This story was corrected on Feb. 28. An earlier version incorrectly identified the woman who organized the crowdfunding campaign for Hysa. Her name is Stevie Braunwart. We also misidentified her relationship to Rocky Rockwell. He is her brother.
CANAJOHARIE — On the morning of Jan. 2, an investigator from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office knocked on the door of Eno Hysa, owner of Canajoharie mainstay Gino’s Restaurant, carrying a warrant for his arrest on a drug charge from 16 years ago in New Jersey, when he was in his early 20s.
The door was answered by James Schnettler, the son of Hysa’s partner, Marcia Jacque, who helps run Gino’s. Schnettler, 24, had recently taken a job with the Sheriff’s Office as a correction officer. The investigators came equipped with a photo of the man they wanted.
“Deputies showed Schnettler a picture of Hysa and asked Schnettler if he knew the individual in the picture,” the Sheriff’s Office told The Daily Gazette, in a prepared statement. “Schnettler responded by saying that he had never seen him before.”
Hysa, 38, was later discovered in the house, and investigators arrested him on a “fugitive from justice” warrant; Schnettler was arrested on misdemeanor obstruction of governmental administration, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The arrests have brought significant consequences for both men. Hysa’s arrest has led to attention from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, while Schnettler’s resulted in his resignation from the Sheriff’s Office.
Schnettler, 24, later confirmed to The Daily Gazette that he resigned over his arrest, but he would not comment further — beyond saying Hysa is a good man who’s done nothing wrong for the past 16 years. Montgomery County Undersheriff Robert Thomas would not comment on Schnettler, citing an agency policy to not discuss personnel matters.
The arrests have divided some residents in the village — population 2,200 — over how and why police were alerted to Hysa’s fugitive status and what his fate will be. The federal government’s involvement has only heightened tensions at a time when the issues of immigration have dominated headlines.
But Hysa’s current predicament stems from events that happened well before President Donald Trump’s ascension to the highest office in the land — 16 years ago in Hudson County, New Jersey, in fact.
Ray Worrall, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office in Hudson County, said authorities there have had a warrant for Hysa’s arrest since 2001, when he failed to appear for sentencing on a drug charge to which he had pleaded guilty.
Hysa is now being held in the Hudson County Correctional Facility.
The drug charge, said Worrall, was for possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute within 1,000 feet of a school, a felony.
Worrall said that, since Hysa already pleaded guilty to the charge, he’s only facing sentencing. Authorities in New Jersey did file bail jumping charges after Hysa failed to appear, but that charge has since been administratively dismissed, Worrall added.
“The warrant that was issued is for the sentencing,” said Worrall. “Apparently, there are no additional charges against him.”
Hysa’s hearing date is March 10. Worrall said he may or may not be sentenced on that day and added that Hysa will likely face some jail time.
But what’s most concerning to Hysa’s family and friends is why federal immigration authorities are interested in him. ICE spokesman Alvin Phillips said Hysa, who is Albanian, overstayed his visa when he came to the United States. Phillips would not discuss the government’s position on Hysa’s case or when an immigration hearing might be held.
It’s unclear how long Hysa has been in the U.S., or if an immigration proceeding would supersede any sentence meted out by a New Jersey judge. His lawyer, April Peterson, is with the Hudson County Public Defender’s Office. She did not respond to a request for comment.
What is clear is that Hysa has both supporters and detractors in Canajoharie. A crowdfunding campaign to hire him an immigration lawyer has garnered nearly $4,000.
Dozens of comments on the campaign’s page express appreciation for Hysa’s family and characterize them as loving and hardworking (it’s unclear if Hysa and Marcia Jacque are married or how long he’s lived in Canajoharie). Many comments relate to Gino’s Restaurant as being an important part of the community.
But Hysa’s case has also drawn negative attention. The initial narrative around his legal troubles on the campaign’s page made no mention of his drug conviction, characterizing the situation as solely an immigration matter. Several posts on the page mentioned there was more to the story, and after reporters began asking questions about Hysa’s case, the page was updated with information related to the drug charge from 2001 and a prior resisting arrest charge from 1998.
The update does stress, however, that the real danger for Hysa, and the motivation behind the campaign, is to fight any charges from ICE “relating to the legitimacy of his immigration to the United States years ago.”
