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Archive for February, 2009

By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: February 22, 2009

State gambling regulators were so concerned with the financial situation of the Hinsdale Greyhound Racing Association that they planned to deny its operating license for this year and asked it to begin closing down.

The company went bankrupt before that could happen and hundreds of bettors with an estimated half a million dollars in their accounts were left wondering where their money went.

N.H. Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission Chairman Timothy J. Connors said the decision to withhold the pari-mutuel license was influenced by a N.H. Attorney General’s investigation into the track’s finances and business practices.

“We got a note or letter or something from the attorney general’s office saying they didn’t think at that point that the track would be suitable for licensing in the coming year,” Connors said. “So we had a meeting and asked for a wind-down plan.”

Gaming commission Director Paul M. Kelley sent an e-mail Nov. 7 to the track’s president and chief executive Joseph E. Sullivan 3rd asking that the track begin a “wind-down plan” that included making sure all of its bettors with wagering accounts be paid in full.

The track filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy Dec. 15, leaving more than 500 betting accounts in jeopardy.

Sullivan was and still is in the middle of a $2.1 million land deal with Wal-Mart, and the gaming commission figured he would use earnings from the sale as a cash infusion for the track, then reapply for a pari-mutuel license in 2010, according to Connors.

“That’s what they were going to fall back on. The big thing was Wal-Mart,” he said. “They felt all along that that was going to close sooner than it has.”

Permitting requirements delayed the project, but Sullivan has said the land deal should be finalized by mid-year.

In November 2007, Sullivan formed Hinsdale Real Estate LLC with Carl B. Thomas, of Spofford-based Thomas Construction Corp., and sold the track’s property and buildings to the holding company for $3.3 million.

Thomas also took over two of the track’s mortgages totaling $2.1 million.

The deal allowed Thomas to secure a $1 million loan through the holding company and pump the money into the track, which was denied a loan because of its shaky financial situation.

During its final year of business, Hinsdale brought in $5.9 million in revenue, a decline of $2.8 million from the previous year.

Gaming commission Deputy Director Sudhir K. Naik said the track was trying to survive by borrowing money, which raised a red flag.

“If you’re running a business, the rule is to generate cash from primary operations, not financing activities,” he said. “In my mind, it’s not very healthy for a business to continue raising cash from financing activities.”

A former high-ranking employee of the track, who asked to remain anonymous, said the company was struggling for years before it finally went under.

“We were literally bleeding money and I was doing everything I could to keep the company’s head above water,” he said.

“We closed some of the bars and shut down portions of the building and let some employees go. I can remember times where an employee would be caught with a soda or burger that belonged to the track and they’d be fired on the spot. I thought at the time that it was on principle, but clearly those principles didn’t go to the top.”

Sullivan borrowed a total of $650,000 from the track while he was its CEO and said his salary last year was $225,000. He declined to say where the money he borrowed went.

The attorney general’s investigation that spurred gaming commissioners to ask the track to begin closing its doors launched in August 2007. The investigation came in the wake of a gaming commission ordered independent audit that raised concerns about the track’s ability to stay afloat.

“We ended up with an incomplete investigation when they filed for bankruptcy and there was nothing finally determined,” Associate Attorney General Ann M. Rice said. “The only action we could have taken was to make a recommendation to the pari-mutuel commission as to whether the licensee is fit to conduct racing in New Hampshire.”

The gaming commission asked the attorney general to open a new investigation into the track when it became clear that the track had insufficient funds to fully reimburse more than 500 bettors.

Gaming commissioners have accused Sullivan of promising to repay bettors during several private meetings before the bankruptcy filing. Sullivan has denied ever making such a promise.

The former track employee said he disapproves of Sullivan’s handling of the bankruptcy, because bettors were left in the cold.

“We’re talking about people I know, people I talked to, people I helped out and people whose money I processed. It just went into somebody’s pocket,” he said. “Knowing what the land is worth over there and the kind of holdings the company had, I never would have guessed in my wildest dreams that people would not get paid.”

The track’s bankruptcy attorney said Sullivan decided against warning the bettors because he wanted to pay his employees, and that wouldn’t have happened if bettors withdrew their accounts. Sullivan said during a creditors meeting in January that betting accounts were commingled with the track’s general funds and used to pay operating expenses.

Rice said the attorney general’s investigation into the track’s handling of the bankruptcy remains active, but declined to comment on its findings so far or provide a timeline for when the inquiry will be finished.

