NEW CITY - After nearly two years of carrying the pain from a fellow Spring Valley firefighter's death in an adult home blaze, former Spring Valley Building Inspector Ray Canario saw a criminal weight lifted from his shoulders on Friday.
Rockland County Court Judge Kevin Russo dismissed the remaining misdemeanor charges involving the filing of false reports on inspections to the state. Those charges stemmed from the District Attorney's Office investigation into the fire at the Evergreen Court Home for Adults in Spring Valley, which killed two people. The fire occurred two years ago come March 22.
Russo had dismissed three felony counts of false filing on Tuesday. The judge previously tossed similar charges against the former chief building inspector, Wayne Ballard, who also led the Public Works Department.
Prosecutors have not gotten a conviction
The rulings mean the prosecution has so far failed to get a conviction following the investigation into the fire that led to six people being charged. Firefighter Second Lt. Jared Lloyd, 35, the father of two young boys, and adult home resident Oliver Huestead, 79, died in the inferno at the Lafayette Street facility.
Canario has said he has been ladened with the deaths of Lloyd and Heusted. The prosecution's charges had nothing to do with the fire.
"On behalf of Mr. Canario, we are grateful for the fair and reasonable outcome to this matter," his attorney Stefanie Jordan said. "My client would like to thank the employees of the Spring Valley Building Department, the Spring Valley Police Department and all of the volunteer fire departments of Rockland County for their ongoing support and for their continuous dedication to the safety of the residents of Spring Valley and Rockland County."
Jordan said she and Canario "express our deepest sympathy to the families of those lost in the Evergreen tragedy and support all efforts to protect and serve the residents of our communities."
District Attorney Thomas Walsh's office issued a statement disagreeing with Russo. The statement said Canario's defense was aided by the disorganization of the Spring Valley Building Department, which testimony noted lacked leadership for years under Mayor Alan Simon and his predecessors and records were not properly kept. The department also had been short-staffed and under-trained and equipped for years.
"The years-long disorganization and dysfunction of the Spring Valley Building Department served as a defense in these cases," Walsh spokesman and chief of detectives Peter Walker said.
"The court chose not to hold these defendants accountable for their role in the malfeasance in the building department," Walker said. "We disagree with the court's decision and are disappointed in it.
"The Rockland County District Attorney's office is willing to prosecute not just the easy cases but the difficult ones as well."
Rockland takes over the village building department
The statement cited the two deaths and the investigation by the District Attorney's office and other state and local agencies, which led to the New York State Department of State deputizing Rockland government to take over the village inspectors and prosecution of violators. The rare step of government takeover started in February 2022.
Prosecutors Ryan Sweeney and Michael Dugandzic called the same witnesses in the cases against Canario and Ballard, including state watchdog officials, former building inspectors, a former village attorney and its investigators.
Prior to the Ballard and Canario non-jury trials, the District Attorney's Office plea-bargained dismissals for two Evergreen Court employees, including the director of several facilities owned by the Schoenberger family.
Denise Kerr, the director, had allowed two rabbis to cleanse the facility's kitchen and ovens with a blowtorch system without proper permits. Kerr had been charged with reckless endangerment. She had formerly worked as a state adult home administrator hired to oversee several adult homes for the Evergreen Court owners, the Schoenberger family of Monsey and Lakewood, New Jersey.
Before his case was dropped, Manual Lema of Pomona had faced misdemeanor counts of second-degree criminal impersonation and second-degree obstructing governmental administration. Lema had called into 44 Control, the county communications and dispatching center, to put the facility's signal on hold while two rabbis cleansed the ovens for the Passover holiday so a false alarm would not happen.
Two rabbis face court in April
The rabbis - Nathaniel Sommer and his son Aaron Sommer - face court on April 18 on their not-guilty pleas to manslaughter, negligent homicide, arson, assault and other felony charges. The Evergreen Court inferno erupted on March 22, 2021, several hours after the rabbis used a 20-pound blowtorch to cleanse the Evergreen Court ovens and kitchen for Passover.
Walsh has declined comment on the cases since a news conference to announce indictment charges. He declined to discuss if his office has offered Sommer a plea agreement.
Some Rockland firefighters and Lloyd's family have been frustrated by the lack of convictions in the cases. The families of Lloyd and Heusted have filed civil lawsuits against the owners and some village officials.
A grand jury indicted Canario on nine charges involving the filing of reports with the state. Russo earlier dismissed counts of filing false business records against Ballard and Canario.
When the non-jury trial started, Walsh's prosecutors told Russo the evidence will show that Canario knowingly made false statements in state reports from 2017 to 2019 concerning the village's tally of completed inspections and falsely reported how many inspections were done, including the Evergreen Court Home for Adults.
Jordan told Russo that the evidence would show Canario is a hard-working longtime volunteer firefighter who has dedicated himself to the people of Spring Valley.
She noted during her cross-examination of prosecution witnesses that there were reporting mistakes and the state made errors. But she said Canario did the best he could under the circumstances of lacking proper training and working in a dysfunctional department without direction and leadership.
Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police, and investigations. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lohudlegal.
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This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Rockland prosecutors have not yet gotten a conviction in the cases