HUDSON—The felony arson indictment against Darrin J. Buffa, 42, of Taghkanic was suddenly dismissed by Judge Richard Koweek in Columbia County Court the afternoon of Thursday, April 28.
The case was tossed out after Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka announced that some newly discovered information in connection with the “trace evidence report” had come to his attention.
It was the second day of testimony in Mr. Buffa’s trial for allegedly intentionally setting the March 15, 2014 fire that severely damaged the historic Blue Stores Hotel on Route 9 just south of the intersection of county routes 31 and 8 in Livingston hamlet of Blue Stores.
Mr. Buffa leased the 200+ year-old building where he ran his restaurant, tavern and catering business. He was indicted for arson in July 2014.
Thursday morning testimony was heard from two firefighters and one State Police investigator, all of whom had arrived at the fire shortly after it was reported at 1:38 a.m. March 15, 2014. All three men, Livingston Fire Chief Paul Jahns, his brother, Livingston Fire Captain Richard Jahns and Investigator Joseph Crowe, described their entry into the burning building and their observation that they found no fire on the first floor, but that a second-floor room identified as Mr. Buffa’s office was where the fire was burning.
The jury had been sent to lunch around 11:15 that day and asked to return by 1 p.m.
But behind the scenes conferences kept the jury secluded jury in their room until 2:30 p.m., when Judge Koweek finally called them back into the courtroom only to tell them they could go home for the day and should call the courthouse after 5 p.m. to find out what time they should report for duty on Friday.
After the jury departed, the judge, the prosecution, the defense and the public left the courtroom
According to a court transcript, it was at 3:46 p.m. that courtroom action resumed with Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka telling the court that under the law he needed to disclose “clearly Brady material.”
Brady material is “evidence the prosecutor is required to disclose… favorable to the accused—evidence that goes towards negating a defendant’s guilt, that would reduce a defendant’s potential sentence, or evidence going to the credibility of a witness,” according to the Cornell University Law School website.
Mr. Czajka said that since he had been presented with the trace evidence report two years ago, he had been told that an accelerant had been used in connection with the fire.
Based on that, Mr. Czajka had made an “unequivocal representation” to the jury in his opening statement that the accelerant was charcoal lighter fluid.
Defense attorney Michael McDermott had stated in his opening remarks that the medium petroleum distillate could have been any number of chemicals.
The DA said he was told throughout the investigation “there was no possibility” that the fire had started accidentally “and never before today was there any qualification of that opinion…”
After a brief recess, Mr. McDermott told the court that it appeared to him that the prosecution has “a legally insufficient case” and “will not be able to establish through a qualified expert that this fire was incendiary.”
Also, as he had mentioned in court Wednesday, Mr. McDermott said the proof would show there were medium petroleum distillates in the form of paint thinners and varnish along with rolls of carpet stored on the third floor of the building above Mr. Buffa’s second floor office.
He said he had photos to introduce into evidence should the trial continue, that would show the contents of the third floor storage space.
Mr. McDermott said in the transcript, “that information was not taken into account by the fire investigators” based on the information that Mr. Czajka has given about his conversations with them.
Mr. Czajka conceded in the transcript that the pile of debris tested for trace evidence based on an arson-sniffing dog’s findings was from both the second and third floor and that the chemicals that constitute medium petroleum distillates were also on the third floor.
Mr. Czajka said he had not mentioned where the new and conflicting information had come from and wanted it known that it was not from the State Police or anyone from the Troop K Livingston barracks and had nothing to do with the investigation performed by Investigator Eric Barnes, who “was surprised as I was with respect to most if not all of [the disclosures.]”
The DA also conceded that “the People have an untenable position with respect to proceeding.”
After praising DA Czajka for making disclosures “which had to be painful to both you and your staff” who worked so hard on the case “regardless of the potential consequences, knowing that the consequences would be a motion for dismissal,” Judge Koweek dismissed the indictment. Any bail posted by Mr. Buffa was to be returned.
A call to the Buffas for comment was not immediately returned.
To contact Diane Valden, email
THE FOLLOWING STORY DEALING WITH THE FIRST DAY OF TESTIMONY IN THE CASE APPEARED IN THE COLUMBIA PAPER PRINT EDITION APRIL 28, 2016
Blue Stores Hotel arson trial begins
By DIANE VALDEN
HUDSON—The trial of Darrin J. Buffa, 42, of Taghkanic on a charge of third degree arson, a class C felony, got underway in Columbia County Court this week.
Mr. Buffa leased the historic Blue Stores Hotel on Route 9 just south of the intersection of county Routes 31 and 8 in the Livingston hamlet of Blue Stores and operated a tavern, restaurant and catering business there.
He is accused of intentionally starting a fire inside the 200+-year-old structure in the early morning hours of March 15, 2014.
Fire 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 three-story structure.