The gaming commission was worried about the track’s finances more than a year before it collapsed, which is why commissioners decided to impose a number of conditions on the company before granting it a pari-mutuel license for 2008.

One of the conditions would have required the track to maintain a reserve account that contained at least 70 percent of its bettors’ wagering funds. The condition was later dropped.

“The only reason I can think of is that that rule didn’t become effective until January of 2009. We could recommend it, but we couldn’t enforce it,” Connors said. “We had to do some public hearings on it and work with the attorney general on the wording of it. We didn’t have the correct verbiage in it and we had to go through the Legislature and attorney general to get the wording right.”

State law required all greyhound and horse racing tracks to return bettors’ money within five days of closing their accounts, but did not specify that the tracks maintain a reserve account to ensure this happens.

The state’s two remaining greyhound tracks, The Lodge at Belmont and Seabrook Greyhound, and its only harness racing track, Rockingham Park, have until March 1 to comply with an amended law that went into effect soon after the Hinsdale track went bankrupt.

The law now requires tracks to maintain reserve accounts to ensure bettors are not left holding the bag in the event of bankruptcy or closure.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: February 13, 2009

The governor’s proposal to move Keene District Court to the Cheshire County Courthouse is drawing the ire of city and county law enforcement officials.

Gov. John H. Lynch recommended Thursday that eight district courts in the state be consolidated with existing facilities, some in different towns or cities, as part of a broad cost-saving plan that includes shuttering the state prison in Laconia, cutting 300 state jobs and closing up to 16 state liquor stores.

The city’s District Court would be moved from Washington Street to the Superior Court facility on Court Street. What happens to Superior Court — whether it stays in its already cramped county-owned building or moves into another facility, most likely Jaffrey-Peterborough District Court — remains unknown.

“All options are on the table in terms of where things are going to be located,” said state judicial branch spokeswoman Laura A. Kiernan. “We just want to make the best use of everything we have at the lowest cost we can to do the work we need to do to preserve jobs.”

Lynch’s proposal would not include laying off any of the 22 employees, six part-time judges and one full-time judge at the eight district courts under consideration for consolidation, Kiernan said.

The consolidation proposal would save an estimated $2 million in costs associated with security contracts for the courts and rent payments for the buildings they occupy, she said.

The proposal doesn’t sit well with Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed.

“Those little courtrooms upstairs in Superior Court, they wouldn’t hold everybody,” Heed said. “Our courtrooms are better suited for handling marital issues than jury trials.”

The Superior Court clerk’s office is already understaffed and overworked, Heed said, and the same thing is happening in Keene District Court, which is one of the busiest in the state.

Eight hundred felony cases went through Cheshire County Superior Court last year, according to Heed. Hundreds of civil cases, which take a back seat to the criminal cases, are also heard at the court.

Keene District Court saw 5,650 criminal cases, 640 small claims cases, 295 civil cases, 340 tenant or landlord matters, 175 domestic violence petitions and 305 juvenile cases last year, according to court Clerk Larry Kane.

Like Superior Court, Keene District Court has outgrown its facility, according to Kane, who said the building also lacks adequate security to deal with the prisoners going in and out each day.

A year ago, there were eight employees in the District Court clerk’s office. Two have left or retired and were not replaced because of state budget issues, Kane said, leaving the remaining employees in a constant scramble to keep up with the extra work.

In Superior Court, Clerk Barbara A. Hogan has said her understaffed office was also mired in a severe backlog of civil cases because of hiring freezes that left vacant judge seats empty.

“If you need two hours for a (civil) trial, I can give it to you in a couple of months or quicker if you can come in on a cancellation,” she said in a previous interview. “But if you need a week-long trial, we’re talking five or six months if you want a guaranteed slot.”

Hogan was out of the office and could not be reached for comment. The deputy clerk declined comment as did the Jaffrey-Peterborough District Court clerk.

While combining District Court and Superior Court could create a logjam of civil and criminal cases along with a logistical nightmare, moving either court to the Jaffrey facility would lead to another tremendous headache, city and county law enforcement officials said.

“I understand there are huge financial pressures, but to move either court to Jaffrey, that might help the state’s budget, but imagine what it would do to the prosecutors, sheriff’s office and police, not to mention all the other people coming to court,” Heed said. “You just don’t move the courts away from your major population, and we’ve just made a huge decision to move the county jail closer to the courts and Keene.”

