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Jury to make ruling in 14-year-old lawsuit today

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CANTON — Daniel L. Colon has been waiting for his day in court almost 14 years, and today he will see whether the jury will decide in his favor, awarding him $1.25 million.

He sued St. Lawrence County after a building he owned at 100-B Main St., Hermon, was damaged extensively in 1999 by county workers demolishing an adjoining building at 100-A Main St.

“What you will hear of over the next few days will sound like the American dream and how it all ended up in a pile of rubble,” Mr. Colon’s attorney, William A. Hurst, told the jury in his opening statements Monday.

But there were mixed emotions over Mr. Colon’s story.

In 1998, Mr. Colon, 49, a former Hermon resident now living in Warren County, bought a building at 100-B Main St., Hermon, with his then-wife, Catherine A. Colon, in hopes of restoring the building and starting a restaurant.

“We wanted to make a future for our children,” Mr. Colon said on the stand. “Most of my friends, when their children were grown, moved away.”

The Colons were going to name the restaurant Victoria’s, after their daughter.

The building was adjoined with 100-A Main St., a St. Lawrence County-owned building, and between 1998 and 1999 the story has remained fairly consistent.

According to testimonies since Monday, the county decided it would rehabilitate the 100-A building to make it marketable.The building was in disrepair, Mr. Colon said. He had contacted the county and made his intentions to start a business in the adjoining building known, he said.

Mr. Colon said he met with Karl O. Bender, then St. Lawrence County Solid Waste Department director, who was named supervisor of the 100-A rehabilitation. Then rehab became demolition.

The county claimed that once the roof was removed, workers saw extensive damage in the 125-year-old building, specifically the brick wall and foundation. On May 14, a crane began tearing down the walls of 100-A.

Mr. Colon said he was concerned about damage to100-B when the shared brick wall was torn down. Additionally, he said, a St. Lawrence County Legislature resolution passed May 3, 1999, approved restoration and rehabilitation, but a resolution to approve demolition wasn’t passed until June 7, 1999, after demolition was complete.

Mr. Colon hadn’t been to 100-B in more than a decade and said he returned there around the start of the trial. On the stand Tuesday, he fought tears while describing the lot where his planned restaurant was.

“That was my daughter’s future,” he said.

Mr. Colon said the events surrounding the demolition of 100-A unraveled his life.

“It created a lot of stress between Cathy and I,” Mr. Colon said. “She started blaming me. We had financial issues, especially after I was hospitalized. We were isolated.”

In 2000, the couple sued St. Lawrence County, Mr. Bender, the county Sheriff’s Department and former Sheriff Keith K. Knowlton. Mr. Bender resigned in 2009. Mr. Knowlton retired in 1999 and died in 2002. Mr. and Mrs. Colon divorced in 2002 and Mrs. Colon died in 2007.

Mr. Colon climbed onto the roof joining the two buildings in an effort to halt work on May 14, 1999. It was that behavior, sheriff’s officials said during testimony Wednesday, that caused Mr. Colon’s arrest and psychological evaluation at Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center, Ogdensburg.

The charges were dismissed in December 1999 at the recommendation of the district attorney’s office in what it called the interest of justice.

The suit also alleges Mr. Knowlton overstepped his authority by directing deputies to take Mr. Colon for a psychiatric evaluation. Sheriff’s Sgt. Martin Dumoulin, then a road patrol deputy, was the first to arrive when Mr. Colon was on the roof. Sgt. Dumoulin told defense attorney Stephen W. Gebo that he had, multiple times, asked Mr. Colon to come down or be arrested, but Mr. Colon refused.

There were conflicting stories. Was Mr. Bender in the Colons’ building against their will?

Mrs. Colon said in a deposition before her death that Mr. Bender tried to enter 100-B, she blocked his path twice, and he grabbed her and pushed her aside. But Mr. Bender, in an earlier deposition and on the stand Wednesday, said he entered by order of the sheriff to take his deputies to the roof, and he never touched Mrs. Colon.

Mr. Dumoulin and sheriff’s Detective Timothy S. Hartley said they didn’t recall Mr. Bender ever being on the property and were led to the roof by Mrs. Colon.

“He was gesturing with his arms and pointing at us,” Mr. Dumoulin said. “He was upset and hard to understand at times.”

Mr. Dumoulin said he was concerned that Mr. Colon risked a fatal fall from the ledge and his behavior thus warranted a psychological evaluation.

After about a three-hour “stalemate,” Mr. Colon threw his hands up, the deputies reported, and said, “This is wrong. This is not the way to do this. I’m coming down.”

Mr. Colon was then arrested on charges of trespassing and obstructing governmental administration, after which he was taken to Claxton-Hepburn.

But deputies told Mr. Hurst they did not hear Mr. Colon say he would jump or make any other possibly suicidal gesture. Mr. Dumoulin told Mr. Hurst he couldn’t recall much of the conversation on May 14, 1999.

With final statements beginning at 8:30 this morning, it will be up to the jury to decide whether Mr. Colon was protecting his family’s future or whether the county was acting in the best interest of all parties by tearing down a building in danger of collapse.

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