A jury of 11 women and one man, and two alternates, a man and a woman, was seated during the selection process Monday and Tuesday.
Wednesday morning, April 27, after both the prosecution and the defense conferred over and marked exhibits into evidence to make the trial unfold smoothly in the long run, Columbia County
Court Judge Richard Koweek gave the jury a rundown of what’s to come, what constitutes evidence, reasonable doubt and burden of proof and how the jury figures it all out. After about a half hour of instruction and rules, the prosecution led by Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka and the defense led by attorney Michael McDermott with the Albany law firm of O’Connell & Aronowitz PC, gave opening statements.
Mr. Czajka said Mr. Buffa had run his business for a few years before the fire and how successful he was at it is up for debate.
The night of March 14 was Karaoke Night at the restaurant and bar and patrons were there eating and drinking and staff was there working. During the course of the evening Mr. Buffa asked waitress Kristy Barnes and her husband, Kyle Barnes, who was there enjoying karaoke night if they smelled anything burning, which the couple will attest to.
The evidence will show, according to the DA, that the question was all part of Mr. Buffa’s planning of the crime, which he hoped to pull off in secret.
The Barneses would testify that they departed a few minutes before Mr. Buffa early on March 15, said Mr. Czajka, and a video camera running at the convenience store/gas station across the street captured it all.
Mr. Czajka said when Mr. Buffa finally did leave after going back inside to pour charcoal lighter fluid in his office and start the fire, he crossed Route 9 to County Route 8 without stopping at the stop sign. Soon thereafter smoke appears coming from the building on the video camera and then a “big blast.”
State Police fire investigators and firefighters arrived at the fire scene quickly, having just finished up an earlier call. As a matter of course, they checked the building’s circuit breakers and found no reason to suspect the fire was electrical in origin.
Subsequently, an arson-sniffing German Shepherd named Ashes would signal to fire investigators that it detected the presence of accelerants on a dining room table right under Mr. Buffa’s office.
The prosecution does not have to prove a motive in the case, but Mr. Czajka said that though Mr. Buffa did not own the building, he did have nearly $1 million worth of insurance on it and was due to collect that money for the loss of the building and his business.
Defense attorney McDermott said the first stage of any case is the accusatory stage and in this case he dubbed it “The People vs. Buffa: a rush to judgment.”
Mr. Mc Dermott contended that investigators only looked for what they wanted to find and “turned a blind eye to a whole scope of evidence.”
Mr. McDermott portrayed his client as local, hard-working and enterprising guy, who at 19 was selling skateboards on Warren Street in Hudson.
The defense attorney said Mr. Buffa had previous experience in the restaurant business and then became a foreman with a construction company. When James and Tina Guzzi, who previously owned the Blue Stores Hotel foreclosed on the mortgage they held on the property, Mr. Guzzi, who is also Livingston Town Supervisor, sought out Mr. Buffa to take over the business, which was “ a turn-key operation.”
All the furniture, plates glassware and silverware were already there and the only thing Mr. Buffa would have to invest in was food and alcohol.
Mr. McDermott said Mr. Buffa entered into a “triple net lease” with Mr. Guzzi, whereby Mr. Buffa would take care of everything and make a lease payment to Mr. Guzzi. Mr. Buffa also had the option to buy the hotel which had been completely refurbished on the first floor with exception of a banquet room which still needed some work. The future plan was to finish guestrooms on the second floor.
Mr. McDermott said his client invested $80,000 to $100,000 of his own money to finish the banquet room and began to host weddings and parties there. He and his brother formed the Blue Stores LLC. Business was steady, fundraiser events were held at the hotel, “he was contributing to the community,” said Mr. McDermott and events were planned well into the future.
Sometimes Mr. Buffa was late with the lease payment, Mr. McDermott admitted, but there was no insurance fraud. Mr. Guzzi was the beneficiary of the insurance policy for three-quarters of a million and Mr. Buffa would be paid about $10,000 the value of contents of the hotel that belonged to him (inventory).
Insurance money was no motive whatsoever, said Mr. McDermott.
Mr. Buffa operated the hotel for three and a half years before the fire and the defense attorney listed many occasions on which the building experienced electrical problems with outlets shooting sparks and light bulbs popping—the wiring was old.
Smoke and fire alarms frequently went off.
The alarm had in fact gone off earlier the night before the fire. Mr. McDermott said rolls of carpet, paint and varnish used in the restoration project were stored on the third floor above Mr. Buffa’s office.
The defense attorney contended that the “proof” would show that Mr. Buffa had no motive to destroy the business that fed his family and put clothes on his kids.
“He did not stand to gain, only to lose,” said the defense attorney, noting that the second stage of the case, of which the jury is in charge will be subtitled, “Justice prevails.”
After a break for lunch Wednesday, the DA started calling witnesses, including the Barneses and fire investigators.