If the county prosecutors’ offices stayed in Keene and Superior Court moved to Jaffrey, Heed said he’d be forced to hire new staff and increase his budget to deal with a round-trip commute that takes more than an hour.

“Prosecutors go downstairs to their offices and work between hearings,” he said. “You move the court to Jaffrey and then my prosecutors have to go down there and sit there all day. They can’t go back and forth. They can’t get any work done.”

Sheriff Richard A. Foote said moving Superior Court to Jaffrey would raise his expenses, too. His deputies transport prisoners back and forth from area courts to the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland, soon to be replaced by a $38.8 million facility in Keene.

“We go to Jaffrey anyway, because we bring prisoners there for court, but not every day and that’s not an easy drive either, especially in the winter,” he said. “It would cost more for driving expenses and salaries to pay for the driving time. If we had to drive there daily for court, there would be a lot of things I’d have to look at to see how we’d handle it.”

Keene Police Chief Arthur Walker said his officers and detectives are in both city courts daily, testifying or checking on the status of their cases, and having them drive to Jaffrey would be a major expense and inconvenience.

“We have the advantage of being in town now. The court can call us 30 minutes before a hearing,” he said. “If you’re going to Jaffrey, you pretty much have to resign yourself to being there most of the day. You would be paying police officers to drive back and forth to Jaffrey rather than doing police work.”

Heed and other local officials have proposed having the District Court, Superior Court, Family Court and prosecutors’ offices in one large building in Keene.

“That’s the solution I think we really need,” Heed said. “It’s what makes sense.”

State Rep. Timothy N. Robertson, D-Keene, said he needed to study the details of the consolidation plan, but his initial reaction was negative.

“Why wouldn’t Jaffrey come to Keene? We’re a much bigger city. It seems to me there would be more business here,” he said. “More lawyers are located here and it’s closer to the jail.”

No matter what happens with Lynch’s budget proposal, it appears that Keene District Court will be moving. Its lease with the city expires in July and court officials have been searching for a more appropriate building for years.

Talks have centered on the former Latchis Theater building in downtown Keene, which state administrators rejected because it would require extensive renovation, or the city government complex at 350 Marlboro St.

The latter proposal drew fire from state judicial officials who were concerned about having a courthouse share a space with a police station.

The sheriff’s office is located in the basement of the Superior Court facility and Heed said he sees no problem with moving either court to the city government building.

“The Superior Court should be in Keene in the county seat. There’s a reason it’s always been here, because it serves the people of Cheshire County,” he said. “Both courts need to stay here.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: February 04, 2009

The world is a different place today than it was when a West Chesterfield mother and daughter disappeared eight years ago.

New wars, presidents and technologies mark the passing of time. Each tick of the clock slowly covers the remaining tracks of Tina and Bethany Sinclair like footprints disappearing in the snow.

No bodies. No activity on bank accounts. The house they lived in off Mountain Road has been demolished.

The only remaining traces of the Sinclairs are haunting photographs, forgotten belongings, a slew of questions and a lingering sadness among those they left behind.

Family members of Tina Sinclair, who was 34 when she disappeared, and Bethany Sinclair, who was 15, remain vigilant in their quest for answers and some sort of closure to a painful mystery that has dragged on far too long.

Tina Sinclair worked at the Keene Beauty Academy and as a visiting nurse for a quadriplegic man. She picked up her daughter, a Keene High School student, from a local movie theater and drove her home the night of Feb. 3, 2001. They were never seen again.

“I still look at their pictures and talk to them. I’m not crazy, but you do that. I miss them terribly and I still wish they would come home,” said Tina Sinclair’s mother, Mary E. Lewis.

“Just the idea of them being gone for eight years … I get discouraged sometimes, but then I think, ‘Maybe we’ll find them.’ You just have to keep going.”

Searchers with the police, private organizations and the Sinclair family have combed forests and explored the Connecticut River with divers and sonar equipment, but remain empty-handed.

One private search party brought in cadaver-sniffing dogs in the fall of 2007. They trekked over hundreds of square miles in Chesterfield for seven days, eventually locating a spot where their dogs detected the scent of human remains.

“We ended up getting an excavator and going out and digging in the woods off Route 9 in the Old Chesterfield Road area,” N.H. State Police Sgt. Russell B. Lamson said. “We must have cut four or five cords of wood just to get the excavator back there. We were there all day, but we didn’t discover any evidence.”

Police investigators have entered the Sinclairs’ dental records and other identifying information into a national database that is used to match unidentified remains with missing persons, Lamson said.

