. 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 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. It was gutted by a fire that broke out at 1:38 a.m. shortly after the business had closed.

Fourteen fire companies were summoned to battle the blaze in the sprawling structure.

Mr. Buffa surrendered 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, who were among those who responded to the fire, 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 agreed to move forward with the arraignment. Judge Koweek gave the defense a week to decide if it had any objection to having him preside at trial.

Mr. Epperson entered a plea of not guilty on his client’s behalf and asked the judge to set bail.

District Attorney Paul Czajka asked the judge to reserve the decision 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.

But Mr. Epperson said Mr. Buffa had earlier spoken to a bail bondsman and he would prefer that bail be decided now rather than have his client remain 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 happened to the restaurant. The DA said there was a likelihood that Mr. Buffa would flee. Mr. Buffa has no criminal history, but 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 should not be gauged to financial loss of but rather to the strength of the case against his client. He went on to detail Mr. Buffa’s longtime, deep roots in the community and his 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 year’s incarceration. He said he believed the prosecution’s case was based on the circumstantial evidence that Mr. Buffa was the last person to leave the restaurant. The attorney also mentioned evidence of an accelerant but called it nothing more than “junk science.”

Mr. Epperson said the business was “doing well” at the time of the fire, something to which regular customers would attest. Mr. Buffa was the lessee of the establishment and that the owner was the major payee on the insurance policy, said the defense attorney.

Mr. Buffa had poured “his inheritance, savings and blood sweat and tears” into the restaurant, said Mr. Epperson. The lawyer said he fully intends 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.

DA Czajka said following the arraignment that the proof will indicate the Mr. Buffa acted alone. he said he had been told the Blue Stores building is beyond repair.

In a press release about Mr. Buffa’s arrest, State Police said they and the State Office of Fire Prevention and Control investigated at the fire scene for two days and for four months in total with assistance from the Livingston Fire Department, Columbia County Fire Coordinators Office, the New York State Department of Financial Services, as well as numerous insurance companies and other state agencies.

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