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Winter storm, flooding among year’s big public safety events

Beat, blotter, and beyond

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Pawn Boss owner John Mercurio and his daughter Chelsea Mercurio view the vandalism to their Main Street business Oct. 12 in Cortland.

A new face downtown, a spring snow storm and major floods were among some of the most significant public safety events this year. Millions of dollars in damage was done, the county even closed and a new County Court judge was elected.

Homicide plea in Homer fire

Brian H. Bermudez, 39, accepted a plea in October for starting a fire that killed a neighbor, while making methamphetamine in his Homer apartment.

Sentencing will be Thursday.

He was charged in September 2016 with second-degree manslaughter, third-degree unlawful manufacturing of methamphetamine and second-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, all felonies.

He pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and second-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance.


Brian Bermudez accepts a plea in October following a deadly 2016 fire in Homer. Bermudez started the fire when he was making methamphetamine.


Bermudez admitted to having at least two ounces of a methamphetamine compound and to recklessly causing the fire that led to the death of Dewayne Block, 81, and that he knew the meth compound could explode or cause a fire.

Investigators said Bermudez was making methamphetamine — a highly combustible process — on Sept. 2, 2016, in the historic building in downtown Homer where he lived. The 19th century building was destroyed.

March snow storm

Cortland County closed — streets, roads, schools and businesses — March 14 when residents woke up to one of the worst snow storms in the county since the Blizzard of 1993. Elsewhere, Chenango County Board of Supervisors Chairman Lawrence Wilcox declared a state of emergency; Madison County declared a state of emergency and all county roads were closed; in Tompkins County, residents were urged to avoid all nonessential travel; and the Cayuga County Sheriff’s Office issued a no unnecessary travel advisory for all of the county.

A total of 25 inches fell the week before the first day of spring. It was almost close to the Blizzard of 1993, when 38 inches of snow dropped.

July floods wreak havoc

On July 14, a heavy downpour dropped between 2 and 3 inches of rain on parts of Cortland, Tompkins and Cayuga counties. Moravia was flooded — its second major flood in July — as was Virgil, Dryden, Harford and Locke. Many roads were closed and culverts washed out.

Between 10 and 20 inches fell in a 90-day period.

The total damage to the county from the summer rains was about $1.8 million. Work to fix the damage done began, but some still remains.

Earlier this month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency refused to declare a 15-county region, including Cortland County, a disaster area. Statewide damage had topped $30 million, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in September. That exceeds the federal threshold of $26.7 million.

Heroin makes its mark

Heroin became a big topic this year following eight reported opioid overdose deaths in 2016 in Cortland County.


Cortland Health Department public health educator Courtney McCallen displays intranasal Narcan Aug. 18 at the County Office Building in Cortland.


Throughout the year story after story was written about the drug. Including:

• Speaking with Dean O’Gorman, who lost his son, Spencer, to an overdose.

• County officials describing what residents can do to deal with the opioid and heroin problem, including learning to administer naloxone and dropping off unwanted and unused medicines at kiosks in the county.

• Doctors describing how they have began cutting back on prescribing opioid pain medicines to help combat the problem.

In October, state Sen. James Seward (R-Milford) and the Senate Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction met with county officials on ways they can look to battle the growing heroin problem.

The Great Graffiti Spree

It started showing up in June: first black and then dark blue. It was on downtown businesses, in Cortland parks and even on traffic light control boxes. The culprit — graffiti, in at least 15 locations.

Most of the graffiti was indecipherable words. “It’s not fancy artwork,” Cortland police Lt. David Guerrera said.

Two men were arrested in October and face felony charges:

• Jacob A. Vassalotti, 21, of 51 South Ave., Apt. 1, Cortland, was charged with third-degree criminal mischief, third-degree burglary, felonies; seven counts of making graffiti, fifth-degree conspiracy and three counts of sixth-degree conspiracy, misdemeanors.

• Mark E. Southworth, 22, of 24 N. Greenbush St., Cortland, was charged with third-degree criminal mischief, third-degree burglary; four counts of making graffiti, fifth-degree conspiracy and three counts of sixth-degree conspiracy.

Alexander elected county judge

Cortlandville Town Judge David Alexander will move up to the Cortland County Court bench after defeating Public Defender Keith Dayton in four primary races — Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform.

Alexander, 62, will succeed Judge William Ames, who must retire because he turned 70. Alexander will not be able to serve the full 10-year term.

Alexander, a Cortlandville judge for four years, was a dairy farmer until he was 40.

The 10-year post will pay $192,300 next year. The position hears cases in county criminal court, family court and surrogate court.

Community police officer in Cortland named

Jesse Abbott began walking a regular beat Jan. 9 primarily in downtown Cortland, interacting with Main Street business owners, customers and residents.

The four-year community policing position Abbott fills was created with a $125,000 Community Oriented Policing Services grant to increase communications and partnerships to prevent crime and to build trust in police.

Since January, Abbott has:

• Started a bike registration program.

• Organized a Klondike Gold Hunt in Suggett Park, helping 200 kids have fun.

• Played host to Coffee with a Cop events where residents could chat with police.

• Organized an Emergency Services Appreciation Day in September.

College student struck by car

A SUNY Cortland student was hospitalized Nov. 11 after she was struck by a vehicle while crossing Tompkins Street near Frank Street.

Sidney McGowan, 21, was struck at 6:08 p.m., taken to Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse by TLC Emergency Medical Service ambulance, where she was treated for a broken leg, broken pelvis, three broken ribs, three fractured vertebrae, a lacerated kidney and cuts to the head. She has since been released.

According to a police report released following a Freedom of Information request, witnesses said traffic was heavy in both directions. The report also noted the road was poorly lighted.

The driver, Michael Hall, was on his way to see a movie with his son, according to the report. Hall, who was sober, told police he was barely going the speed limit, 30 mph, and did not see McGowan until an instant before he struck her. He was not charged.

McGowan was ticketed for jaywalking.

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