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What you need to know for 12/13/2017

Heggen: No charges in Mayor McCarthy chase case

Heggen: No charges in Mayor McCarthy chase case

District Attorney finds incident was mishandled, but no proof of wrongdoing
Heggen: No charges in Mayor McCarthy chase case
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy is seen during a press event on May 6, 2015, at City Hall
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — There will be no charges filed in connection with a May incident in which Mayor Gary McCarthy pursued a female driver through the streets of Schenectady to the city police station, Saratoga County District Attorney Karen A. Heggen said Friday.

The decision comes despite the fact that one of the city police officers involved in the incident suspected McCarthy had been drinking at the time.

Heggen, who acted as special prosecutor in the case, said the officer's statement wasn't enough to justify charges.

She did make recommendations as part of her decision, including that, under the circumstances -- because the mayor was involved -- Schenectady police should have called another police agency in to handle the investigation. She also concluded McCarthy should have called police rather than take matters into his own hands by pursuing a vehicle he suspected was involved in criminal activity.

The woman driving the vehicle, Sarah Dingley, of Rotterdam, called 911 early on the morning of May 19, saying a man was following her as she drove to the police station. Public disclosure of the incident a few days later, including disclosure of a sometimes frantic 911 call Dingley placed while driving, has generated significant speculation about the incident.

[Driver: McCarthy ‘wouldn’t let me turn’]

Heggen also said that police -- preferably from another agency -- should have performed at least initial field sobriety and breath testing, based on the woman's allegations that McCarthy was drunk when he approached her at about 1 a.m. that morning, before the pursuit began. Heggen concluded that written statements should have been taken, and Dingley's passenger should have been identified and a statement taken from her, as well.

"I have concluded ... that there should be no charges filed against any of the individuals involved in the incident," Heggen wrote.

The officer who said he noticed signs that McCarthy had been drinking alcohol, Sgt. Michael R. Dalton, was working the desk that night but came outside when McCarthy and Dingley pulled into the station's parking lot.

"Sgt. Dalton stated that he observed Mr. McCarthy exhibiting some signs of intoxication; he smelled alcohol from Mr. McCarthy's person, and he could not say whether it was from his breath because he never got close enough to him to smell his breath or have direct conversations with him," Heggen wrote in the report issued Friday.

Heggen's decision said Dalton's observation wasn't enough to justify a charge.

"Only one police officer made a disclosure that he smelled alcohol, but could not say if it was coming from Mr. McCarthy's breath, and he observed no signs that McCarthy was intoxicated," the report states.

McCarthy has denied being drunk that night. He did not respond to repeated calls seeking comment late Friday.

Lt. Wesley D. McGhee, the senior officer at the scene and the officer in charge, said he stood face-to-face with McCarthy and did not smell alcohol, though he was aware Dingley had said McCarthy was intoxicated.

In the report, Heggen wrote that Dingley told the 911 dispatcher she wanted to press charges, "but never told the Schenectady Police she wanted to press charges."

McGhee, in his statement, which Heggen also released, said Dingley told him McCarthy has scared her and she wanted to press charges. "I told her that he was the mayor and that it was within his authority to investigate if he thought something suspicious was going on," he said. He said Dingley "never articulated a specific charge."

McGhee said he determined McCarthy had not made physical contact with her or threatened her, so he decided there were no grounds for charges.

Patrolmen Michael V. Gailor, Berardino Mancino and Duane Bechand said they either believed McCarthy was not intoxicated or weren't close enough to tell, though Bechand said McCarthy appeared to be crying.

State Supreme Court Justice Vito Caruso in early June appointed Heggen as special prosecutor in the case because of McCarthy's position and long political history in Schenectady, with Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney recusing himself for personal and political reasons. Since the appointment eight months ago, there has been repeated criticism of how long the review has taken.

Heggen issued the 11-page report Friday afternoon. It cites and describes her interviews with Dingley, McCarthy, and five police officers who were involved in the incident.

"None of the police officers who were interviewed felt that McCarthy used or attempted to use his political status to influence the complaint," the report states.

Heggen said Dingley was interviewed on Oct. 4, after she had canceled three prior appointments to meet, and was interviewed only reluctantly.

"Ms. Dingley repeatedly stated that she did not want to pursue the matter because she wanted it to just go away, but she finally and very reluctantly agreed to meet," the report stated. Heggen said the interview took place at the Denny's restaurant on Nott Terrace in Schenectady, and Dingley arrived 40 minutes late.

In her account, Dingley said was followed after leaving a friend's house and was confronted by an older man who said he had called police and identified himself as the mayor. She said she smelled alcohol on him and that his speech was slurred. When she drove off and the man started following her, she called 911 and stayed on the line until after arriving at the police station.

The incident began on Lexington Avenue, the street where McCarthy lives. Dingley said McCarthy blocked her vehicle off at Lexington Avenue and Union Street, then again on Liberty Street in front of the police station.

Once the vehicles arrived at the police station, Dingley said the man blocked her in and told her to get out of the vehicle.

"Ms. Dingley stated that she was scared and did not believe he was the mayor," Heggen wrote in Friday's decision, adding that Dingley said she believed the mayor got preferential treatment.

Heggen's report said McCarthy was interviewed and gave a voluntary statement on Dec. 14, explaining that he believed the driver of the vehicle he observed was acting suspiciously -- making frequent stops and starts, possibly checking through garbage -- and that a house nearby was being investigated for drug sales, which is why he started to follow Dingley's vehicle. He also offered an explanation for his physical appearance of possibly crying that night.

"Mr. McCarthy stated that he was not intoxicated and never cried, but that he suffers from seasonal allergies, so his eyes water, he sneezes and his nose runs," Heggen's report states.

Much of what happened was documented on video cameras, Heggen said, and the witness statements are generally consistent with what was captured on video and in Dingley's recorded 911 call.

Listen to Sarah Dingley's 911 call

Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford, who was not chief at the time, said late Friday that he couldn't comment on the report and its recommendations until he saw the report.

Dingley initially answered her phone Friday and asked for more time to consider her response to the report. Later in the evening, there was no answer to a reporter's phone call.

City Councilman Vincent Riggi, an independent, is the only non-Democrat on the City Council and was the first council member to call for an independent investigation of the May incident. He said he believed Dalton's statement, which mentioned possible intoxication, was closest to the mark.

"Basically, the bottom line is I think (the report is) good. At least everyone was interviewed, though I'd like to have seen it go more quickly," Riggi said.

He also praised the recommendations about police calling in another agency should a similar situation arise. "That's absolutely good," Riggi said. "You have the highest elected official in Schenectady accused of improper things, and you want to clear that up."

Heggen would not comment on why the investigation took so long.

"The report speaks for itself," she said.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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