“A few unidentified remains have popped up on the radar. Any time a police agency finds something they call us because they know we’re looking. It happened a couple times last year. Nothing matched,” he said.

“We’re also still getting tips and we always follow up on those. It’s just with each year the number of tips we get decreases.”

The desperate Sinclair family consulted a California psychic a few years ago who claimed to have seen a pair of bodies in a cave on the side of a mountain in Chesterfield. The vision never panned out.

They also hired award-winning private investigator Gil Alba, who worked for 27 years as a New York City police detective.

“We’re still active on the case,” Alba said. “Every time we get a lead we follow it up. I went to Chesterfield in April and did some more interviews. We’re also looking for evidence: body parts, clothing, maybe a murder weapon. Anything we can find.”

Alba is also looking at Eugene V. Bowman Jr. Bowman was dating and living with Tina Sinclair before she went missing. Police have called him a person of interest in the case.

“The problem with a case like this is joining the evidence together with the person of interest,” Alba said. “You have to keep working on them and that’s what we’re doing.”

Bowman is still living in New Hampshire, according to Alba. He said he has not spoken with Bowman. Attempts to reach Bowman for comment were unsuccessful.

Police searched Bowman’s residence a few months after the Sinclairs disappeared, but what they seized and what they were looking for may never be made public because the state Attorney General’s Office refuses to release the warrants.

The Keene Sentinel won an argument in the city’s District Court to view warrants that detailed the search, but the state’s Supreme Court reversed the decision. The Court ruled that the warrants should stay sealed while police are working the case.

Tina Sinclair’s sister, Sharon Garry, stated in an e-mail that she and her family remain disturbed by the disappearances and are frustrated by the lack of information.

“The anger, hatred, confusion and nightmares have shredded through me and made me into a person I don’t even recognize anymore,” Garry wrote. “The holidays, birthdays and family gatherings were like a bad dream because Tina and Bethany weren’t there.”

A memorial for the Sinclairs will be replaced at a bend in the Connecticut River off Route 9 in West Chesterfield to mark the grim anniversary, Garry said.

The first two memorials, a cross and a photograph of the Sinclairs mounted on a plaque, were stolen.

Garry urged others to visit the memorial and light a candle in memory of her sister and niece.

She said she will never stop searching for them.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: January 31, 2009

He helped put away an HIV-infected Ecuadorian who videotaped himself raping 200 children, eluded Bahamian police during an undercover human smuggling operation and brought down hundreds of suspected South Florida gang members.

But you would never know it by looking at Richard S. Bendel today.

Bendel, 41, lives in the snow-covered city of Keene with his wife, Beth, and their two kids, ages 5 and 11.

Bendel owns and manages Monadnock Aviation, a company that provides services to pilots and their aircraft at Dillant-Hopkins Airport in North Swanzey. He is far removed from the crowds and crime in the Sunshine State, from the intensity and violence that defined him in another life.

Bendel sat down earlier this week at his airport office to discuss his life, past and present. The occasional plane taxied across the runway outside, viewed through a large plate glass window, as he spoke between the rings of his cellular and office phones.

Bendel is busy now, yes, but it’s a relaxing kind of busy, not the kind of busy that involves sliding down a rope dangling from a helicopter hovering above the roof of some drug kingpin’s lair or smashing down the door of a gang hideout.

These days Bendel’s wife, a former U.S. postal inspector with an intriguing past of her own, doesn’t have to worry when he leaves for work. She used to have trouble sleeping, but not anymore. Now they are insulated by the snow and the mountains and the Monadnock Region’s low crime rate.

“It’s beautiful here,” she said, “and we’re happy.”

***
For 11 adrenaline-fueled years, Bendel, the son of a real estate investor mother and locksmith father, worked as a federal immigration agent. He was hired as an agent in the mid-‘90s following an eight-year stint with the Marines after college.

“The more I did it, the more I liked it,” Bendel said of his work as an agent. “I liked the versatility of it. I think the only crime I’ve never investigated is arson. We could work gun crimes, homicides, robberies, you name it. It was amazing how many crimes we could get involved in, and I wanted them all.”

Bendel’s first assignment was targeting undocumented workers in Miami-Dade County — one job he had a hard time getting excited about.

“A crime is a crime and it’s got to be dealt with,” he said, “but if you understand why these people are doing what they’re doing, well then it can be difficult.”

But Bendel worked hard at it, and was soon sent to fraud investigations and later asked to join a team of agents infiltrating and dismantling human smuggling operations. On a mission in the Bahamas he was nearly arrested while working undercover as a smuggler.

