Politics and police manhunts — an eventful year in Greenwich

December 30, 2017 GMT

GREENWICH — It was a tumultuous year in Greenwich.

Just about anywhere a news-consuming Greenwich resident looked, there were major stories breaking in 2017.

Police engaged in the biggest manhunt in recent memory in the spring, with a police helicopter hovering over Old Greenwich and State Troopers armed with patrol rifles on stake-out duty at highway entrance ramps. There were apartment development issues being fought over, and new additions to the local landscape. The schools captured a large share of public attention — with major announcements coming from independent institutions in town, and substantial new activity in the public schools.

But perhaps the most consequential day of the year was Election Day, on which the political landscape tilted some. Whether the shift was a harbinger of permanent change or a one-time anomaly will be answered in coming years. But that it happened at all, in a town where once it would not have been possible, was significant.

The race for the top elected position in Greenwich, a contest usually void of excitement, turned into a political thriller when voters went to the polls in November.

Democratic candidate for first selectman Sandy Litvak gained a surprising share of votes running against incumbent First Selectman Peter Tesei, giving the Republican the biggest — make that the only — electoral scare of his career. Nonetheless, Tesei’s election to a sixth term as first selectman set a Greenwich record.

But the strong voter push for Democratic candidates, evidently mindful of national political concerns, flipped the leadership of the Board of Estimate and Taxation from red to blue — possibly for the first time in the finance board’s history.

And in the race for tax collector, Republican incumbent Tod Laudonia was defeated in his bid for a fifth term by a Democratic candidate, Howard Richman.

Meanwhile, Selectman Drew Marzullo, a top Democratic vote-getter since gaining public office in 2009, saw his time in office end due to news of his arrest on a shoplifting charge. Running for a fifth term, he came in behind Litvak, and lost his seat as a town legislator. “I know for sure I will exit this stage with only positive memories,” Marzullo said when he stepped down after eight years at Town Hall.

All sectors of town government saw big changes. A surge of new candidates, 67 of them, were elected to the Representative Town Meeting, most aligned with Indivisible Greenwich and March on Greenwich — groups formed in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

In the process, some longtime members of that body were not returned for new terms, including one whose story intersected with a larger discussion about gender, male privilege in the workplace and the rise of Trump to the White House.

Chris von Keyserling was picketed by scores of protesters as he came and went from Superior Court in Stamford beginning in early 2017. A longtime member of the Representative Town Meeting, von Keyserling is facing a misdemeanor fourth-degree sexual assault charge following an incident involving a female employee at the Nathaniel Witherell nursing home. Von Keyserling allegedly pinched her “in the groin area,” according to the arrest warrant. Von Keyserling pleaded not guilty. Numerous court hearings have not yielded a conclusion to the criminal case, but voters ousted von Keyserling from the RTM post he occupied for 32 years.

Along with changes in government personnel, several issues galvanized voters this year, including the most contentious: A proposed Charter change to revamp the election process for the Board of Education.

The matter came to an abrupt end in December, but it roiled election season. The change would have allowed a political party to gain a majority on the school board, which proponents said would foster competitive elections and make board members accountable to voters. Opponents called it a power grab by Republicans, who enjoy a voter enrollment advantage. After seating two committees to pursue the change, the selectmen dropped the idea, citing its divisiveness.

Other events occurred during 2017 that will change the look of Greenwich in the coming years.

Many were unhappy when a petition by Eversource Enery to build an electrical substation at 290 Railroad Avenue got the approval of the state Siting Council in November.

Town officials, citing safety and environmental concerns, are seeking remedies to overturn or amend the decision.

Not far up the road, a more welcome development took place. New Lebanon School families, after years of debate in town and negotiations with the state, finally saw work begin on a new school building in December.

A Hartford budget stalemate that dragged on from June to October delayed state funding for the project. The state-aid component eventually fell into place, leading to a ground-breaking ceremony at the end of the year. The total cost of the new school is $37.3 million, with 80 percent state reimbursement, and kids will likely make the move into their larger school in February 2019.

Meanwhile, across town in Old Greenwich, residents were successful, at least for the time being, in preventing a major project from taking place in their neighborhood.

The Planning and Zoning Commission in December denied an application to build a 60-unit apartment complex at 143 Sound Beach Ave.

Neighbors raised safety, traffic and parking concerns posed by the development, which would have occupied four stories across from the Old Greenwich train station. The Greenwich Fire Department cited issues with public safety associated with the project, which would have added units to the town’s meager stock of affordable housing. The developers have indicated they will challenge the decision in court.