The Daily Gazette reached out to several people who gave money to the page, asking if they would have donated to Hysa’s cause had they known about the drug charge. The response was overwhelmingly in his favor.
“I am a personal friend. I did know the charges and the circumstances behind [his arrest],” said Canajoharie native Tricia Allen Ricotta via email. “I absolutely would have and would give more if I could. Everyone does stupid stuff when they are young — some more so than others, but he is a good man, a good husband and a good father.”
Two other contributors who responded to requests for comment relayed similar feelings about Hysa and his family.
The campaign was organized by Stevie Braunwart, a friend of Hysa’s, who would not comment for this story. When asked if there’s a chance Hysa could be deported, Jacque said, “there could be, depends with all that’s going on right now. Nothing is ever 100 percent. I’m still waiting.”
She would not comment further.
The source of much of the local friction in the situation comes down to the tip that led an investigator to Hysa’s front door. Authorities were alerted to his fugitive status by another small-business owner in Canajoharie: Maryann Pietromonaco, who owns Venice at TwentyTwo, a cafe on the same Church Street block as Gino’s Restaurant.
Pietromonaco, who contacted The Daily Gazette, said she’s faced harassment and accusations that her tip was an attempt to take out a rival business. She denied that, saying she and her husband were friends with Hysa and Jacque before the couple allegedly asked them to help secure a fake ID for Hysa.
Pietromonaco, who said she was a police officer in the NYPD for 10 years and a first responder during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said her motivation came from her background in law enforcement.
“I’m not rat, and I don’t want to be, but the safety of this community comes first,” said Pietromonaco, noting that when she and her husband heard about Hysa’s legal issues, they offered to walk him and Jacque through the process of turning Hysa in.
“They didn’t want to go; they said no.”
Pietromonaco said even in retirement, she takes her past oath as a police officer “very seriously, and I was losing sleep over this for months.”
Since Hysa’s arrest, Pietromonaco said she’s endured abuse from residents loyal to Hysa.
“I’ve gotten a metal rod in my tire. I’ve had garbage thrown at me. I’m getting threatening phone calls,” said Pietromonaco.
A one-star Yelp review on Venice at TwentyTwo’s page accuses the business of being owned by fascists and Islamophobes.
Venice at TwentyTwo’s Facebook page has been riddled with similar comments, and Pietromonaco said the business had a 4.9 Yelp rating at the beginning of February, but after 31 one-star reviews, the business now has a 3.9 rating.
Pietromonaco provided The Daily Gazette with a complaint her husband filed with the Canajoharie Police Department after receiving a threatening phone call related to Hysa’s case. Her husband, Krzysztof Belzak, himself an immigrant from Poland, said in a deposition that he was working at the cafe when the phone rang and the caller said, “Thank you for the stuff you do for the community, but I also want to say that the stuff you did to Gino’s is wrong and you can go [expletive] yourself and you will get yours.”
Belzak said in the deposition that the caller ID came back to Stevie Braunwart, but the caller’s voice was male (“Stevie” is a female), so Belzak believes the call came from Stevie’s brother, Rocky Rockwell, against whom the complaint was filed. Rocky Rockwell did not return a request for comment for this story, and Stevie Braunwart previously refused to comment.
Pietromonaco said she told Canajoharie Police Chief Bryan MacFadden about the rod in her tire but was told there was little that could be done, due to a lack of witnesses. MacFadden did not return a request for comment. Pietromonaco said the threatening phone call complaint never went anywhere, either.
She believes she and Belzak, who support Trump, are being targeted for their political leanings. She said she had no idea about Hysa’s immigration status, but knowing that would not have changed her decision to alert the police to his fugitive status.
“It was a tough call. And to me, it doesn’t really matter what side of the political fence you’re on,” she said. “Most people don’t go around committing felonies. Most people want to correct things that are wrong.”
Canajoharie Mayor Francis Avery said he’s aware of Hysa’s arrest and, to a degree, the trouble it has caused between residents. But, he added, he hasn’t been following the case and doesn’t use a computer, so he hasn’t seen the accusations that have flown online.
“I know there are some divisions, but it hasn’t come to our board or to me directly,” said Avery. “I haven’t heard too much at all.”
Asked if the village leadership has any plans to clear the air?.
“No, absolutely not; what can we do?” he said. “Everyone has their own opinion.”