“The Bahamian authorities tried to arrest us because they thought we were smugglers. So we basically grabbed these aliens and took them through a canal in a boat. We just ran with them,” he said. “If we got caught, we couldn’t blow our cover. We’d be sitting in a Bahamian jail.”

Bahamian government officials were not made aware of the mission because federal agents suspected they were corrupt and would tip off the head of the smuggling operation, who turned out to be a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Bendel and his crew escaped the police. They were in a faster boat, he said, one that had been confiscated from drug traffickers. The daring escape earned Bendel’s crew credibility with the head of the smuggling operation, who was eventually arrested.

***

Bendel and his wife worked together on the biggest case of their careers between 2001 and 2002. They were often partners on cases that involved mail crimes and illegal immigrants.

“She’d identified over 200 child victims that had been raped and molested by this Ecuadorian named Angel Mariscal. He videotaped these acts and was selling the tapes on the Internet,” Bendel said. “We identified a few hundred of his customers. There was a teacher. A firefighter. We had some people you would never expect.”

A few of the customers committed suicide after they were found out, Bendel said.

The investigation resulted in 100 years imprisonment for Mariscal, who was living in Miami and traveling to Cuba and Ecuador to rape impoverished children. Only 10 of Mariscal’s victims have been located. None tested positive for HIV.

“There are images of these children I’ll never get out of my head. So much pain,” Bendel said. “It’s quite relieving to know that he’ll never make it out of prison.”

Bendel’s wife received an award from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and was named Officer of the Year for her work in the Mariscal case.

Mariscal has sent her hate mail from prison.

***
After a few years in illegal immigration and smuggling, Bendel requested a transfer to the violent gang task force in the Fort Lauderdale area of Broward County, located just north of Miami.

“I could not get enough of it. There was nothing like chasing gang members. They were involved in everything: guns, drugs, kidnappings, murders,” Bendel said. “But we mainly did lots of narcotics work and surveillance.”

An informant once helped Bendel and other agents lure a group of heavily armed gang members who were planning a home invasion to a warehouse that was bugged with audio and video surveillance. The warehouse also had a false wall that lifted like a garage door to reveal a SWAT team.

“During a similar operation, a guy we were going after reached for a gun and he was stitched up by a SWAT member with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office,” Bendel said. “He went for the gun as the SWAT team came out and he was killed.”

***

The good guys aren’t always quicker on the draw. Bendel attended 13 funerals for friends killed in the line of duty during his 11 years as an agent.

He remembers running alongside Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Fatta in 2004 as they chased a drug dealer one night — they were laughing, full of adrenaline, doing what they loved, Bendel said.

“I looked over at him and he was smiling,” he said. “I can still see him smiling.”

A child pornography suspect fired a bullet into Fatta’s heart two weeks later when he attempted to execute a search warrant at the man’s house.

“Todd was a guy who could make it through anything, and he got killed,” Bendel said. “I think my invincibility was starting to come into question after that.”

Screams came from Bendel’s radio one night as he pulled into his driveway. Just a few miles away, Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Seguin had been killed instantly when an unlicensed driver’s car plowed into him during a traffic stop. His partner was screaming for help and Bendel pealed out of his driveway to find her.

Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Reyka was ambushed in 2007 while checking the license plate on a suspicious vehicle behind a Walgreens store. He was shot seven times execution-style with an assault rifle, Bendel said. The murder remains unsolved.

“Of all of the deaths, that one disturbed me the most because you can’t put a face on that killer. I just wanted to be the guy that caught him. To a certain extent, I felt guilty for leaving,” Bendel said. “But I felt that I had to make that decision. The job was consuming me and it was changing the way I viewed the world. I didn’t want to bring it into my family.”

***

The Bendels decided to pile into a RV and take a road trip up the East Coast, stopping in towns and cities that interested them along the way.

When they drove into Keene and saw the city’s buildings and houses situated in the valley beneath Mount Monadnock like a porcelain Christmas village, they knew it was going to be their new home.

Five months ago, the Bendels, both pilots, opened their business at the airport, merging their longtime hobbies of aviation with their livelihood.

They spend more time together and have more time for their children, who were being raised by strangers in day cares.

Bendel admits he sometimes misses what he left behind, but not enough to go back. He leads a quieter life now, and a good one at that.

“What a deal,” Bendel said. “It’s damn near a dream come true.”

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