Another controversial project reached its conclusion in May when Rabbi Andrew Sklarz affixed a mezuzah at the main entrance of the Greenwich Reform Synagogue on Orchard Street in Cos Cob. The congregation that was founded in 1976 had a new home.

A zoning fight lasted for five years over the building, with neighbors expressing concerns about traffic, pedestrian safety and the size of the project. Substantial modifications were made to the design of the synagogue as it progressed through the planning stages.

Not all changes involved new buildings. Perhaps the biggest adjustment for Greenwich families this year involved the times that very familiar buildings began operations each day.

School start times were pushed back at Greenwich High and the middle schools this year so students could get more sleep. Administrators now are working to iron out problems caused by the change, particularly for after-school activities and sports. Sufficient practice time has been a challenge for some teams and athletes have been dismissed from school early as needed to arrive at away games on time.

“We will continue to assess the number of early dismissals, the amount of missed class time and the amount of time spent in travel prior to making any determinations about the continuation of certain sports for 2018-19,” school officials wrote in a December memo.

In other school news, Jill Gildea became the new superintendent of Greenwich Public Schools in July.

She replaced interim Superintendent Sal Corda, who was brought on last year after former Superintendent William McKersie left to take over the schools in Weston. Gildea was previously a school superintendent in Mundelein, Ill., and has held many positions in her educational career, starting with middle school teacher.

The post of the top schools administrator in Greenwich has seen a high amount of turnover. There have been six full-time administrators and several interim leaders in nearly 20 years.

One of the many challenges she inherited were ongoing projects to clean up contamination discovered in some school fields in town.

Western Middle School fields were partially re-opened this summer after sitting closed for a year following the discovery of elevated levels of PCBs and other contaminants there. State and federal environmental agencies approved roughly half of the field area to be re-opened for recreational use in August.

Work on testing, decontaminating and cleaning up the rest of the fields at Western is continuing.

There also were goings on among the town’s many private schools in 2017.

Greenwich Country Day School announced a major expansion in November, one that will make it the largest independent school in the state of Connecticut.

Country Day acquired Stanwich School and plans to open a new high school on the Stanwich campus in September 2019. During the 2018-19 school year, the nearly 280 Stanwich students and the 900 who attend Country Day will remain on their respective campuses. Beginning in September 2019, nursery through grade 8 students from the two school communities will be educated on the existing Country Day campus on Old Church Road.

And Brunswick School announced it is getting room for growth on a large new parcel of land.

In October, the school completed the acquisition of the 43-acre campus of Tudor Investment Corporation on King Street at a sale price of $34 million.

Brunswick intends to open new facilities on the property, which lies across the street from the school’s existing lower and middle school properties on King Street. Science facilities, new playing fields, a performing arts center and new units of faculty housing are part of Brunswick’s long-term growth plans.

Greenwich also had its share of the bizarre to pique residents’ interest this year.

Brazen thief and part-time model David Byers carried out what town police called a “one-man crime spree.” Byers, 35, of San Diego, robbed a Chase bank twice, and held up a gas station in April. Authorities said he was also behind a string of robberies on Long Island, N.Y., before he came to Greenwich. A description of the vehicle he was driving gave police the break they were looking for when it was spotted in a parking lot in Riverside.

The “Beefcake Bandit,” as Byers came to be known from Internet posts, led police on a large-scale search all over the east end of Greenwich. Byers was eventually apprehended in southern California following a cross-country manhunt. He was arrested May 2. He pleaded guilty to five separate robberies and will be sentenced in Hartford on Jan. 30.

About the same time that Greenwich residents were learning Byers’ name, a grisly discovery sent shivers through the community in late April. Town workers clearing brush and debris at Helen Binney Kitchel Natural Park in Old Greenwich found skeletal remains. Scuba divers, patrol officers and forensic experts spent weeks in the area, carrying out a meticulous search of parkland and waterways, as if in an episode of “C.S.I.: Old Greenwich.”

Police haven’t released any conclusions on the find, aside from revealing that the body had come to rest in the park months or a year or more before its discovery. Authorities said there did not appear to be a risk to the public. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is processing the remains.

“We’re boring most of the time, it seems surprising for Greenwich,” a passerby said as she watched police canvas the park where the human bones were found.

Most of the time, perhaps. But not for much of 2017.