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DA seeks police report on incident with off-duty cop

Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague speaks in March 2013 while campaigning for reelection. (News photo — Chris Morris)

ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague has asked New York State Police to hand over its investigation report on an alleged incident between a white off-duty Cohoes police officer and a group of young Black people in Elizabethtown two months ago.

Sprague said her request to State Police was sent before activists and community leaders delivered a letter with more than 700 signatures to her office on Thursday, Aug. 6. The letter called for a full investigation into Cohoes police officer Sean McKown’s 911 call to police, and his allegation that a Black man fired a gun at him outside of his vacation home on Lincoln Pond Road. McKown later told police he had provided them with false information, the Albany Times Union newspaper reported.

State Police say the case is closed and no charges have been filed. Activists have also called for an investigation into the State Police’s investigation.

In an email to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Sprague said she had already received the letter two days prior through Facebook and had “already printed and attached a letter to the New York State Police requesting the full investigation file.”

“I plan to review the file and investigation,” she said. “Since it is closed by investigation of the State Police, I cannot comment further on the facts.”

McKown called State Police on June 6 about an alleged gunfight between himself and a young Black man outside of his vacation home in Elizabethtown.

McKown’s call initially triggered a response to his Cohoes home from the Cohoes police department, which was unaware that McKown was in the Adirondacks when he made his 911 call, the Times Union reported. McKown told police that when he engaged the group of young people near his driveway, a young man had fired a gun at him, and that he fired his department-issued weapon four times back while retreating toward a hill, before he threw his gun to the side for fear that the weapon could be used against him. When officers arrived to McKown’s home, they found him asleep and highly intoxicated, multiple sources familiar with the investigation told the Times Union. McKown later admitted that he had given false information, and that he shot at a tree stump in his backyard after he heard a pop and wanted to scare off whoever made the noise.

People with knowledge of the investigation told the Times Union it was Sprague who, in early June, told State Police that there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute McKown for his conduct. Sprague has a different recollection of what happened.

“Since it was early on in the process, my office made suggestions to the officers as to what they could do that may help gather the relevant and necessary information needed to substantiate any potential charges,” Sprague wrote in a statement. “Generally speaking, this suggestion is the same suggestion given in any case, which is to interview potential witnesses, ascertain their information, have them sign a sworn statement and confirm that they would be willing to testify at any future hearings or trials if needed. The officers agreed and, I assumed, went to follow up and continue the investigation.

“A short while later, I believe via a phone call, I was informed that the suggestion we made was completed, that the witnesses had no direct knowledge of a weapon and did not want to come back to testify,” she wrote. “This was the last conversation that I personally had with the State Police about the investigation. I presumed that the investigation was ongoing and a follow up would be made in the near future.”

Sprague said she didn’t know the case had been closed until she received a call from State Police on July 27, when officers informed her that the Times Union would be publishing a story about the incident.

“To date, I have never read or seen this final New York State Police report,” she wrote.

Sprague said she has never met McKown, and finds the question of whether she knew him “absurd.”

“I do not know Mr. McKown. My office prosecuted a matter years ago involving one of his family members, which resulted in a conviction and prison sentence,” she said.

State Police have described McKown’s description of events as “extremely inconsistent.” Asked for details on the investigation, specifically what State Police were told when they interviewed the young people who McKown said were involved in the incident, State Police reiterated on Friday that the case has been closed and the agency would not comment on the details.

Diversity advocates, some of whom live in the area near McKown’s second home, have decried what they see as a lack of an investigation into the June 6 incident.

Historian Nell Painter, who lives in the area, and retired Keene Valley teacher Jerilea Zempel were present at a press conference on Thursday after activists and community leaders delivered the letter calling for an investigation to Sprague’s office. Zempel said she has a Black godson, and she fears for his safety. Painter said McKown has Black neighbors, such as her, who now fear for their safety.

“I’ve heard many stories of racial harassment here,” Painter told the Enterprise. “I believe they were never reported because there was not any traction or interest in it. The stories have come forth now because there’s an atmosphere where that sort of information is welcomed. I know many of my Black friends have experienced that here, and have buried it, and have wanted it to go away. Now is our moment to act.”

Painter added that this type of incident “isn’t new.”

“There’s been a lot of tension in our country generally around questions of multiculturalism … who can go into white spaces,” Painter said. “I see this incident, and also the (racist graffiti in Saranac Lake) as vigilantes policing what they see as white spaces, where we’re not supposed to be. I think that the climate in our country generally encourages people to act out in protecting white spaces, but there’s a long history of that kind of protection from Klansmen and vigilantes.

“It’s not new.”